Seaweed has been used as food and fertilizer in Ireland for more than four thousand years. Historically gathered mainly by women, these nutrient-rich ocean plants supplemented diets of the impoverished along the coastal region, especially during the mid 19th C Great Famine.
Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815) was an Irish botanist specializing in mosses and seaweed. Her detailed botanical watercolour illustrations and meticulous specimens of dried algae are held in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, bequeathed to Dawson Turner, the premier Victorian English botanist at Kew, with whom Ellen exchanged letters for several years sharing their research and mutual obsession with seaweed.
Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871) was an English botanist, the first artist to publish a photo book and the first female photographer. Two family acquaintances, William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel, were developing early photographic processes and taught Anna their inventions. Thus Atkins discovered the cyanotype, camera-less sun printing, which she would use to record all the specimens of algae found in the British Isles.
As I drive and walk through southern coastal cities and villages, climbing across rocks to gather seaweed, I think of these women. I think of the ones whose names I do not know, the gleaners, wandering the coast in search of their ocean harvest, feeding their families with the sea, the outside entering their homes with its salty smell. Walking and looking, each wet strand I pick up is different from the next. I think of the botanist and artist and camera-less photographer, who would have known each plants name and properties. I walk without destination, tracing the water’s edge until the last light goes, carrying the now heavy bag of wilderness on my back, strange now removed from the water.