With an expertise as naturalist and artist, Josie Iselin’s books have offered a new eye on the wonders of ocean environments. Beach, Seashells, and Heart Stones each featured close-ups of found treasures in nature, accompanied in varying degrees with explanatory text or more lyrical musings. By photographing objects with a large flatbed scanner, Iselin literally brings intricacies of detail to light.

Her newest book, An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed (Abrams, 2014), allows us to appreciate the beauty of seaweed as perhaps few of us previously have. The pictures are akin to the visual spectacle of haute couture on a Parisian runway but with algae; their outrageous colors and designs—somewhat surreal—captivate us.

But Iselin’s portraits of seaweed aren’t just to catch our attention; she has educational goals as well. Those include explaining their names and colors, how chlorophyll functions in photosynthesis, and perhaps most importantly, how seaweeds fix carbon and release oxygen. Iselin’s narrative emphasizes the role they serve in keeping our oceans hospitable environments.

The title gets it right. Often invisible, growing deep underwater, that garden of seaweed is vital in sustaining life. Is their “secret” that they are so busy doing so much?

Iselin has one foot on the West Coast (San Francisco) and the other on the East Coast (Vinalhaven). After observing seaweed on a pier and mooring in the Fox Island Thoroughfare, she muses about the intertidal landscape:

“As it turns out, a certain amount of disruption—by wave action or storm surges—makes for the most diverse marine ecology.  Too little disruption leads to overcrowding while too much leads to”¦ well, being swept or blown away.  Success in the littoral community is not found in the individual staking a claim, but rather through interrelationships and community-building.”

With Iselin’s informed and idiosyncratic, sometimes rather fanciful descriptions of seaweed, they take on a personality. They are not only outré in appearance, they are as powerful as the mighty rainforests in adding oxygen to the atmosphere, and they are role models of good citizenship, acting in cooperative ways and providing food and shelter to those in need.

We learn how seaweed enriches our life nutritionally, providing minerals like iodine that are essential to human brain development. Coastal residents who garden know the addition of seaweed to soil adds nitrogen and potassium. And carrageenan, alginate and agar, extracted from seaweed, act as emulsifying agents.  You find carrageenan in Blanc Mange, a traditional custard dessert using Irish Moss (a seaweed), and in toothpaste and ice cream, a few examples from a very long list.

Near the ferry terminal in Rockland, the factory on Crockett’s Point has, since 1936, been a major producer internationally of carrageenan. FMC BioPolymer, the current manufacturer, brings millions of pounds of seaweed every year from around the world to process there.  And of course we have seaweed to thank for sushi.

This summer offers two opportunities in Maine to see Josie Iselin speak about her book. At 7 p.m. on July 5, she will be at Waterman’s Community Center on North Haven. On Aug. 30, she will be at the Maine Seaweed Festival sponsored by Southern Maine Community College in Portland. More details are available at