Ancient links to seaweed explored through foraging and art

When art is inspired by nature it can also be a form of activism, highlighting the need to protect the places that inspire it

As our year slips to winter, the land falls dormant. The cold air incites plants to draw their brilliance into the earth. They have done their work. The movement of this season is one of furling and preservation. A slowing down. But the sea holds its warmth, relatively speaking. Its vigour endures a little longer.

Ireland’s coasts offer an enduring abundance that stirs beneath their surface. On the east coast, Samuel Arnold Keane and Danae Wollen tread through autumnal light to the seashore. Their fingers dip in search of carrageen moss and sea spaghetti. Dark-green blades slick on the rock and bend in the water’s swirl.

The fundamental movement of seaweed is reflected in the pair of foragers, who break from straight paths, sliding down glossy banks and picking their way among rock pools. “It’s an ancestral skill that is echoing in our bodies, in our muscle memories”, says Keane. Seaweed has been a source of nutrition since hunter-gatherer settlers arrived in Ireland around 6000 BC.

The couple’s foraging spills over to their practice as artists. They have set out to embody the movement of seaweed through their show, Where Seaweed Dances: a blend of music and theatre that draws on the actions of foraging, swimming and wading.

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Ancient ecological relationships come to life through performance. They speak to forms of human interaction with nature that persist today in the bodies and minds of foraging enthusiasts and artists. Their movements are elemental, expressing not only the swaying of the seaweed beneath the swell but also the forager who treads the shore. Both the steps of the forager and the performer are gentle ones. They are illustrations of the trees shifting overhead, the clouds that roll beyond them and the turning of the seasons. The dance of life itself.

While these movements exist throughout nature, there is a merging on the coast which demonstrates their interconnectedness. Seabirds nod on the open sea while swimmers plunge through the surf and beneath the swell. Seaweed dances or falls slack on the low tide. The shore is a place that Keane describes as a magic line: a space between the worlds of land and sea where elements mingle. It is a place of emergence and multiplicity at the margins.

There is a mysteriousness here that becomes more tangible through the works of foraging and art: “blurring the boundaries of what is a practical act, and what is a creative act – a source of inspiration”. He grasps a handful of seaweed and speaks of its nourishment: “it ends up in your muscle, your gut, in your mind”. It is all-round sustenance.

That magic line is drawn through artforms that push at the boundaries. Ingenuity is often produced at the limits and the assortment of music and dance brought through Keane and Wollen’s work are representative of the diverse ecosystems they are trying to capture.

When art is inspired by nature it can also be a form of activism, highlighting the need to protect the places that inspire it: “We all know we have to protect the environment but it can be a bit abstract in people’s minds”, says Keane. Foraging and art both help to situate wider issues in familiar localities.

In fact, Keane describes foraging as an “act of disturbance that has a positive impact”. Picking just a little rock samphire gives more light to the rest. At a small scale, it is less impactful than other sources of food; and it can be scaled up to the level of sustainable seaweed farming.

Perhaps most importantly it connects foragers with places in a meaningful way.

Inherently linked through more than just their movements, foraging and art are forms that awaken an elementalism in us. It is such awakening that is at the root of activism, and which makes the work of Keane and Wollen so important, as gentle as it may seem.

And it is the softness of their tread along the rocks that characterises their movements on this bitter day. Along the seashore, the foragers footsteps are welcome.