SURRY — Susan Hand Shetterly speaks the way that she writes: in spare, lyrical prose. Her voice is soft until a question or an idea excites her, when her timbre deepens and the edges of her words sharpen.
Right now Shetterly is speaking excitedly about seaweed. Her most recent book, “Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge,” was released in early August, after half a decade of work.
“I was so grateful for this book,” Shetterly said. “I discovered how much people love this coast and how they spend their lives.”
“You read in the papers about all this destruction. And you see these people trying to make their communities better.”
A book about seaweed — its growth cycles, its place in the environment and the economy, the women and men who harvest it — was not what Shetterly had in mind for her next book.
“I thought, ‘How can you write a book about seaweed?!’” she said.
But the idea, championed by her son and editor, quickly blossomed.
“I’ve lived by the shore for years,” says Shetterly. “And all of a sudden it became deep and complicated.”
Shetterly considers herself an essayist, and “Seaweed Chronicles” is, in some ways, a collection of essays: an examination of a variety of species of macroalgae through the eyes of the people who, in many cases, have spent their lives studying and harvesting it.
“I tried to write stories,” Shetterly says. “I wanted it to be for people who hadn’t thought they’d be interested in seaweed.”
The book follows people such as Sarah Redmond, a young seaweed farmer in Sorrento growing her Alaria and sugar kelp in the deep, cold waters of Frenchman Bay.
There is Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, who studies how to better grow wild, harvestable inshore species of seaweed.
There are scientists and policy makers, farmers and fishermen. Not everyone agrees on the best way to manage the growing crop, says Shetterly.
“I have tried not to judge the arguments in it,” she said. “My readers are smart, and they’re going to see the complexity of the issues.”
She recalls a disagreement between two scientists over ownership and management of the resource.
“They both love the coast. They both love Maine. They just see it differently,” Shetterly said.
The uses for seaweed have exploded in recent years. Many varieties can be eaten, of course, but it is also used in fertilizers and cosmetics, in pharmaceuticals and chemicals.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded a $1.3 million grant to the University of Southern Maine, writes Shetterly, to “‘develop the tools to enable the United States to become a leading producer of macroalgae with a focus on developing transportation fuels.”
As Redmond tells Shetterly: “There is so much potential here in Maine. We could be the new Japan … I’m thinking that Maine can be known for its blueberries and lobsters and its kelp. And that’s where I want to be.”
Shetterly says the book is just a “first skim” on the subject. Asked what she would like readers to take away from it, she replies: “I want them to care about wild systems, that they break easily, and that we often break them. If we want a wild system to flourish we have to work to make it flourish. Things will not go without our care anymore.”