Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

The invaluable perspective offered by admiralty maps lies in robust comparisons of kelp forests and beds against satellite images to set base-lines for future conservation of coastal oceans. The comparison between old marine maps and satellite views pose questions of the distribution of kelp over time that might help resolve their relation to warming waters or to invasive or overly successful species which have been allowed to devour dwindling kelp forests off nearby coasts: the baseline is fundamental to assess the timing of their retreat, and untangle the roles of pollution, warming, and ocean upwellings in a kelp forest’s health.

12. It increasingly seems we stand at a comparable precipice of massive extinction and irreplaceable ecological loss of offshore kelp forests, if not in the midst of one. The point of the analogy of seaweed loss and redwood loss is evident in the Save the Redwoods map of coast redwoods depicting the historical contraction. The implication of the analogy of kelp to our endangered if offshore forest is self-evident and emphatic: deforestation is deforestation, and if you love the redwoods, extend that affection underwater and offshore to the comparably dense offshore kelp forest that has long nourished a comparable habitat, which needs it direly.

Althouth the disappearance of redwoods eerily mirrors the forests destroyed by logging, if not the sites of recent fires in our over-warming world, we have begun to appreciate the climate catastrophe in the threatened offshore habitats whose underwater forests’ withering away would mirror the loss of redwoods in changing the shore beyond recognition in the still larger ecosystem of the very near offshore. And while coastal redwoods can be mapped with significant precision by a combination of aerial photography, on-site observation, and maintenance of protected lands, the challenges of monitoring the health of the kelp forests under attack remain more hidden to the observer and human eye.

Save the Redwoods

The absence of much attention to the shore or ocean wgters in the map foregrounds the trees as a delicate coastal ecosystem, but reminds us of the unmapped underwater forest that lies offshore. As the redwood forests were nourished by the mist that rises from the Pacific, the forests similarly defined the coastal environments, and raise questions of the possible impact of a future kelp decline, man-made if not so immediately tied to human intentions.

The haunting green shadows of lost historic redwood ranges stand have been reduced to red areas of old growth fragments, many including within bright blue protected lands. The iconic Save the Redwoods map of the lost of coastal forests stands as a reminder of the melancholy relation of viewers to the modern coastline, and augur an impending reshaping of the coastal oceans that are slated to occur in coming years, under our eyes. But if Save the Redwoods can use private funds and donations to tpurchase privately held hillside groves of Sequoia like Alder Feet Grove,

–to secure that includes trees 3,000 years old for $15.6 million– and ensure the preservation of a private oasis populated with a concentration of some 500 old growth trees, and hope to preserve the remnants of old growth coast redwoods in the Grove of Titans.

It goes without saying that the preservation of kelp forests is far less able to be defined at any cost, and impossible to prevent from human or anthropogenic incursions, given the cascading dynamics of near-coastal ecology. The problems of limiting anthropogenic impacts on areas of coastal redwoods is ongoing, increased significantly as GPS rendered few areas unknown or inaccessible–the anthropocene nature of most landscape has increased a hunger to go offtrail that endangers the floor of old growth forests as Grove of the Titans, whose considerable popularity on social media has endangered lush vegetation of 2012, foregrounded in recent appeals for funds to restore the grove, that undercover the risks of even mapping delicate habitat that over the past seven years exposed it to anthropogenic damage after several thousands years.

Can we create reserves of protected kelp forests, and what would that mean for coastal policies? Kelp monitoring is not likely to help these forests, but may train our eyes on the fragility of ecosystems whose growth might be encouraged, and not overlooked, as the basis of habitat for so many sea mammals, rockfish, shorebirds, and even grey whales–lest they be mowed down by urchins who eat their holdfasts.

But perhaps the proper analogy for the rich habitat that kelp offers as a separate submarine ecoysystem is less the regions of redwoods, already surviving only as small fragments, than the rapidity of the destruction of rain forest, whose dense foliage, huge absorption of carbon dioxide, and rich nesting ground help create an ecosystem itself entangled in the delicate ecosystem it creates.


The borders of the coastal oceans where seaweed grows on rocks, attaches to the ocean floor, or generates quickly from sunlight and CO2 in the water, make it a primitive but active substrate of a food chain, offering shelter, hiding, and perhaps a protective refuge for small fish, otter, prawn, stars, crustaceans, and snails, as well as anemone, algae, and crabs, before urchins can eat through their holdfasts.

For if algal growth on the near-shore beaches survive as more than an ornament, but actively reproducing and living forms–as these swollen fronds house the reproductive structures of “rockeweed” or Focus, which secrete a jelly-like film that afford a biogenetic antifreeze allowing them to survive in super cold arctic waters. The dynamic nature of kelp in remaining regions reminds us of their past abundance, but seem increasingly confined to colder waters–a sad sign given symptoms of global ocean temperature rise, of which they may be another casualty.

While a GIS Kelp Database promises a better understanding of the forests’ size and position, the danger of divulging too much information that can encourage greater kelp harvesting–often without any protection–suggests a difficulty of failing to define Marine Protected Areas that could include the major kelp zones of the state–whose size is here considerably exaggerated, that lie within just several hundred meters of the shore, and the unique feeding grounds that they create for migrating populations.

13. It’s perhaps no accident that the efflourescnece of writings about seaweed occurred in the nineteenth century, as the images and study of marine vegetables presented a new level of scientific observations, and a new frontier of sciences of the offshore. The images of seaweeds that are now so popular as renderings of a marine and the unseen world of underwater ecologies, echoing the building blocks of life–and abilities of underwater photography–that zoologists turned to as in need of an atlas of its own, as if the “art forms of the ocean” and their “inexhaustable wealth of wondrous forms” needed to be catalogued and described in the “beauty and diversity,” which so far exceeded capacities of human craft.

The reverence Haeckle famously brought as a zoologist to his own atlases of underwater life suggest he saw himself as an emissary form the watery realm to reading audiences, and indeed the interpreter of a scripture of creation that only awaited uncovering by microscopic observations and detailed delineation. These frozen images revealed early structures of life, from their single-celled organisms to seaweed varieties, that revealed the ramifications of speciation in ways man had not yet understood.

The images of seaweed that were provided cannot but echo the graphic images of Ernst Haeckle, if they give far more delicate and fluid form to the more rigorously geometric biomorphism of Haeckle’s elegant compilations of atlases of cellular organisms, algae, and aquatic plants, which have gained a second life of sorts for themselves on Instagram.

If Haeckle’s naturformen recall disembodied morphologies, isolated as if to preserve evidence of precursors to life, as if they were a living fossilized record of an unknown past of evolutionary history, preserved underwater as if under glass–in biological records that suggest microscopic beings or early images of life, accompanied by identifying tags of their scientific names that seem to celebrate the new learning that has allowed their forms to be fully appreciated by the human eye.

The sense of such building blocks of the biological sciences seemed to reveal the infinity of creation, and caprices of evolution, as well as a hidden biological record of the past, evidence of a basic natural drive to geometries–if not just a natural geometry–appealing to the observer and suggestive of a new facility to observe the overlooked, and the range of geometric variations the sea revealed. In his 1904 Kunstformen der Natur, or Art Forms of Nature, zoologist Haeckl used detailed engravings to create unexpected access to the variety of underwater life, suggesting an endless beauty that demanded and challenged classifications, that bled into an “aesthetics of nature” that Haeckle triumphantly offered his readers the ability to discern.

The obsessive attention to apparently fossilized seaplants in these elegant engravings suggest a dream of encyclopedic transcription of life or of classifying and clarifying forms–as well as a possibility of stopping time and excavating earlier life forms, as if to pull up the carpet on Darwinian evolutionary processes in the plant world by such iconic bridges to land plants and biomorphic organization. The naturformen Heackle viewed as the basis for zoology to map in the second half of the nineteenth century to show the sheer abundance of marine life forms and their clear ties to land-dwelling life, bridging habitats formerly separated as distinct.

In a variation on the nineteenth century fantasy of stopping time, Haeckle’s images seem to preserve a lost world of primitive life still existing undersea. The fantasy of stopping time, and archiving it in snapshots, classifying it in museal fashion to distinct periods, was a project of mapping, or meta-mapping–stopping time by placing it in a dramatic narrative framework or on the metric of scalability of precise discrete moments in fantasies of time-travel, and time-travelers, or of achieving new stages of society and new times in theorists of utopia.

It seems to follow naturally, then, that the turn to seaweed celebrated the apparently inorganic natures o the organic forms of seaweed in plates and ethings as images of earlier layers in the strata of biologic knowledge, and access to a sort of primitive building blocks of life being observed in part in the human body, but able to be found undersea. If the seaweed forms were something of a world primeval–Herman Melville evoked how Billy Budd’s corpse sank into the sea as a hammock, “fathoms down, fathoms down,” woven as “the oozy weeds about me twist.”

There was a longstanding tradition of charting, suggestively, to be sure, more than in detail, the vitality of the undersea as a separate world, in ways that Haeckle’s gorgeous atlases engaged. The vitality of these forms was not less a focus than the world they uncovered or revealed. If early images of seaweeds were exotic and of the far northern seas, in a sixteenth century marine chart, amidst monsters of the north–

–the seaweed were domesticated as fantastic creatures and forms. If the image of Billy Budd’s body suggests a Jules Verne-like underworld, across a boundary or looking-glass, rather than one lying on the sea’s surface,–to be revealed to the privileged diver or underwater explorer, on the level of only slightly more modern mysterious underwater beasts–

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin, 1870.

–the living forms of the algal structures became studied with an attention of zoological precision, befitting naturformen of a life-force that was linked to the present in deeply evolutionary ways. Jules Verne’s alternate atlas of the undersea included seaweeds among a range of primitive early life forms.

The intellectual romance of the undersea as a site of primeval life lacked a period, but offered a sense of access to the earliest forms of life, kunstformen in tables that offered evidence of earlier stages of evolution, from seaweed and red algal forms to jellyfish rapidly expanded, as if in inverse to the destruction of military campaigns and as urban growth promoted a rediscovery of the rural, and an admiration of pristine forms allowed by engraved half-tones–

–that seemed to map out a new prospect on evolution itself by in the early twentieth century bringing new forms to life with a precision that underwater photography could not yet offer.

The biomorphic forms of seaweed and their echoing of land plants and life offered a spectacular abiltie4y to stop time, and freeze an evolutionary clock at one moment and present summa of current biological knowledge in encyuclopedic form, rendering their natural geometries open and accessible to viewers. Indeed, the range of such biodiversity of geometric forms seemed a sort of encyclopedia of natural forms, suggestive of the ways of making legible life and evolutionary secrets.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

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