News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 30, 2018
A naturalist turns her gaze to seaweed
Susan Hand Shetterly’s Seaweed Chronicles

Author Susan Hand Shetterly

Susan Hand Shetterly’s Seaweed Chronicles, A World at the Water’s Edge, was recently published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

Tucked down a shady drive just a few breaths from Morgan Bay, the home of Susan Hand Shetterly is roomy, unpretentious and filled with interesting things, a description that also matches her latest and third nonfiction book, Seaweed Chronicles, A World at the Water’s Edge.

In a book filled with acute observations of nature, Shetterly writes of the science and ecology of seaweed and its growth as a commercial cash crop in Maine, through interviews with scientists, harvesters, fishermen and her own observations. Some of her subjects, such as Ted Ames of Stonington, inhabit more than one role, and all show a passion for a way of life where humans sustain the ocean as much as the ocean sustains them.

But a whole book about seaweed?

“I thought it was a very bad idea,” Shetterly said.

An essayist, Shetterly had floated a book of essays to her agent that included a piece about Franklin seaweed harvester Andrea DeFrancesco. Her agent suggested she make seaweed the sole topic.

“I knew [Andrea] because she had grown up with my kids,” Shetterly said. “I thought there wasn’t much to say about seaweed. But I decided to investigate.”

Through research and interviews, Shetterly found out a lot about seaweed, and about the depth of small seaweed harvesters’ commitment to sustaining the places they live, after once plentiful species, like cod, are nearly gone from the Gulf of Maine

“A lot of people are working very hard to try to put the pieces together,” she said.

As an industrial commodity, seaweed is used in so many everyday items that the list becomes near fantastical: mayonnaise, toothpaste, pudding, ice cream, pie crusts, gelatin, cheese, chocolate milk and pumpkin pie filling, to name a few. Ground up seaweed is used as a fertilizer and as farm-fish food. But seaweed is also food as itself, which is the market smaller Maine seaweed harvesters mostly serve.

”In Maine, nearly all [harvesters] are very cautious of the habitat,” Shetterly said. “[They] really love what they do and where they’re working. They don’t want to hurt it. It’s not the same with industrial harvesters.”

But while seaweed, and the people who work with and around it, are the focus of her book, Shetterly is also doing what she has done for decades: write.

A fledgling poet out of college, she and then-husband Rob Shetterly moved first to Gouldsboro and then to Surry, part of the 1960s and 70s back-to-land movement. She lived and cared for her children in a cabin without running water or electricity and wrote poetry in an old chicken house.

Then, faced with the need for income, she sent a nature piece to the Maine Times. Its editor wrote her back with a job offer. That led to a decade of writing essays, on nature and others based on interviews with a range of people.

“When I write, I really try to be close to my reader, to speak directly to my reader. In a way, it’s like talking very intimately to your best friend,” she said.

While long out of the chicken shed, Shetterly keeps to a basic routine while writing, of waking up, drinking coffee and reading what she wrote the day before. “Then I go up[stairs] and begin the next slog,” she said. “Sometimes I finish that slog and it’s already dark. Sometimes I can’t figure out where to go [next]. I vacuum, do the laundry, but I’m still thinking.”

It took her nearly five years to write Seaweed Chronicles and Shetterly said she’s now open to a new idea or ideas. Besides three books of essays, Shetterly has also published six children’s books.