The labor of love that illuminated the wonders of the “unfathomable abyss, too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration by human eye, or intellectual vision.”
Our language is used to convey our ideas and help us see. Language is the tool that the mind uses to refine its understanding of what it sees. Consider the word Weed. It denotes not something inherent to the plant it names but its utility to us — a term for any plant for which no human use has yet been discovered; a word whose meaning is malleable in time, rooted only in a consensual reality. The dandelion, long considered a weed, made its way into the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants. There is a use. G.K. Chesterton saw a dandelion as a metaphor for wonder and was moved by it. Another application.
Although life, in all its splendor, emerged out of the ocean, carrying the debris of our evolutionary branch with it, our terrestrial frameworks of reference have always held us back. For most of our species’ history, we have found the ocean more mysterious than even the Moon. “Who has known the ocean?”Rachel Carson was asked to answer these questions in the masterpiece of 1937 that introduced the science and magnificence of the submarine wonderland the imagination. “Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home.”
Seaweed. We have a tendency to dismiss the unknowable and frame it by what is familiar, so we decided to lump a variety of wilderness under one category: the useless plants of nature. We now feed our children crispy salt nori (Pyropia yezonesisYou can also find sugar kelp at www.sugarkelp.comSaccharina latissima) among the ingredients of every other trendy face cream and salad; we know that kelp forests house some of this planet’s most precious biodiversity and suspect that the genes of billion-year-old algae might hold the key to the origin of the plants we grow to we slake our souls on gardening and the flowers in which we seek the meaning of life.
And yet algae remain both magnetic and repulsive in their strangeness — emissaries of what was once our womb but is now an alien world we can fathom only incompletely, peering at its otherness through the glass wall of our earthen consciousness.
The cult and popularity of kelp was fifteen years prior to the birth of ecology. This is because a dedicated eccentric sought to make the beauty of the underwater forest more appealing to terrestrial eyes.
Charles Ferson Durant (September 19, 1805–March 2, 1873) had an improbable path to what we now call marine biology, then a curiosity-slaking hobby below the scowl of science. Having fallen in love with ballooning as a teenager, Durant had become America’s first aeronaut. At the age of 30, he’d launched into the atmosphere at least a dozen more times. He crashed into the Atlantic while on one of his air excursions. A passerby brig helped him to safety.
Perhaps it was this uncommon contact with the grandeur of the ocean that awakened him to its otherworldly beauty; perhaps it was simply his polymathic ardor for science — he delighted in chemistry experiments, wrote treatises on astronomy, and planted mulberry trees to study silk-worms. As a New York Bay native, however, his love for the ocean was never diminished.
Durant, in his mid-40s, decided one summer to dedicate himself to the amazing world of underwater plants. Walt Whitman was yet to compose his serenade to the “forests at the bottom of the sea” full of “branches and leaves, sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds.” The submarine wilderness was still largely a mystery, calling out to the poetic imagination far more readily than to science. There was no North American survey of algae. Durant felt called to bring to light the life-forms of “an unfathomable abyss, too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration by human eye, or intellectual vision.”
He wanted to get at least one specimen of every species of algae native to New York Bay.
Half an hour after sunrise at low tide, he would set out on foot — first to the rocky shore ten minutes from his house, and eventually along the length of the bay, collecting a cornucopia of algae. He dried the most delicate of them in the sun, wrapped the sturdier ones in sea lettuce, and hauled the morning’s findings home, where he began his ordinary workday of managing business affairs.
He returned to the specimens in the evening and examined them with the flashlight under the microscope.
Durant spent two years living this “sort of amphibious life.” By the end, he had walked or paddled more than a thousand miles and spent “two thousand hours most agreeably devoted to the subject.” When he published his Algology: Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York in 1850, it was recognized for what it was — “a monument of persevering devotion” — and heralded as the epoch-making “open door to a new field of science.”
Durant had done for American algae what the self-taught trailblazer Margaret Gatty had done for British algae two years earlier, and he had rendered them the way Emily Dickinson had rendered New England’s wildflowers another year before that: He had made an exquisite herbarium of the underwater wilderness.
Although seaweed albums are not new, they are still popular in Victorian times. They were primarily made for aesthetic pleasure and rarely had scientific classification. Instead, the artifacts were kept private and enjoyed only by their owners.
Durant was a different kind of person in both form and substance.
Although he was driven by personal passions, this book wasn’t a private one. It was a public publication, beautiful and informative. The preface was concluded with the following prayerful words.
My modest efforts will inspire others to love science and encourage them to work together in completing the catalog of Corallines and Algae that thrive and degrade in our waterways. This would be a highly desirable goal.
Durant was determined to use real specimens, not Anna Atkins’s stunning cyanotypes photos of alga that made her the first woman to illustrate a scientific publication with photographs. He set out to make fifty, but the endeavor — like anything worth making — turned out to be infinitely more time-consuming than anticipated: each specimen carefully pressed and glued, labeled with its scientific classification, and accompanied by a letterpress description. He barely managed a dozen copies, investing in them incalculable hours and more than two thousand dollars of his savings — the equivalent of about $75,000 today.
He originally planned to sell each book for $100. But in the end, he couldn’t bear the thought of parting with something so precious in a mere monetary transaction, so he ended up giving them away — a handful to cultural institutions he felt would benefit from this unexampled survey of the sea, the rest to his three daughters and four sons. One copy was sold as a fundraiser to support Civil War wounded soldiers. We know of five or fewer copies that survived.
Radiating from the pages of Durant’s algae herbarium are the otherworldly blooms of some three hundred underwater photosynthetes, some previously unknown, all meticulously labeled and artfully arranged. Tender yet alien, belonging to a world for which we have no creaturely frame of reference, they confuse the imagination with their resemblance to things both familiar and surreal — the plumage of some mystical bird, the antlers of some Borgesian being, aerial maps of tributaries on some other planet.
Complement Durant’s Algology with Concology — a stunningly illustrated Victorian encyclopedia of shells — and be sure to subscribe to Alie Ward’s reliably delightful kindred-spirited podcast Ologies, then revisit the story of the teenage Emily Dickinson’s extraordinary herbarium — a forgotten treasure at the intersection of poetry and science.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.
Subscribe to our newsletter
MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.