Sunday, July 26, 2015

Entangled Bank: seaweed part 2

Returning (again) to seaweed, never having left it.
Millet's stooping figure becomes a seaweed gleaner at the ecomuseum.
A talk I gave several years ago about thrift and recuperation in coastal culture has grown into a fascination with coastal ecology and the origins of marine biology in France. In July (2015), before heading to Liverpool to a conference on "Transatlantic Dialogues", I was on a short trip to France, and made a point of visiting the Ecomuseum of Kelp Harvesters and of Seaweed (Musée des goémoniers et de l'algue) in Plouguerneau (on the north coast of Finistère, not far from Brest).  The community-run ecomuseum is positioned in the heart of an area that has the greatest concentration of seaweeds and the strongest living tradition of harvesting.

The museum presents the historical importance of seaweed in the local culture and economy.
dried seaweeds

I had contacted the museum to ask a few questions and was encouraged to visit, but I no idea what to expect.  First, I watched a short documentary that interviewed many older people who spoke in Breton and in French about their memories of gathering seaweed before school, about being on harvesting trips that encircled and denuded the underwater kelp forests surrounding islands (like Ouessant), about drying and burning seaweed for the "soda" in its ash (high in iodine) and the later industrialization of the process (more machinery, fewer harvesters, lower prices,etc.).
L'usine d'iode
Iodine factory at Lampaul, opened in 1895
Harvesters  traditionally dried and burnt the kelp they collected on the beach and then sold the ash which was then processed by iodine factories (many were built on the coast in the late 19th century)
Piles of dried kelp, Lampaul
and by 1977, seaweed was purchased green from the large-scale harvesters.


The museum tells a local story about the culture of this harvest which is bound up in stories, song and the Breton language. In its historical trajectory, it is also global story about the part of the industrialization of fishing, and exploitation of ocean resources, of the push to mechanize the harvest, squeeze out the small producer (with more material investment in boats and trucks), and the coincidence of falling prices and the drive to more efficiently use up local resources.

Before its industrial collection and processing, seaweed collecting, like gleaning a harvested field, was a right protected and policed by each commune. There were collection days set aside for the needy—(e.g. women with husbands in the military and widows were allowed special collection rights and  could employ a man from outside the commune to help them). Whereas  dead seaweed washed up in abundance on the coast for the gathering, foragers and harvesters sometimes went to the limits of the earth: the intertidal zone exposed by the duirnal tides that recede the most at new and full moon and are exceptionally low at the equinoxes. 
Pierre Toulgouat, The oldest seaweed harvesters: husband and wife (64 and 58 years old) who spend entire days in the water up to their stomachs.  Ouessant, 1938, MuCEM.
Any nearby lighthouse was arbiter of day and night: collecting could not begin in the morning until the light was extinguished.  There was a general ban on night gathering except driftweed. Live, attached seaweed was considered royal property in the 17th century and up until the 19th century its cutting was strictly regulated. 
Local rules controlled where on the beach collected material could be dried or loaded into carts.  Harvested seaweed left on the beach after dark became unmarked (no one’s property) free to become driftweed again.

From the 1860s until well after the first world war, painters and photographers repeatedly represented Bretons gathering and burning seaweed. Many of the realist tropes developed for the description of agriculture (such as Millet's Gleaners) were put into use in describing workers of the shore.  Fishing practices, much harder to observe from shore, never received as much visual attention. Charles Cottet, in a painting that is in the collection of the Morlaix Museum, paints lumpy, brown piles of drying kelp spread out across the island landscape of Ouessant.  As part of his series, In the Country of the Sea, he shows us the dependence of the people of the island on the sea-- and the ecological entwining of sea and land harvests.

Charles Cottet, Piles of Drying Kelp, Ouessant.  c. 1903, Morlaix

For the islanders, seaweed was burned and sold to the outside world, but it also had many uses.  In a very wet place with no trees is substituted for wood as fuel. Thrift and ingenuity prevailed on the islands.  Seaweed combined with cow manure was shaped into large pancakes (called “glaouad”) and dried out for later burning.  (Clumps of turf or "gleds" were also cut for burning on the islands).

"Gleds" or turf cut on Ouessant, 1938

Maturin Meheut, Île de Batz, Bringing in the kelp for winter heating, 1912.  On view at the Meheut Museum, Lamballe, July 2015.

The offshore islands such as Batz and Ouessant were places of material scarcity: the only cash commerce with the mainland was in fish, wool from their sheep and ash from the burning of seaweed. Cash gained from the sale of kelp ash was often used to purchase firewood. Seaweed was a substitute for firewood on the islands, and in glass manufacturing (until 1789), the soda ash (sodium bicarbonate ) from kelp was in demand because of the deforestation of Europe.   I find these ecological relationships fascinating.

Iodine's use as a disinfectant was discovered in 1812 and the thickening agent, alginate was found in seaweed in in 1880: both were reasons for the continued harvesting of seaweed as a raw material.

So many images and travel tales from the Breton islands focus upon the material aspects of everyday life on the Breton coast, and dwell upon the hard-scrabble life of the peasant population in their toils to recuperate value from base materials like seaweed. Over several years of looking at these images of seaweed harvesting from art museums, historical image banks and in the ecomuseum, I wondered how much artists like Cottet, Meheut or Elodie La Villette (mentioned in a previous post) knew about marine natural history. 

The British enthusiasm for the seaside and for amateur botanical and tide pool collecting has received much attention, but it was harder to figure out if there were many popular French parallels.  

French naturalists Jean-Victoire Audouin and Henri Milne Edwards were first French natural history scientists to look closely at the littoral. They had first investigated and published their findings on the proliferation of life—both human and nonhuman at the tideline, especially in their careful field work conducted on the archipelago of the Chausey islands, off the coast of Granville (Normandy) in the 1820s where they observed both Norman and Breton seasonal workers (many of whom set up temporary camps under upturned boats) harvesting and burning seaweed, fishing and quarrying granite from the island.  In 1832 they published their first volume of Recherches pour servir à l’histoire naturelle du littoral de la France  in which they describe the vibrant, horizontal bands of plant and animal life on tidelines. Their early observations of marine invertebrates and on the zonation of the intertidal zone was important foundation of ecological literature.  

Concarneau Biological Station (Marinarum)
In 1859, the first marine biological station  was established in Concarneau.  In the Third Republic, many newly opened biological stations all along French coastlines fostered fish breeding, international biological Research, and comparative anatomy of marine invertebrates. 

  Le Monde De La Mer. Paris, 1865.
In later 19th-century France, many popular general texts on ocean life were published, such as Le Monde de la Mer by Alfred Frédol (pseud. for Christian Horace Benedict Alfred Moquin-Tandon) (1866).  French science popularizer Louis Figuier shortly thereafter released (in English) The Ocean World: being a descriptive history of the sea and its living inhabitants, which seems to have been mostly plagiarized from Frédol. 
Gosse, title page of The Aquarium... 1854
The English craze for the seaside and coastal natural history did have some direct effect on the French. English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse's wildly popular text The Aquarium:an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea (1854) encouraged French interest in home aquaria in a momentary fad in the 1860s (Camille Lorenzi is working on this). 

An aquarium featured in a mid-19th century fashion plate.
Many illustrations from UK journals were reused in French contexts, such as the image of an aquarium featured in the short story “The Aquarium” in Magasin Pittoresque (1859)  
Freeman, illustration in Magasin Pittoresque (1859).  

As I write, there are several ongoing exhibitions that highlight the work of amateur collectors of marine algae. The Crouan brothers 1798-1871 & 1802-1871) were pharmacists and amateur seaweed botanical collectors who amassed a huge collection of specimens (over 400) in the bay of Brest. Although one of their best known collections or "alguier" from 1835 was destroyed when Brest was bombed in the Second World War, their collection

  Algues marines du Finistère (1852) was printed in a limited edition of 50 (with real pressed specimens for each entry). One exemplary copy of this was on view in Concarneau Feb- April 2015, and is currently in Saint-Charles.  They learned their techniqes of pressing the seaweed they had collected from the writings of an earlier collector from Quimper, Theophile Bonnemaison (1774-1829) (also a pharmacist and amateur algologist).   (To be continued...) 

a video of the Crouan Brothers' Alguier:

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