by A.M. Larks
In The Curious World of Seaweed, Josie Iselin has opened our eyes again to the realm of a certain intertidal plant form. Expanding on her previous works, specifically An Ocean Garden, Iselin uses her well-honed technique of scanning various seaweeds shortly after obtainment to capture the brilliancy of their color and the variation in their form and structure. Algal portraits, she calls them. And they are, by all accounts, as stunning as any other portrait.
In this new book, however, Iselin goes beyond the mere scientific writing of An Ocean Garden—which beautifully details the names, characteristics, processes, and variations—and delves into the history of seaweed itself. Who studied it? When was it named? What is that story?
It is the meticulously researched stories of the sixteen seaweeds (also known as kelps) and two seagrasses, that illustrate in structure the point of Iselin’s life-long passion. Our history as a people is tied to the history of all our plant forms; without understanding our history and our plant forms, how can we move sustainably forward into our future?
It is not lost on Iselin that the ocean is a mysterious place (it may have fueled Iselin’s life-long fascination). Her passion is clear in her poetic descriptions of a place many do not deign to look at: below the surface of the water. Iselin suggests that all things in this world—which includes Iselin herself—moves, everything is “…in flux. It is a gestural world.” The descriptions are different from the clear-eyed expectations of land. Here, “the water is milky with detritus …” but even so, it only takes “[a] flash of chartreuse” floating in front of Iselin’s eyes and she “… cannot help but grab a bright bit of algae...” to add to the bunch that she gathering.
Iselin’s writing and photography evokes a movement of form, much like the fluidity of water, that is hard to capture in two dimensional forms. Her compositions depicting the staging of the fanned-out kelps remind the audience that these plants are alive and thriving in the liminal space known as the intertidal waters, between the land and the sea, part of both but also not either entirely.
This restriction in form is why Iselin exhibit’s at both the Marin Art and Garden Center and the 836M Gallery in San Francisco are essential to experience. The exhibits allow for the use of the third dimension. The kelps seem more animated when printed on human-sized tryptic panels that flutter slightly in the gallery’s air conditioning. The translucency of the seaweed, a feature that Iselin loves, is better observed when a gallery light is shining through the image of the plant hanging on the wall.
The exhibitions and the book are not meant to compete for your attention but are different avenues to the same destination. Much like An Ocean Garden and The Curious World of Seaweed, they are sister tomes, different in many ways as well as strikingly similar, but equally enjoyable (not unlike all the various seaweeds themselves). However you enter the world, Iselin is there to welcome you, give you a map, and tell you where the best features are. Iselin is building a stunning oeuvre dedicated to one of the least studied plants, seaweed, which turns out might just be the key to our future.
AM Larks (she/her) writes fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current photo/visual arts editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and the former fiction editor at Please See Me literary magazine as well as the former multimedia editor of The Coachella Review. AM Larks earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and most recently a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She is a longtime patron of the arts and enjoys stories that capture the complexities of life on the page or screen.