I had a memorable experience harvesting digitata, guided by seaweed harvesting partners Matt and Raivo of Ironbound Island Seaweed, off the Schoodic Peninsula in Downeast Maine. We woke up at 4:00 A.M., squeezed ourselves into skin-tight wet suits, and drove down to the harbor. We got into a wooden boat that Matt had built himself, and towed a smaller wooden boat, which he had also built. Do-it-yourself has no limits. We glided through the calm bay waters into the foggy dawn for a long time. I wondered how my guides could possibly navigate in the dense grayness where the sea, sky, and land all blended into one. We saw seagulls and seals. The water got choppier. We were headed beyond the harbor to the turbulent ocean waters where digitata thrives.
We arrived at our destination just as the tide was getting low enough to give us access. Seaweed harvesting is ruled by the tides. Matt and Raivo do almost all of their harvesting during the week each month when the tides are at their lowest. We anchored the big boat and got into the smaller boat, then aimed for a large stand of digitata growing from an underwater rock ledge. When we got near the digitata, we jumped out of the boat into the cold, choppy water. Matt and Raivo took turns staying in the boat to keep it from drifting away, continually rowing back to near where we were, so we could toss the digitata we harvested into the boat.
There I was in the ocean, with a sharp knife in my hand. The idea was to stand on the rock ledge from which the digitata was growing, and cut it at the stalk to harvest it. Sounds straightforward enough. And it would have been, had the waves been kind enough to stop. But every time a wave came rolling rhythmically in, suddenly the water over the rock ledge I was standing on was about five feet deep instead of two feet. Reaching down to the digitata stalk in the deeper water involved dunking my entire body, head included, into the ocean. And half the time the wave would knock me right off the rock ledge.
I spent a lot of that morning flailing around, knife in one hand, seaweed in the other, feeling like Lucy Ricardo in another madcap misadventure. When I’d actually get a handful of digitata, the aim was to throw it into the rowboat, another challenge intensified by the rough water. It was crazy and incredibly fun, regardless of how little I managed to harvest. As my body was pushed around by the waves I identified with the seaweeds, whose lives are a continual push and pull of tidal influences. Several small rowboat loads later, the tide was rising too high for us to continue, so we boated back in the mid-morning sun to the South Gouldsboro harbor, nestled in a bed of slippery digitata.
When we got back to Matt and Raivo’s place, we shed our wet suits and ate, then got down to the business of hanging all the seaweed to dry. Each plant requires individual handling. After hours of hanging digitata, our hands were covered with gooey gelatinous slime. Another time I helped Matt and Raivo hang wet seaweed I had just been in an auto accident, and found that the flexible slimy seaweed absorbed the shock from my body. Eating seaweed brings this soothing absorptive quality into your digestive tract. Most of the seaweed available in the U.S. is imported from Japan, where it is a popular staple ingredient and is farmed intensively. I want to make a plug for seaweed bioregionalism and urge readers to support small seaweed harvesters along America’s coastal waters.