Life’s Ocean

Once you begin the process of internalization, one starts to see permaculture principles – and anti-principles – most everywhere: successful synergies of design and failures of imagination cheek to jowl in the garden, out the car window, inside yourself. After our class visit to Bob Duncan’s fruit orchard last week, I realized how neatly he’d applied Bill Mollison’s original principle of ‘relative location’, with his fruit trees espaliered tightly against the house to benefit from its latent heat; his whole growing philosophy premised on the understanding that here on southern Vancouver Island we are so near to an ideal climate for some citruses that only a few modest inputs can free us from the monopoly of trucked-in fruit and yield greater food sovereignty.

(This week, bleary in the morning after a busy few days, I realized that I had unconsciously applied the relative location principle myself, using one arm to pull the alarm clock within swatting distance of my bed to gain a few extra minutes. Bill Mollison would be proud.)

In our Wild Harvesting class, too, we’ve operated with the same proximal logic: our first forays were nearby, the public parts of the city our extended backyard. This week we stretched a bit further, taking advantage of our relative location on the island coast.

(L-R): skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), a pungent, perennial semi-aquatic herb that flowers in the early spring; tree-hugging at the Hatley Park National Historic Site in Colwood; wetlands at Hatley Park.

Our first stop, the Hatley Park National Historic Site in Colwood, is less than an hour’s bike ride from my place downtown. As we arrived I noticed a gaggle of tandem bicycles wending across the grounds, all of them piloted by colour-coordinated duos – two blues on one bike, two greens on another. What looked like a pair of red cherries was jauntily ascending a hill in the distance. Framed in behind by the imposing Saturna sandstone walls of Hatley Castle, it was all a bit fantastical and I felt for a moment like Patrick McGoohan, arrived at The Village for the first time.

Laughing, we retreated into the woods. Hatley Park is a mix of towering Douglas fir forest, Garry oak meadows, and wetland, and now gripped by a hot spell after some spring rains the plant life was wild and animated. We scrambled up the side of a wooded hill and paused in a meadow that was thick with Siberian miner’s lettuce. White fawn lilies were bowing regally everywhere on the meadow slope, and I lay for a few minutes with my head under a bloom, rays of sun slanting through the trees and illuminating the flower from behind.

Trekking through skunk cabbage at Hatley Park National Historic Site.

Closer to the water the ground grew boggy, and we saw DEЌEṈ IL̵Ć, a thimbleberry bush, sometimes called “bear candy”. The early spring is the best time to harvest its edible shoots; its berries ripen later in the summer. Clamoring down a gentle hill towards the water we stepped into a wild expanse of skunk cabbage, bright yellow lanterns flanked by wide, short-stalked leaves that were almost prehistoric-looking in their enormity. Just beyond was a thicket of cattails, the “supermarket of the swamp” – so-called because they’re a source of food through all four seasons (shoots and leaves in the spring, pollen in the summer, and roots in the fall and winter).

Tempting as it was to stay and picnic in this food forest, we had an afternoon appointment up the coast at Muir Creek Beach, near Shirley. We were meeting Amanda Swinimer, a marine biologist, seaweed harvester, and the owner of Dakini Tidal Wilds. After having lunch we arrived at a little parking lot and trekked down a trail towards the water. A woman strode towards us in full wetsuit, pushing a wheelbarrow, her hair pulled back under a long bandana: it was Amanda, looking every part the “Mermaid of the Pacific” moniker on her website.

Amanda holding some winged kelp (Alaria marginata), traditionally used by coastal First Nations for wrapping salmon to cook on cedar planks.

The tide was low, and as we picked our way down the rocky beach towards the water there was suddenly a mélange of colour underfoot. Amanda knelt and picked up a long seaweed frond from a puddled depression.

“We’re going to talk about macroalgae today,” she said, and explained that seaweed, as distinct from unicellular microalgae, is an ecological powerhouse that provides upwards of half of the earth’s oxygen. Seaweed is hugely diverse, occupying two different plant kingdoms and multiple phyla, but is generally categorized within three main groups: Rhodophyta (red algae), Chlorophyta (green algae), and Phaeophyta (brown algae).

(L-R): Amanda Swinimer of Dakini Tidal Wilds with some Gracilaria red algae, considered a gourmet variety; Costaria costata kelp, also called 5-rib or seersucker kelp; Amanda holding Desmarestiaceae acid kelp.

“This West part of the island has the healthiest young spring seaweed for the next month or so,” she said. The frond flapped in the breeze ostentatiously, like a piece of golden cellophane. Amanda looked as though she might slip under the waves and disappear into her natural habitat in a kelp forest at any moment.

Peering around, she picked up a long, tapering brown frond from the rocks. “This is Alaria esculenta,” she said, “or winged kelp, or sometimes called wild wakame.” She pointed to the end of the seaweed, which was latched onto a rock. She explained that its root, called a “holdfast”, was anchoring the seaweed there. Winged kelp is one of the highest sources of calcium on the planet, as well as rich in B12, and is favoured by chefs for its sweet flavour.

A baby bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana). The gas-filled bulb floats on the surface of the water, allowing the kelp to get the sunlight it needs for photosynthesis.

Nearby was a smaller, darker strand. Amanda explained that this was nori – extremely high in protein, and possessing anti-tumor properties, it also contains a concentrated form of chelated minerals and an ideal sodium/potassium ratio for human consumption. It was traditionally an important part of some Indigenous diets on the coast, as well, particularly the red and black lavers varieties. We all nibbled on a piece. “I don’t harvest this for the business, though,” Amanda said, explaining that it was one of the most labour-intensive seaweeds to deal with: small, one cell thick, occurring only in high intertidal zones, and each piece requiring meticulous washing.

A few feet away was some rockweed. Amanda pointed to a bladder-like pocket near its top and explained that this was used by the seaweed for reproducing. Chemicals contained in the bladder protect the plant from UV, and this fluid can be used by humans as a natural sunscreen. Medicinally, rockweed contains sodium alginate, which can bind to cadmium, dioxins, and some kinds of radiation, and which then forms a salt that is safely excreted; and fucoidan, which is thought to have anti-cancer properties.

A view of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Muir Creek Beach, Vancouver Island.

Before we left, Amanda had also shown us sea lettuce, a good edible that contains dopamines, used traditionally in a tea to treat intestinal worms; Mazzaella splendens, an iridescent “rainbow kelp” that is popular in spa treatments; Palmaria palmata, a red dulse, the highest food source of iron on the planet and possessing powerful antiviral properties; and Pterygophora, a “walking kelp” that anchors to small rocks and was used by coastal First Nations to form a natural channel for fishing.

And all this within a few square meters on the beach. Amanda herself has harvested from the same small patch near here for seventeen years. She explained that seaweed is an extremely sustainable food and medicine when harvested properly – leaving several inches at the top and bottom when cutting, and being sure not to touch the seaweed’s reproductive parts, for instance. I was reminded of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s thoughts on ethical harvesting; of the power of place and relative location; and of the abundance nature provides when we work to wed these together.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.