Today is a real West Coast day in Victoria. Drizzle collects on my glasses in beads that aren’t heavy enough to run down the glass. They pebble the surface just enough to slightly distort everything in the soft gray light. Collecting seaweed, you need warm socks in your gum boots and a good, thick wool sweater under your jacket. A drizzle is not something to go out in without a cap. I prefer a seaman’s cap, one of those blue kind with the hard brim in front that you can buy in places like the basement of Capital Iron. They’re stacked somewhere between the bins of brass bolts and the deep sea diving suit.
It’s the perfect kind of day for collecting seaweed for the garden. The soil on Vancouver Island, in spite of all the lush growth, is thin and very poor quality. Gardeners here would kill for the kind of soil any Manitoban has just for turning over some sod. I keep a compost box into which I dump grass, chopped up small branches, oak leaves, blood meal, every vegetable and fruit scrap from the kitchen, horse manure and seaweed. The seaweed speeds up the decomposition.
I always go looking for seaweed after a storm. I stuff plastic bags behind the seat of the truck and the throw some of those big white plastic buckets into the box. I found them behind the Ogden Point café. If I can get someone to go with me, I take a pitchfork. If not, I don’t. Filling garbage bags is a two person job. One person to hold the bag open while the other put the seaweed into the bag.
The storms tear seaweed loose from its moorings and deposit it at the tideline in green windrows. Some people leave the bull kelp but I take it. Some pieces are twenty feet long. Bull kelp has a cluster of roots the size of my hand with which it holds to the bottom. Then there’s a long pliable stem that forms a hollow bulb at the top that is a natural float, holding it upright. From this grows a crown of flat leaves that spread out on the surface of the water. The stems are hollow and when I snap them into smaller pieces to put into my bucket, I point it away from myself. The first few times I broke apart bull kelp it squirted water into my face.
All seaweed is good for the garden but I walk the beach looking for seaweed that doesn’t have a lot of sticks and gravel in it. Behind and in front of me the seagulls and the crows are searching the seaweed as well. There are small crabs and starfish tangled in it. Sometimes there’ll be clams and mussels. With a jerk of their head, the crows tear away the seaweed, snatch up their prey and with a few thrusts of their beak, pull out the flesh. In the winter there’s so much food washed ashore that there’s no fighting among the birds.
There’s something satisfying in getting out of the truck enclosed in warm clothes and waterproof boots, and gathering up bag after bag of seaweed while all those other people lined up in the parking spots along the sidewalk sit timidly in their cars and watch. They’ve driven down to look at the ocean and the passing ships, to view the islands and the American mountains beyond, although in a drizzle, the most you can see of the USA is a misty blue outline like you see in Chinese paintings. Come on out and get your hands dirty, I want to say. Get involved. When you get home you can have a shower and wash it off. It won’t hurt you.
One woman with a heart-shaped face stopped to say, “Are you sure you’re allowed to take seaweed off the beach? Don’t you need a permit?” I said no, it was just fine to help yourself. She said she was a retired librarian from Saskatchewan. She had spent a lifetime keeping books organized. I expect that her library was spotless. She surprised me by offering to hold the garbage bag open. “I was brought up on a farm,” she said. She just had plants on the patio of her condo and she bought her compost already made from Home Hardware. She hadn’t realized it would be so hard to meet new people and she was thinking about going back to Saskatchewan in spite of the winters.
Storms tear the seaweed loose and pile it onto the beach in windrows. I prefer rainy days because the rain helps to wash off the salt. After a big storm, there’s usually more than just me collecting seaweed. Today there was a family about a block away. They were very organized. They had six or seven garbage cans, a collection of bags, and they were working two to a team. They looked like the kind of family that got things done. I could imagine them painting their house or cleaning their yard. Each one assigned to a definite task. I wondered if they were a military family. Nowadays, it’s so unusual to see a family working together that it calls for speculation.
The ocean was calm, as it always is in a drizzle. Not quite flat, there being a slight rolling motion to the surface even though there was no wind. There were kayakers out. They had their weather gear on and were keeping close to shore. A tug went by towing a barge full of gravel. Then there were three sail boats, one of which had toffee colored sails. I thought I saw a couple of seals but they turned out to be deadheads, those dangerous waterlogged logs that float nearly upright and can stop a boat cold or shatter a keel.
One of the things about collecting seaweed is that people talk to me while I work. I get a chance to tell them about the virtues of compost. The fact that it provides natural nutrients for plants, improves the quality of the soil, holds moisture and, in the compost box, hastens the composting process. The conversation usually veers off in various directions with stories about where they are from (most people in Victoria are from somewhere else), their or their parents or grandparents gardening experiences, or their career or bereavement. Victoria is Canada’s premier retirement city so there are a lot of widows and widowers. Loss is often softened by walking on the beach, by having someone listen to what has happened.
If I just stand around, staring at the water and the view, no one stops to talk. When I’m filling garbage bags or five gallon pails, a lot of people stop to chat. Some, like the librarian, offer to help. I think the difference is that my collecting seaweed gives people an opening line. “Good for the garden?” or “What’re you going to use that for?” When I’m staring into space there aren’t many possible opening lines. “Nice drizzle,” doesn’t seem like a possibility so they go on their lonely way. Maybe that’s the thing about city living that’s needed. More seaweed to collect so people can risk starting a conversation.