The day before my first seaweed-harvesting trip with John Ryan, I arranged to meet him at the Orr’s Island lobster pound, where he lives during the harvesting season in a single room above the lobsters. John was on the dock, talking to lobstermen who were refueling. He told me to meet him “at first light.” I asked him when first light arrived. He looked blankly at me and said, “You know, just before the day begins . . . first light.” I pressed him for a more exact time, and he and the lobstermen just chuckled. I realized that he had no watch and that he probably didn’t need one because his body rhythms are in sync with the sun and the tides. If the lobstermen knew the time of first light, they weren’t saying.
During his lifetime John has been an orchard pruner, fisherman, lobsterman, apple picker, log roller, sawyer, and logger, and for more than forty years he has harvested seaweed on the coast of Maine. He started by renting a dory and rake for a dollar a day, and since then has retired several skiffs of his own. While rockweed — his present quarry — is certainly plentiful, it is not in great demand; it is used almost exclusively for animal supplements, a growing but still small market.
First light arrived around four a.m. I found John meditating, with a small fire in the wood stove to take off the morning chill. He starts almost every morning meditating the pain out of his body. He leaned out his window and checked the ledge below to see the state of the tide, which was falling, so we gathered our gear and stepped out his door — directly onto a ramp that brought us to the float where his boat was waiting, not twenty-five feet from his room. By habit, he leaves the bay before anyone can see where he is going, or under the cover of fog.
We soon landed in a small cove and began harvesting weed by standing on partially submerged ledges. We gathered as much as we could possibly hold and threw it directly into open nets set up in three separate compartments in the bargelike boat. If you stepped off the ledge, your waders filled with water or, worse, you were in over your head. As the tide dropped, John dragged the boat into deeper water so it would not bottom out on a ledge, which could seriously damage the hull or strand us until the tide came in again. At low tide we anchored and climbed upland over the weed-covered rocks to fill bait boxes, stomping down the weed to pack it tightly. When the boxes were full, we dragged them across the rocks and through the water, then hoisted them up over the gunwale and emptied them into the open nets.
It was backbreaking, but perhaps easier than using the rake. When the tide peaks, the weed is several feet underwater, and the only way to harvest it is with a rake-and-net combination attached to the end of a twelve-foot-long pole cut from a maple sapling. With considerable effort, you throw the rake out as far as you can, let it settle, tug the weed off the ledge, twist it, and then haul it in. If your movements aren’t smooth, you lose the weed and come up empty.
The two of us took about four hours of nonstop harvesting to fill the boat, weighting it down until there were no more than three or four inches of freeboard between the sea and us.
It was a rare day when the tides and weather, and our tired bodies, allowed for more than two and a half loads. When John was younger, he had harvested up to six loads in a day, and that was before there was a crane to remove the full nets.
We often walked to the interior of the islands when we were weeding, and he would point out the remnants of campsites. After marrying an Orr’s Island girl (the granddaughter of the foreman of the sea-moss processing plant), John built these sites so his growing family could stay with him in the summer while he fished and harvested sea moss — a plant once more valuable than the rockweed he and I gathered. At one of the campsites were remnants of a tent platform, and shelves built from boards and wooden bait-boxes collected from the shore. He described an open-air kitchen and dining room overlooking Casco Bay, and showed me where his children had swum in the warmer tidal pools.
At the beginning of the 2006 season, after John had patched his boat together for yet another year, the sole rockweed buyer in the area told him the company was going to use mechanical harvesters. Then the harvesters didn’t work, which did not surprise John, but as a consequence there was no production at the processing plant or demand for rockweed. John refitted his boat to rake and drag for sea moss, which grows on the ocean side of the ledges off the islands in Casco Bay, and is swept by the tides and currents into tidal pools that can be dragged at high tide. Sea moss is more dangerous to harvest, and his boat would take a beating from the surf and ledges, but John had no choice. He quickly found out, however, that because of sea urchin predation or overharvesting (depending on whom you ask), he couldn’t fill his boat with moss in a week, let alone in a morning.
In 2007, the mechanical harvesters, now redesigned, reappeared but were equally inefficient. That was good for John, who was offered work; that year the processor had to have weed. Because it had not been picked the previous year, the rockweed had proliferated. The price was up too, to three cents a pound.
The mechanical harvesters are being redesigned again for 2008, when John will be eighty years old. Whether the machines will work in the coming year, and whether John’s boat and fortitude will last one more season, will be determined in the spring.
I thought this story was fantastic and I was very impressed with the photography. I am from a very rural place and it saddens me watch that generation of New Englander disappearing.
We have very few to replace them.
I grew up on an island in Casco Bay and I remember seeing this work. As a descendant of seiners, lobstermen and fishermen, and the competent network of women that participated and supported this work, I can attest to the unique, amazing and back breaking nature of this life. Thank you for celebrating it with this essay.
This lifestyle reminds me of similar ones in France or in Europe — where “old timers” often have no one to take over after them. I am grateful Orion is giving a voice to such natural traditions — and I pray that the younger generation is sensitive to the potential loss to them if they do not presently draw from this bank of knowledge still available to them in wonderful persons such as depicted here. Thank you for a great article.
I was also very impressed with the black and whites and would love to see more creative images from Jon Edwards with reflective writing to match! I’m curious about John Ryan’s family? Are they around now to watch out for him? Do they appreciate hearing family stories like this? It seems like he lives a solitary life…
Two years ago I shared a few meals and orchard work days with this good man. I will never forget his hands holding noon-time tea, answering questions with sharp wit and the kindest touch. Thank you John for letting us all see these pictures, and thank you Jon for honoring this man and his work with such beauty.
Thank you for this evocative article. The authenticity of the text and pictures was startling. I could smell the salt air and feel the cold spray.
This is a lovely story. Sea weed harvesting is quite an industry still in parts of Canada as well. Several years ago I was camping on Grand Manan Island, and met a lanky fellow who was staying in our campground. He and other pickers were there for the record low tides of August to pull dulse from the rocks on the western side of the island. They would motor out in long dories and grab as much as they could reach while the tide was out. (My long-armed acquaintance was a champion dulse picker.) I remember the sight of the dulse harvest spread out on top of fields of ocean-worn rocks where it dries out over time in the sun. Then it is baled and weighed and sent to be processed. Thank you for this unique glimpse or island life.
The beauty of such people/lifestyles should never be lost. Their “footprints” are too seldom seen in our “modern world.” I feel deeply fortunate for having spent several years in Maine, and especially fortunate for having spent a time on this earth among people like John Ryan. Such people and their lifestyle speak to my soul. Nothing but the very best to all the John Ryans in this often insane world.
This is a wonderful story with amazing photography. John Ryan is inspiring. It is important to explore the links between work and the environment. They are completely intertwined in John Ryan’s world. They are actually intertwined in the more modern world as well, but it’s harder to see. Thanks for bringing this to light.
Excellent photos. This man personifies the older generation of people who worked hard all day every day, living and working on the land, with the land, and understood that we are also of the land. I am an appreciative consumer of Maine-harvested dulse and other Atlantic seaweeds, but never knew the exact facts of how it is harvested. In spite of the hard and backbreaking work, I hope the mechanical harvesters still won’t work this year. I suspect that mechanical harvest will disrupt or destroy other species to a much greater degree in the process, and might also create issues of overharvest. I know few people today want to do such hard work, but if we could work out a way to reduce the work load on some and share it among more of us somehow, we’d all be better off. John Ryan would have to stop working such long days, though it’s already too late to undo how his work has shaped and formed him and marked him with nature’s conditions. I suspect he’s fairly content with his life, in spite of having to meditate the pain out of his back. You have to love the natural world in order to work that hard in the outdoors and all its conditions. Applause for both essayist and subject.
Harvesting rockweed is harvesting habitat. It is not unlike clear cutting of the forest. A multitude of creatures, large and small depend upon rockweed. I have often watched baby eiders just hatched moving near the rocks partially suported by the floating rockweed, without it they would drown.
Beautifully put story of a boatman. Even if the foul mechanical harvesters should work (do they) why would that exclude this man and, any that follow ? Whose rocks are they.