I learned a few things about seaweed when I was young: tar spot algae could flip you over the second you set foot on it, and a wet whip of bull kelp could be too heavy for the twelve-year-old to crack. But the most striking discovery was the holdfast. A holdfast is something like a root system, but instead of growing down through the soil in an expanding network of roots, it clamps itself to the rocks, fastening a stalk of seaweed in place with a complex web of hard rubbery fingers that hold fast against crashing salt water and high winds. Various sea algae grow this way; they seem more animal than vegetable, as if they had consciously decided to rough it offshore.
The sea palm is a species of sea algae that lives in colonies in the intertidal zones, clinging where the surf slams hardest. I was about thirteen when it was first pointed out to me on the rocks off Cape Arago. Looking out to the furthest rocks, I saw waving groves of miniature dark green and brown palm trees. Hit hard by crashing waves, they bent double and then sprang back, fully upright, to stand up against the next surge. I was mesmerized by the rhythm of the surf and the white foam draining through their fronds as the water receded. At sunset, they became black silhouettes against pink skies, still falling and rising. In spite of the fog and piercing cold, I could imagine the whole scene as a strange little Bali Hai out there, seeing them as full-sized palm trees. Here am I, your special island, come to me, come to me. Sea palms were fixed in my mind for good.
The signature of the sea palm is its tenacity and almost indestructible nature. Other living things on those outer rocks avoid the heavy surf, in order to survive: oystercatchers hop on their red legs to a quieter spot; cormorants perch on the highest crags. Seals swim beyond the breakers, or wash up safely with the tides onto shore with their fellows. Other algae in those outer zones grow like flat scales across the rocks, or flow back and forth in the water. But the sea palm is moored to stone, battered over and over, only loosened and washed away in the strongest storm.
When I was young, I loved the tide pools and vistas and the very air of the Pacific Coast. I spent many hours on the rocky shores of Coos and Curry counties in southern Oregon where I grew up, collecting in my bucket sea urchins, chitons, nudibranchs and little crabs to look at later. I thought that I wanted to be a marine biologist. My parents gave me a copy of Between Pacific Tides, the classic book about the animals of those pools and beaches, one of the authors of which was Ed Ricketts, upon whom the character of Doc in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was based. I see on the worn green book jacket that it cost a whopping $8.75.
Ricketts’ book is not just a textbook. Every paragraph evinces love and admiration for marine animals, many of which are practically inanimate and could be mistaken for stones. He seems to intuit the character of the sea palm: “…it is worthwhile to mention the brown alga called the sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis. It is restricted to the temperate Pacific coast of North America, and occurs only where the surf is continuous and high. Along the central California coast great forests of these beautiful plants are found on rocky beaches and flats.”
I was “a merry child”, my mother said, but I was shy, too, and often retreated from the challenges that drew other kids. I did not take kindly to dares, and had no interest in leaping across chasms between sea cliffs. I was always drawn, nonetheless, to the violence of ocean and wind. Watching the sea palms, I felt an impulse to be out on that farthest rock, to be washed over by the whole ocean, to be obliterated by water and wind. I wanted both to be anchored by a holdfast, to belong completely and only to one place, and at the same time to live at the wildest margins of the world, at constant risk of breaking loose.
Elaine Soulanille, a biologist at the Smithsonian Institution, also drawn to sea palms, writes on the Encyclopedia of Life: ” The sea palm is an interesting, well-studied, and charismatic organism: It’s the only kelp that can stand erect in air – without the support of the water… it actually requires heavy surf and can’t establish in areas of calmer water….Postelsia doesn’t disperse very far from its parent. That’s unusual for an annual plant or alga, especially one living in an area with such intense competition for space from other organisms. ”
Charismatic? But the sea palm has charmed me all my life, so yes, it is charismatic. And part of its charm is that it does not behave like other sea plants, being pulled and tangled and washed up in sodden masses. It stands up straight, bends when it has to, and stands up straight again. When I return to those beaches of my childhood and look out to the far rocks, there it is, not far from its parents.
I, too, have held fast to many things in my life. I stayed where I was planted, with a few forays out and away from Oregon, returning eventually for the long haul. I loved and depended on my parents until they died, and now depend on my memory of them. I have worked hard to hold my brothers, as we grow old, to the little rock that is our family, now without our parents. I am rooted as a Catholic, though blown away and back many times. I adopted a Chinese child, now a grown woman, and have held her fast to the alien rock where I planted her. I have made my stand.
I walked yesterday onto the beach at Road’s End, where I was startled to find sea palms strewn on the beach, single or in clumps, every 30 or 40 feet. The night had been exceptionally stormy and these few were pulled from their offshore groves and washed in by the heavy surf to die. I picked one up to see what was lodged underneath: gooseneck barnacles, tiny purple-black mussels, feathers, delicate pink branches of coraline algae, long strands of bright green sea grass and broken chunks of jelly, hidden in the tangled interstices of the holdfast as the ocean tossed them all up together on the shore.
Today, when I took the same walk, the water had washed sand over them, leaving a stalk, a frill of palms sticking up, or just an outline in the sand. But here and there, like a distant mist-wreathed archipelago, stands of sea palms stood upright, their fronds waving in the wind, washed up, but not buried. They insisted on springing back up, not just in the onslaught of the surf, but in the prison of the wet sand.
Ricketts, Edward F. and Calvin, Jack. Between Pacific Tides, 3rd Edition, revised by Joel Hedgepeth. Stanford University Press, 1962.
http://eol.org/. Encyclopedia of Life. Postelsia palmaeformis, Sea Palm.
Jane Salisbury is a writer and librarian who lives in Portland, Oregon.
© 2016, Jane Salisbury