Matt Dickerson: A seaweed classroom

It’s Tuesday morning. I’m standing with a dozen Middlebury College students listening to a biologist teach us about [dramatic pause] seaweed.
If listening to a presentation about seaweed doesn’t sound enjoyable to you, it may only be because you are not imagining the scene. The 12 students with me are taking my narrative nonfiction nature and environmental writing class. We are in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, and the seaweed we are learning about — a coldwater species of algae known commonly as rockweed, and by its scientific name as Ascophyllum nodosum — blankets the ground about us. We are standing in the intertidal zone: the space between low tide and high tide, where the plant thrives. Though the brisk wind had earlier threatened to make my students a frozen dozen, by the time noon approached the sun had warmed the temperature almost up into the mid-20s.
Our surroundings are beautiful. A few miles to the right, the sharp, iconic peaks and ridgelines of Acadia rise over us against a bright winter-blue sky. Across Otter Cove, a wooded hillside leans out over the island’s rocky coastline, occasionally painted white with spray from a gentle surf. Through a gap to our left lies a gray-blue expanse of open water of the Gulf of Maine. And below us, rests the seaweed — several varieties, as it turns out: not just a single ubiquitous plant, but a number of different species each occupying its own niche in the ecosystem.
Our teacher is Hannah, a biologist with the Schoodic Institute. Schoodic is a scientific and educational non-profit that works within Acadia National Park, in keeping with the mission of the park and in close collaboration with the National Park Service and its scientists. The fact that Schoodic is a private non-profit is part of the reason Hannah is able to meet with us despite the government shutdown, which affected the park and all its employees. Though the Schoodic campus is on park property and is thus closed — and the research of the institute scientists is thus partially handcuffed — at least Schoodic researchers can keep working. That is not true of the biologists with the National Park Service.
Hannah is passionate and engaging as well as knowledgeable as she teaches us about her special area of research. Her enthusiasm is part of why the learning is enjoyable. Among other things, I learn that there is a significant commercial harvest of Rockweed in Maine, and (as with so many other things) the management of that harvest is as much determined by social, historical and political factors as by scientific ones.
Rockweed is not human edible. Though it has been used as a dietary supplement for horses, its primary use in Maine is agricultural. It both fertilizes soil and also helps maintain moisture. Rockweed is harvested by cutting it a minimum of 16 inches above the roots, which are left intact. It is hardy, and though difficult to cultivate or farm, it generally grows back well in the wild after a harvest. It is therefore a sustainable resource, and in theory much better than using petroleum products in agriculture. Harvest in a given sector of the Maine coast is limited to 17 percent of biomass per year — or roughly 50 percent of the biomass over a three-year period. The alga seems to thrive despite these periodic harvests.
There is some concern, however, that many creatures in the intertidal zone depend on the rockweed, and may suffer when the plants have been cut way back. At high tide, the 16 inches is not long enough for the remaining plant to reach the surface. Thus after a harvest, and until it grows back, some young ducks that are unable to dive beneath the surface can no longer feed on the invertebrate life that lives in the rockweed. Hannah is trying, through her research, to understand how much rockweed can be harvested without detrimental effects on the ecosystem.
My students are trying to understand Hannah’s work and its implications, and how science might hopefully be used to set policy. The fact that we are standing in the midst of the seaweed and observing the intertidal ecosystem makes the learning both more enjoyable and also more real. This place-based learning is far more compelling than sitting behind desks in a classroom looking at slides.
Being outdoors is like that. It is invigorating. It spawns curiosity. Questions emerge that might not otherwise come to mind. Plus the students have to navigate along the shore, which would be challenging enough with just the seaweed, and is made more challenging by the ice that coats the rocks. It is, after all, winter.
If walking the intertidal hadn’t already proven a winter sport for the students, it becomes one when we reach a big sheet of ice blanketing the beach above the tide, where a spring seeps out of the cliffs. I ponder the challenge of getting past the obstacle and wonder how the students will do it. The students have no such concerns. Before I can figure a path around, they are seated on the ice sliding down the beach from the woods to the seaweed. Our learning lab has momentarily become a playground. I’m not sure if the diversion is directly leading to any addition learning, but it does remind me of another reason the outdoors really is the best classroom.

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