Seaweed Project

Pragya Agarwal

(Ireland)

Slippery and glistening, merely one cell in thickness, the kelp throbs with life, clinging on tight to the rocks even with the waves thumping against them again and again, drumming into its dog-eared weathered body. These seem almost primitive as if the remnants of the past worlds carrying on the legacy and message from eras gone by, palpitating with life, storing carbon dioxide and iodine, holding on even when their gelatinous grip is getting looser with each watery punch. 

*****

Green fronds are floating under our webbed feet stringing their way through the waves and our toes, all thirty of them. 

One little piggie went to the market. One little piggie went to the sea. 

I am trying to sing softly and tunelessly to distract A, our five-year-old from the seaweed lurking under the dark glistening surface. A calls them the green seaweed snakes; slithering, slimy, slippery creatures that grow bigger in her imagination. She is frightened of them unlike her twin sister who steps in boldly and thrashes around, the one who is obsessed with snakes, who can recite hundreds of snake-related facts. 

One little piggie went whoosh. And we all fall down

And we fall down giggling on the sandy shore popped amongst the foamy bubbles on top of each other. 

It is not a polished ditty. I have made this song up on the spot as a bit of damage control, and I am no songwriter, I know. But it works for a little while as we luxuriate in the warm frothy euphoria of our hugs and cuddles. I feel the children’s soft skin burnished with gritty sand particles glowing under the bright sun like the crystals we had made together at the start of the summer holidays, the ones still sitting on the windowsill in our living room back at home, green, blue and purple, their neon colours reminding me of their iridescent childhoods and the flashing of life as it takes flight. 

They will be older before I know it, most definitely refusing to cuddle or hug me in public. And suddenly a completely idyllic and happy moment is marred by a melancholy. I am getting more of these snatches of effervescent wistfulness recently. But the haze is also broken as A suddenly feels some chains of seaweed looping and lacing through her ankles, and she runs away screaming onto the sandy beach leaving a trail of footprints for me to follow. I do like seaweed but only in crisps, she weeps. These fears are so real for her, the fear of what might happen, what could happen, and what monsters might be lurking under the surface that she does not know of. I know she gets some of this anxiety from me, her nature coiled with her genes. 

A night or two later, she wakes up crying for seaweed crisps at midnight. There are no shops open at that time of the night, but she is inconsolable. The crisps are in fact made of sea kelp and not seaweed I think to myself as I lie down next to her holding her close and trying to soothe her flailing arms and legs, praying and hoping that she wouldn’t wake her twin up. The thin sheets of green moreish saltiness and umami are often made of the red algae nori or kelp. Seaweed is a generic name for thousands of these macroalgae that grow in the sea: red, green and brown fronds coming up for air when the tide is low, and then dipping back down when the tide goes back down; dipping, rising, dunking, tumbling every day twice a day with the changing seasons of the sea, looking out at the moon doing its thing. Kelp is a large brown seaweed, brown like the colour of my skin, brown like the colour that makes me stand out in this small Wales village, and brown like my child who asks me why she is darker than Papa and everyone else in her class. I bring back some of these moist and glistening ribbons, from every seashore that we go to in England. I call it ‘my seaweed project’, as if giving it a label would give it some sort of legitimacy rather than just being a whim of my fancy. Whims are impulsive and capricious. I announce it as a choice, a well-thought-out proposition. I don’t think I have the luxury to be quirky and odd, even though I relish the idea of being eccentric and unpredictable, of surprising and shocking people. 

We stay there coiled on the floor for a while, tangles of kelp in her dreams, and my own drowsy eyelids twisted with the lack of sleep, thinking of the heat that was rising from the rug and into my peri-menopausal bones. Early menopause had arrived stealthily and set my body on fire, my brain foggy with the hot mist and vapours rising from my limbs. My brain felt on fire too, flushes of incandescent anger that sometimes erupted wildly overpowering any irrational thought that I could muster. Often the anger was grounded in valid reasons, but it is easy to assume irrationality and excuse the rage to project dissociation from it. I and my anger were not the same thing, we were not even that close, and I didn’t know its name or why it arrives when I least expect it. Like the monsters in the sea that my child feared, I was afraid of this simmering rage that lurked underneath always, at all times, forever and a day. I was afraid of its stringy gristly fingers stretching and clasping, grasping every bit of myself and drowning me along with it in the deep sea far away from the shore. But what if this fogginess is where I will see clarity once I can claw my way out of the layers of patriarchy that has told me and others like me how to be, how to act, how to speak, how to think. 

I have a lot of time to think as I wait for her small rigid body to sit with her own anger and rage at the world around her, the anger of not being able to control the largeness around her. I can understand some of her helplessness. I remember when I was young, we went on a school trip to a planetarium where we watched a film about the universe. Remember how insignificant you are in this large universe, the narrator had told us in his deep wise voice. Remember that you are just a speck of dust, even tinier than that. It was meant to make us understand that our actions and their consequences did not matter as much as we assumed they did, and so we could rid ourselves of some of the worries and anxieties of not being able to do the perfect thing, of not being able to be perfect all the time. We were a group of fifteen-year-old young women at the cusp of adulthood, at a high-achieving school, weighed down by the desire to be perfect, to be seen as perfect. And this was supposed to be a lesson to forego some of that by understanding how our actions and our place in this vast universe was so minuscule that we almost didn’t matter. It was meant to be empowering. I had found it very deflating. Sinister, almost. I didn’t want to be insignificant. I didn’t want to be told that I didn’t matter. The world around me did so much of this all the time. Being made to feel unimportant is not empowering, I wanted to scream out but of course I hadn’t. I had simmered inside, feeling helpless and disempowered. And that feeling had sometimes returned when I couldn’t control what was happening around me, as if life was lurching away from me, taking with it the world and everything in it that I held dear, bucking and turning over the silt of discontent into a storm. 

*****

We are in Wales for a week on a sort of summer holiday, in a cottage near the coast, a home away from home. It doesn’t feel like home, or smell like one, but we try and make it into a temporary home for six days transporting our favourite pillows and duvets, books and toys to Wales, moving them in with us. And slowly the calm interior of the cottage is taken over by our normal chaos, and as we settle into a routine of mealtimes, and dog walks, swimming in the sea and bringing back sand clinging to our bodies and clothes. It starts to feel less like a house but something more intimate. 

We’ve had a heatwave in the UK, two days of intense heat, temperatures higher than what we have ever experienced before in this country, rising up to 40 degrees Celsius in some places. I come from a hot country, but I struggle with this heat more than others, even though the hot sun is good on my skin, for my skin, the sunshine that can make it shine with vitamin D that it has so craved over the winter and the days, months, years of hiding indoors during the pandemic. The water on the west coast of England is warmer than usual, and we are enjoying this almost Mediterranean feel of the water, warm and soothing on our toes and my tired muscles from sleeping in unfamiliar beds. While we try and make the most of this summer, I find myself sad and anxious at the rising temperatures, the way our planet is heating up. The children can’t sleep at night even with all their clothes off, and one small fan is all we have to comfort and soothe them through the scorching nights even when the curtains have been closed all day and the sunlight is blocked out. Unusual for this country. 

You must love this heat, people tell me knowingly everywhere I go. I don’t but I merely smile and nod becoming an accomplice in their implicit assumptions of me. I have moaned about the rainy days and lack of summer heat for so long here, twenty years in this country since I moved, but I find that I crave the cold and a respite from this blistering heat that is seeping into all my pores and oozing out damp and sweltering beads of perspiration. The mogginess is claustrophobic trapping me within my hot sweats at night, uncomfortable tossing and turning dreaming of fires that cannot be put out. The fires that are burning bright, flames rising high, an abyss of damnation. The netherworlds of Dante’s inferno are here for all of us now, trapped into a hothouse of our own making. I try and sing to the children, fan them and the dog who cannot understand why it is so hot. Is this something they would have to now live with, I think to myself and the angst of something they might lose in the process, something intangible but precious is too weighty to fathom, a forfeiture of a world the children have had no part in creating, or annihilating. 

In the morning, we find some laverbread in a local café, down the hill and on the world’s steepest road. A proud sign announces this to all of us. I do not have the fortitude to walk down it, because once we walk down it, we have to climb back the same way. Climbing up is always hard, falling down is easy. We build stone by stone, rock by rock a foundation to rise up from, and then in one knock this could all be thrown away. Walking down a slope is easy and almost fun, but my knocking knees would not be able to handle the ascent. So, I don’t. But I take a picture, one of hundreds I take for posterity so that I remember, not relying on my memory of what this world looked like one day. Laverbread is a welsh speciality, bara lafwr or bara lawr, is made from Porphyra umbilicalis, the laver seaweed also known as aonori (アオノリ; 青海 苔) in Japan and sea cabbage (海白菜) in China. Smooth and flat, it clings to the rocks, living and surviving, collecting and trapping nutrients and carbon dioxide, an amorphous mass of thalli structures that cannot be distinguished into organs, stems or roots. I think of thali, the large metal stainless steel plates we used to eat from in India, flat with curved sides that held all the goodness and dozens of katoris. Dipping in and out of these, I am lost in the way words move from one language to another, slippery in their meanings. Slippery and glistening, merely one cell in thickness, the kelp throbs with life, clinging on tight to the rocks even with the waves thumping against them again and again, drumming into its dog-eared weathered body. These seem almost primitive as if the remnants of the past worlds carrying on the legacy and message from eras gone by, palpitating with life, storing carbon-dioxide and iodine, holding on even when their gelatinous grip is getting looser with each watery punch. The long and billowing ribbons are custodians of photosynthetic pigments that harvest the light. 

Laver has been harvested in Wales for over 300 years and used for traditional cuisines rolled in oats and flour. It is impossible to say for how long these traditional wisdoms and recipes are being passed down for, but Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), an archdeacon and historian in the 12th century mention it first in his travel accounts around the region of Pembrokeshire where women harvested the laver from the rocks and coastline and hung it up in the huts to dry. It has to dry for at least 10 hours before it can be steamed and used for cooking. In the 19th century, there is another man, William Camden, writing in his volume Britannia in 1607 who offers a more detailed account of how the laver was harvested in springtime. Local myths says that it should never be harvested in a month that has ‘R’ in it and my children and I make up a song about the all the months with R that feel left out. They are just learning the names of the months, getting their bearing into the seasons of their lives, from January to December, the cycle that for them often goes from their birthday to the next, the start of the school year to the start of school holidays, from Monday to Friday when their weekend can start. I sometimes envy how they can live in the present with no nostalgia for the past, and no foreboding of the future. I wish to emulate it but I have lived too many years across too many miles and forty decades and there is too much history and too much grief. 

Camden writes: “Near St Davids, especially at Eglwys Abernon, and in many other places along the Pembrokeshire Coast, the peasantry gather in the Spring time a kind of Alga or seaweed, where they made a sort of food called lhavan or llawvan, in English, black butter.” The dried algae is often steamed when it turns from filamentous brown strands into a green gloopy gelatinous mass that can then be mixed with oats or flour. This alchemy that happens in cooking when the states and forms transform into something new and unfamiliar. Cooking is science and art, magic and performance. Every time we cook something it creates its own fingerprint, we move and swing, and we modify the heat and shape of our own consciousness as it interacts with the ingredients. And every time we try and capture the flavour that we have loved and remembered. 

These timeworn histories and food stories have often been kept alive by women, through word of mouth even though it was men who got to write about them. Over centuries, mothers and grandmothers, aunties and sisters have cooked and passed on these memories through observing, playing and partaking in these traditions. I think of the recipes that my mother has passed on to us across miles, over facetime at times, or text messages with our urgent questions of which spices to use, and how much to use, and how much of her knowledge is condensed in touch and sight, a pinch of this here, a pinch there, and we learn to emulate it through tasting and watching. I try and pass on some of my knowledge to my own children, look this is called dal in Hindi, spinach is palak, and it is not naan bread but roti, even as they don’t speak Hindi and when they do it never sounds the same, with the edges of my mother tongue tinged with a mixture of Scouse and Irish accents, letters and words taking on their own nuance as they try to make this seemingly alien language their own. And this is how we make tadka, with a pinch of heeng that smells pungent but carries the memory of my mother cooking in her own tiny kitchen and the way her clothes used to smell at the end of the day when we she would hug us good night. I can’t follow recipes written down in fixed determinate ways. I often see these words and language as a holding framework for the recipe to them become my own, a sort of rebellion against the neat, ordered line by line directive that a written recipe offers me. I read the recipe, absorb it and the hidden meanings in its various lines, I assimilate my own experience, memory and knowledge, and I try and make it something that takes on a new life of its own. Every time I cook something I have muscle memory of cooking it the last time, but I also let it flow and splatter and take on new unpredictable forms, textures and tastes. I like this about cooking, the way we make these histories and legacies our own, and then pass on the baton to the next generation to find their own meaning in these stories. 

***** 

The day is getting hotter as we make our way to the beach in the late afternoon. The long stretches of sand look really inviting and for once we don’t have to wear our wetsuits. I always feel cold in the water, taking hot showers even during the summer months, but somehow my dark brown skin loves the feel of the sea froth, even when it is cold. I can’t swim. I never really learnt as a child with no swimming pool in the small Indian town that I grew up in and I never feel comfortable wearing swimming costumes on the beach. My thighs are too big; my arms too bulky. It just feels all too much compared to the slim slender white bodies I see around me. I come out of the bedroom trying to cover my swimsuit with a large kaftan. Aren’t you hot in that, mummy? You wouldn’t need that, mummy. Just wear your swimming costume like us, mummy. The twins are babbling excitedly running around me in circles with the dog chasing his tail finding some energy in of his ageing body and cancer ridden cells. And I am reminded of what I am trying to model and how I sometimes find it difficult to let go of the noise in my head, the clamouring words of my first boyfriend telling me in the first week that we started dating when I was just 17 years old that I should never wear jeans because I was too short, and my body looked too fat in it. Even with the tattoo of the oestrogen patches on my thighs lined with white criss-crossing cellulite, for the first time I overthrow the shame along with the kaftan that I usually hide away in. The black and white interlacing lines of things inside my body and that I am adding to it to make it function once again is a pleasing one, echoing the lacing of the seaweed fronds around my toes and ankles. 

They have come to say hello, I try and muse poetically to one of my children, one who is not scared of the seaweed. She looks at me with her wise face and tells me that they are always there, and it is us who are coming in to meet them. We are going into their house mummy; she says with a grin. And suddenly I am reminded once again of the responsibility we have when we step into nature. This world belongs to them, and we are the ones who trespass this ecosystem, marking and terrorising it with our footprints, taking up space and consuming the precious resources. And as the waters warm up, we might enjoy more rain-free days on the beach, but it is disrupting the delicate balance of these seaweed and the way they hold up the lives in these oceans. These seaweed species around our coasts and freshwater reservoirs store and capture a huge amount of carbon, carbon-dioxide that is being pushed into our environment by the all-consuming fossil fuels that we burn every day, hot and fevered puncturing a hole in the ozone layer that keeps the harmful sun rays out. Sun is a life-saviour and life-giver but can also be pyretic. Some researchers say that seaweed stores around 175 million tonnes annually of carbon, or 10% of the emissions from all the cars in the world, almost nearly 200 million tonnes of CO2 every year – as much as New York State’s annual emissions. 

Seaweed is not a magic bullet. It will not solve the climate crisis for us. But it is part of a delicate carbon management system that we are benefitting from. But as temperatures are rising, warm waters are drying out many varieties of sea kelp, the thermal stress either making them move towards the poles away from their natural habitats on our shores or be replaced by other species which are not as native to our shores. The sea urchins thrive in such warm conditions overpowering and overtaking the seaweed population, chomping and devouring them away. As we release more carbon into the atmosphere it gets mixed into the ocean waters making it more acidic, and in Tasmania alone, rising ocean temperatures and acidification have wiped out 95% of kelp seaweed forests over the past 80 years. Even as we might not fully understand how these marine ecosystems are working, how much carbon they are releasing and sequestering, their value and benefits are huge. While the warming and acidification of the waters is affecting the local extinction of seaweed it is the indiscriminate commercial harvesting that is a stressor for the growth and survival of these species too. We are going into their houses and taking over, in an overbearing and authoritarian manner. The lack of respect for our natural ecosystems is what has led us to this place in the first instance, and there is a serious concern that along with these biological ecologies, we might lose some of our precious memories and legacies of lived experiences and untold stories too that we hope to one day pass on to our next generation. 

We are passing on a world filled with memories and chronicles of our actions and narrations, a record of how we lived, and I wonder what meaning our children will take from the burning planet that we are offering on to their delicate fingers. They might one day forget to live in the present as they do now, learn to rue the past and the annals of our lives where our behaviours left their legacy in short supply. The children might be afraid of these monsters lurking underfoot but how do I tell them that we are all monsters, that I am a monster, that we are cracking open the valuable heirlooms that they ought to inherit one day.

Pragya Agarwal

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Dr Pragya Agarwal is the author of four non-fiction books including Sway, Hysterical and (M)otherhood. She has also written widely for mainstream media in The Guardian, Independent, Prospect, Crikey, as well as for New Scientist, Wired and Scientific American and essays for Times Literary Supplement, Literary Hub, Florida Review, Aeon, Willowherb Review amongst others. Pragya teaches creative writing for Arvon and Irish Writers Centre in UK and Ireland. Currently she is a visiting professor of social inequities and injustice at Loughborough, a Sassoon Fellow at the University of Oxford,, and a British Library Fellow and in 24-25 she will be a RLF Fellow at University of Cambridge and a Fulbright Scholar to the USA . She is currently hiding in the archives writing her next book for The Bodley Head/PRH and also working on a project about ecological grief funded by the Royal Society of Literature. She is on Twiter/X and Instagram as @drpragyaagarwal

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