Seaweed collecting was a popular hobby for Victorian women in Britain, including Queen Victoria herself. It was a field that women were allowed to study unlike many others. Phycologist Sarah Stewart told me she believed this was because the sexual reproduction of seaweed was so poorly understood and this led it to be acceptable.
Merrifield collected seaweed voraciously and these collections are now held in the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton and the Natural History Museum in London. Unfortunately the Booth Museum is currently closed following the pandemic lockdown so I cannot visit for now. But I plan to do so as soon as possible.
I was lucky enough to be contacted by phycologist Sarah Stewart who read about my artistic research project and agreed to be interviewed for the Algologies blog and share some amazing insights into seaweed research.
Sarah is a phycologist and algal enthusiast, who is now studying the impact of open data and digital collections on museum-based biodiversity research.
Mary Philadelphia Merrifield was an art and fashion historian who wrote A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton and Its Vicinity in 1864 and whilst researching and writing the book she became obsessed with algology (sic). She wrote an in depth description of the algae of Brighton and published her methodology of seaweed collecting which I have been attempting to re-perform in my explorations. But I’m a modern woman and so I think it’s always important to use modern tools as well as learning as much as possible from the tools and methods of the past (some of which will have been overlooked or forgotten). To that end, I’ve been wearing trainers to scramble over the rocks (and they also dry quite well on the odd occasion I slip into a rock pool, collecting the seaweed in a plastic ‘bag for life’, and using a handy microwave flower press to press the seaweed which means I can achieve good results in a few minutes.
Seaweed identification is hard! I have been exploring the rock pools at the Undercliff and the more I look, the more diversity I see. I am still nowhere close to being able to identify many species without hours of research though, in fact what is surprising is just how overlooked these life forms are. I’ve been searching through Seaweed Collections Online, which seems to be the best resource but most of the images are of dried seaweeds from collections and these look so hugely different from the living or recently washed up examples I find.
There is a lovely set of dried seaweed images from the Booth Museum in Brighton which holds some of Mary Philadelphia Merrifield’s collection. Merrifield was a pioneering Victorian seaweed collector and botanist (as well as art and fashion historian) based in Brighton. I expected to find all the species I’ve been finding in her collections but I’m not so sure. They all look so different. When I think I’ve identified one I search for it on the web, only to find it doesn’t have even a wikipedia page. I can’t imagine this happening with bacteria (an area I am much more familiar with) which are so much more studied.
I want to know why seaweed are not so well studied. Maybe it’s because they aren’t usually out to kill us like a small but infamous percentage of bacteria. Or maybe it’s because seaweed study is actually difficult.
I learned that algae are not a ‘natural group’. Red and green algae are related to higher plants, but brown algae are not. These brown seaweeds (including wracks and kelps) are more related to diatoms and not plants at all. British seaweed is very diverse and apparently one of the richest seaweed ecosystems in the world. Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland states there are more than 635 species of seaweed, but only 238 of which are included in that book (the most comprehensive guide I’ve managed to find).
They are not studied extensively so far through genomics yet, but there has been some interesting work done on economically important species. There are also moves afoot to use synthetic biology to use microalgae as biofuels and I cannot help but think there is huge untapped potential here for biohackers or kitchen/garage/citizen scientists to explore more.
What is incredible to me is how different these seaweeds look at different times of the day. I’ve tried to name the species as best I can here but if I’ve made a mistake and you know better I would love to hear from you. (via my contact form here).
The Bladderwrack (above) – which is not a plant, -is very tolerant to drying out so it seems to live highest up the beach on the chalky rock pools. You can see in this picture just how different it looks in the water, compared to in the sun.
Ulva intestinalis (Gutweed Chlorophyta) is the green seaweed which covers the rocks and breakwaters of the Undercliff like a soft green (somewhat fly infected) carpet has a faint smell of truffle produced by a chemical called dimethyl sulphide. This chemical is of critical importance for regulating climate by controlling cloud formation and most of it comes from seaweeds!
Someone told me recently that if someone is imprisoned long enough they will start to find anything interesting.
This was a response to me describing how my interest in seaweed emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and travel bans. Walking daily on the Undercliff path I started to notice the changing seaweed ecosystem…
…I think I first properly noticed the seaweed one day in August 2020. I was walking on the Undercliff, trying to get away from all the people doing their ‘daily exercise’ on the path and I gingerly descended some slippery steps to reach a nice, quiet, isolated (and pretty inaccessible) area and all of a sudden I noticed that all the huge pebbles on the beach were covered with pink or green weed, as if some local yarn bomber had just been along and wrapped them with threads.
Left to my own devices away from people I could experience this alien landscape, so reminiscent of H.G. Wells description of the red Martian lanscape in his famous book War of the Worlds:
“the red weed rotted like a thing already dead. The fronds became bleached, and then shrivelled and brittle. They broke off at the least touch, and the waters that had stimulated their early growth carried their last vestiges out to sea.”
As Wells lived not so far away, in Woking to be precise, and spent his summers in Midhurst one wonders if the red weed in his text might be the very weed that also impressed me. According to the Brighton Argus there is some speculation that the Martians’ tripods in War of the Worlds are based on the tripod structure of the Volks’ Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, nicknamed Daddy Long Legs. This was sited at the Undercliff and the scars of the tracks are still visible at low tide.
I propose we might also consider the Undercliff as inspiration for the red Martian landscape. A poignant thought as we fight our own battles with microbes during this pandemic.
I was born and bred on the Sussex Coast and spend my childhood exploring the alien world of the rock pools that litter the pebbly and sandy shoreline here, getting stuck on the slippery seaweed covered rocks or cutting my feet and knees on the scratchy barnacles that also encrusted them – and frequently needing to be rescued by a parent or teacher.
As an adult I looked less into our British rock pools, preferring the more exotic ones I found in California or Greece, with their giant goose barnacles or eels, and pink or white sand. These moments in nature became a way to take a breath and find peace during busy art residencies in laboratories or exhibition installs.
All the time I barely noticed the seaweed…
…but then came the global trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A huge focus of my artistic practice is microbiology and in particular the study of infectious diseases. Though I work mainly with bacteria, synthetic biology and the existential issue of antibiotic resistance, I was plunged into a world of endless online meetings, cancellations and contingency plans from the start of the pandemic. My last in-person lecture on my artwork, in early March 2020, took place at the headquarters of Public Health England in Colindale in London where I hold an ongoing artist-in-residence post with the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC), the oldest collection of pathogenic bacteria in the world. It was the celebration of their centenary and I remember discussing with colleagues how I might create future work with the RNA of this faraway novel coronavirus in the future, after it was all dealt with. No-one I spoke to at that conference expected what happened next.
I left Vienna on the night before the Austria locked down, two weeks later the UK (perhaps belatedly) followed suit. When the first lockdown came in England we were told we could go out to exercise once a day. I think we forget how strict and shocking that first lockdown was and how our worlds caved in on themselves, and I think being in nature became a huge form of solace for many of us. The Undercliff Path between Brighton Marina and Peacehaven is the closest nature to my home and qualified as my ‘local area’, so I walked there almost everyday since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study of algae (which includes seaweed, which are species of microalgae) was known in its Victorian heyday as algology but this was a linguistic error because in fact algology, from the Greek algos, means the branch of medicine concerned with the study and medical treatment of pain. The study of seaweed is more correctly called phycology from the Greek φῦκος, phykos, “seaweed”; and -λογία, -logia.
C. F. Durant, was an obsessive seaweed collector from Jersey City in New Jersey, USA who published fifteen copies “Algology” in New York in 1850, it has this wonderful cover (above). Each of these albums contained three hundred actual specimens he collected from around the New York bay area.
In “Algology” Durant describes looking at seaweed under the microscope and observing it moving: “the first discovery of this motion produced a sympathetic shock, that caused me to close the eye, and suddenly withdraw it from the microscope; the sensation was akin to that experienced when unexpectedly witnessing the accidental maiming or killing a fellow-creature.” Durant believed the movements of the plants’ was “caused by pain,” because after “several hours out of their element,” they might “have felt the agonies of death.” Durant thought that seaweed was an animal rather than a plant and it was able to feel pain – like a human can. You can read more about C.F. Durant’s work in this excellent article here.
It seems timely to reflect on these various ‘algologies’ and their intertwined stories – and that is what I aim to do through this project.