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What It's Like To Harvest Seaweed

LARCH HANSON: I tore down a barn and recycled it. I have a cabin with a glass wall to the south.


Larch Hanson has been living here for 45 years. He knows the place. He can feel it. He even communicates with it. Here's his apple tree, which he says didn't fruit until he coaxed it to.

HANSON: And you say, tell me what you are. Well, the next year, it gave me three apples. And I said, OK, truce. The apples are good. I want you. And then the next year, 100 apples.


HANSON: And they're deep red, black.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He recalls the exact spot where he cultivated his first patch of garden in the surrounding forest. But the place he speaks about with a fervent love is the water in this remote bit of Maine coastline, where he's been harvesting wild seaweed for decades.

HANSON: We can glide over them. And you're going to catch a glimpse of seaweed in the water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I came to interview Larch Hanson because Maine is the capital of seaweed cultivation in this country. And as part of our series on adaptation in the face of climate change, we wanted to know what role seaweed could play as a future food source. That is not what this story turned into.

Hanson has both a spiritual and physical connection to this place where he lives. Something most people have never found. He wants to heal the planet. And he says in order to do that, we must first understand it, connect to it. He tells a story of how when he's out on the water on foggy days, he has a special way to alert the bigger ships he's nearby.

HANSON: (Chanting) Oh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is his personal foghorn. But Hanson, who is a Buddhist, says it's also his version of a chant or intonation made in some Asian and Native American cultures to connect people with their ancestors.

HANSON: (Chanting) Oh. We pray to our ancestors for guidance. We think of them as being on the other side of a veil between life and death. And the veil is permeable. And because they're on the other side of the veil, they have wider perspective. They have more clarity than we do. So we express our gratitude to them. And we ask them for guidance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For Hanson, the connection to the water began with his own ancestor, his dad.

HANSON: I was a boy in Minnesota with a tribe of Norwegian relatives and some Swedes, spent time with my father fishing, looking down into water, drifting around, pretty happy boy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he's been on or around the water pretty much ever since. Forty-five years ago, he drove his motorcycle up the Eastern Seaboard.

HANSON: And when I got to Maine I said, oh, this place doesn't have lights at night. I can see the stars. This place has air that goes into my lungs deeper than any place I've ever lived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tried making a living doing what the locals did - digging clams, cutting wood, raking blueberries, selling vegetables at a roadside stand. But then one day, an older couple took him seaweed harvesting.

HANSON: And they've got on hip boots, long rubber gloves that come up past their elbows. They've got a sickle tied to a long handle. And they take me to a place where the water is very swift. And there's kelp and alaria and dulse. And they harvest those, hang them up on their clothesline or spread them out on a net rack. And I go, oh, food.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Larch Hanson is turning 74 years old. He's lean and muscular, handsome in a square-jawed, old-fashioned kind of way, with a shock of white hair. From this wooden house in the woods, which features a spiral staircase encased in a turret, reminiscent of a castle or a lighthouse, he and his partner Nina Crocker operate Maine Seaweed. With the help of a rotating cast of apprentices, they harvest, dry and ship their products around the world for cooking and also the nutrition offered up by seaweed - vitamins and minerals and iodine. Larch and Nina's seaweed is considered some of the most pure in the world.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: During our September visit the seaweed season had passed. But Hanson took us out to where he harvests in Gouldsboro Bay. He wears a full wetsuit, protective goggles for his long days in the sea. It's low tide. And we slog through the muck to get to his string of small rowboats, one equipped with a motor. Along the way, we step across vast swaths of beached rockweed, a type of seaweed.

HANSON: It's a very slow growing plant. And it takes 10 years for rockweed to just get up to my waist. But in the next 10 years when it grows to be 6 foot tall and it looks more like a maple tree with overarching canopy, that creates protective habitat for 150 species - fish, lobsters, all kinds of snails, all kinds of things I don't have names for. Just great big mysteries.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Out on the bay, we stop on top of a kelp bed, where he has also been harvesting for many years. Nearby, there's the rock pool, where he also frequently works. There are layers of memories here. He knows what this place looks like in every season.

HANSON: Now, Wendell Berry wrote an essay. And he asked the question, what are people for? And his answer is, people are for preserving memory of place. That's what I do here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the deep knowledge of a particular place.

HANSON: It's all the memories that play off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hanson says climate change has affected his crop. Tide pools have warmed, inviting plants that squeeze out his seaweed. He looks out at what has become of his beloved bay and says he's filled with anger. He rails against the commercial seaweed harvesters who use draggers that, he says, destroy the seaweed beds where the plants grow. He questions the food that is held sacred here - lobster, a multi-million dollar industry in Maine.

HANSON: What's the ratio now between food produced and fuel usage? How much fuel does it take to run a midwater trawl to get the bait? How much fuel does it take to get on a lobster boat and go out and haul? I'll get tarred and feathered for saying this. But this is how I feel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I see you getting very emotional when you talk.

HANSON: I don't know how to get up in the morning and think about this world and not have a tinge of sadness about the condition it's in right now. So I get a little frustrated when I'm trying to transmit a whole bunch of information at once. And there's so many stories that I want to tell. That's a little bit of my frustration, my sadness. You can't take that away from me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Larch Hanson reminds me that we humans have something in common with this planet. We are both mostly made of water. And then he says something that is a warning but sounds like a prayer.

HANSON: The water remembers us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should remember it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "CASCADES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Two-time Peabody Award-winner Peter Breslow is a senior producer for NPR's newsmagazine Weekend Edition. He has been with the program since 1992. Prior to that, he was a producer for NPR's All Things Considered.