Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Trenton bridge

Yesterday the inverts class went on a field trip to Trenton bridge. We parked along route 3, which was busy with commuters and tourists leaving the island for the afternoon. After clambering down the steep slope under the bridge, we enjoyed the relative calm as the busy traffic we'd left behind made itself known only as muffled whumps as each car passed overhead.
The class cheerfully explored, looking especially at subtidal critters encrusting the kelps that grow lushly at this site, and we saw colonial tunicates, hydroids, hermit crabs encrusted with "snail fur," and bryozoans. During this trip, I was reminded of many earlier visits to Trenton bridge for various collecting trips in the past.

Here is something I wrote in late November a number of years ago:

A Marine Biologist's Thanksgiving Reflections

One of the highlights of my winter break was harvesting seaweed under the Trenton bridge for a Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. I'd gotten a recipe for fresh sea vegetable salad out of a cookbook I'd recently bought on a trip to New York where I went to visit my sister, Nancy. I'm not much of a shopper, but New York City always leaves me astonished at the variety of things for sale. It's a dazzling contrast to off-season Bar Harbor. Although I passed up a tempting taxidermy peccary, I did buy my daughter a pair of rubber elf ears for her Halloween constume. Much was available, but I kept my purchases modest. Once home, I continued to ponder the contrasts between the landscapes that my sister and I have chosen for our homes.

I grew up in a competitive family, and although Nancy and I have largely outgrown our desires to best each other, I confess that under the Trenton bridge I indulged briefly in a feeling of superiority. Finally, here was something I had better access to than my cool and groovy urban sister: seaweed. All felt right in the world. I'd had a flicker of the same feeling while still in New York, where my status as seaweed goddess was firmly established one evening over drinks with friends. Along with our martinis, we were served raw oysters resting on a bed of crushed ice and garnished with some brown seaweed, artfully coiled around the dish. Amid the elegance and the sophistication, the scientific name of the seaweed came tumbling, unbidden, from my lips, "Ascophyllum," branding me forever as a hopeless science geek from Maine, a label I am quite happy to embrace.

As I gathered seaweed for the salad back home, my smugness developed into a more generous and expansive sort of happiness. The afternoon was full of rich rewards. There were delicate carpets of hydroids, colonial cousins of sea anemones and jellyfish, which look like dense beds of tiny, nearly microscopic flowers. They blushed a fragile pale orange and pink beneath the water's surface. And happily feasting on them like pigs at a trough were dozens of fancy and flamboyant sea slugs, or nudibranchs, if you prefer their more technical yet also evocative label.

I often collect invertebrates and other marine organisms under the Trenton bridge for COA classes, but I never have been there at this time of the year. Much to my chagrin, most of the algae that I was looking for had already died back; the tender, fleshy bits that are nice to eat won't survive in Maine's frozen intertidal zone over the winter. But there was enough for the modest salad I had envisioned. The species composition of my salad reflected what was seasonally available, rather than the suggestions of the cookbook. As I searched in vain for dulse, one of the tastier and more charismatic of the red algae, my plans shifted as I sampled other things on the spot.

I felt strangely self-conscious out there collecting seaweed as food and happily nibbling along the way. I was imagining the picture I made: an eccentric, middle-aged marine biologist, bending over to peer at unseen objects of interest and popping bits of this and that from the water into her mouth. But really, what could be more Thanksgivingy than harvesting the Earth's bounty to enjoy with loved ones? Even though it felt like I was involved in a somewhat suspect, inappropriate, or at least peculiar activity, I began to let go of embarrassment and revel in the gift that we have in living in this place at this time. We have access to so many simple pleasures to be celebrated. That's what I gave thanks for most heartily on November 25th and what I am grateful for every time I sit down to enjoy food with loved ones.

I don't think it's weird that our family, headed by two atheists, says Grace before a meal. Isn't that what we're all looking for? Find it in food. Find it with family. Find it collecting seaweed at low tide under the Trenton bridge. Find it everywhere you can.

1 comment:

Farrell Campbell said...

that was a really nice piece you you write for yourself often?