Welcome to the first conversation of our new interview series “On the land with,” an exploration of our connection with the natural world and how coming back to it can help heal the earth and ourselves. This is a big topic, with many layers and stories that we’ll dive into throughout this series.
Our first guest is Mat Bate, the author of With a Little Kelp From Our Friends, a beautifully written and illustrated picture book on the history of seaweed and its potential to mitigate climate change. Knowing its regenerative potential, Sun Juju donates 5% to plant kelp and yet we learned so much we didn’t already know reading the book. In this interview, Mat shares how he came to write it, why he’s so fascinated about kelp in particular and how it’s enriched his connection to the natural world. This was a truly inspiring and life affirming conversation that dives deep into the fascinating underwater world of kelp, our natural world and our connection to it.
Mat, you are self-professed kelp obsessed. Could you tell us how you first became interested in the underwater world of kelp and why it’s become such a deep and enduring interest?
I love that. If I ever release an album it’ll be called “Self-professed kelp obsessed”. This is a perennially hard question for me to answer fully. Basically, I don’t know. That’s the short answer. I think I told you the other day that a friend of mine (Lichen Kelp, who runs the Seaweed Appreciation Society) has this idea that a bunch of us seaweed-obsessives must have eaten some magical sushi and now the seaweed is controlling our minds and making sure the work we do gives a voice to marine algae. This is kind of a joke, but in a sense, I think it’s true; cultivating ecological awareness with nonhumans is an embodied thing. I think this is true for a lot of ecological work. So ,I don’t really know why or how seaweed became so essential to me, but it’s in me now and I’m thoroughly glad and I can’t get it out.
Another important part of the story here was a trip to Heron Island (Great Barrier Reef) that I was invited on several years ago. I had just written an illustrated guide to seaweed farming for the magazine I was working for at the time. We had three days focusing on climate activism (many were famous actors, musicians, journalists, impact investors, etc. - I still don’t know why I was invited, they must have made a mistake). Serendipitously, Tim Flannery was one of the people there. Tim could probably tell that seaweed had totally taken over my cognitive function at that point because I’m pretty sure I just asked something oddly cryptic like “Is seaweed it?”. He said yes and off I swam.
You wrote a beautiful children's book called With A Little Kelp from Our Friends. Could you share a little bit about its contents and how it came to be?
So, as mentioned above, I had written an illustrated guide to seaweed farming in the magazine I was working for. It was eventually published online and one of the associate publishers at Thames & Hudson tracked me down and asked if I was interested in developing a picture book about seaweed in the context climate change. Fast forward 2-3 years and we’d made a book called With a Little Kelp from Our Friends. And I mean “we” expansively here because so many people helped the book take shape. This “we” obviously includes one of my really good friends and mentors, seaweed. The book was illustrated by Liz Rowland (who I adore so, so much) and the foreword was written by Damon Gameau, with a little shout-out by Tim Flannery on the back cover.
With a Little Kelp from Our Friends covers quite a lot of ground. It goes back 3.5 billion years ago to the earliest photosynthetic lifeforms tracking the emergence of seaweed and the complexity of underwater ecosystems. Then we bring humans into the picture and talk about our historic and contemporary connections to seaweed, and implicitly to the ocean. Then, once the story has been framed, we get into climate change and the many ways seaweed can help us in our new era of climate action.
Gosh, that sounded a bit boring. I’m glad they didn’t get me to write the blurb. I promise it reads and looks and feels far better than that synopsis.
Was the book intended for children, or adults too?
This is a really important question for me. From the very beginning of the book’s inception, we thought a lot about this. The fact that I had never written for children was, counter-intuitively, one of the reasons the publisher was interested in getting me to write this book. Lucky me. They didn’t want me to change my writing style at all, only make it accessible for, say, a six year-old and a 30 year-old and a grandparent. So, I went out trying to write a book for anyone that could read or was old enough to have people read to them. We never really talked about an age bracket. When it comes to seaweed (and climate change) there’s as many adults as kids who would like to know more. I like to say that I wrote a little-big book for little-big people, so that everyone knows they’re invited. I love what we created but I found it incredibly difficult.
What's the most fascinating thing you’ve learned about kelp and its regenerative potential in your studies?
There’s lots of fascinating facts that come to mind, but I feel like they’ve been re-tweeted enough already. For me the most deeply fascinating aspect of seaweed is how obviously it connects the idea of regeneration with community and reciprocity. I’m currently studying regenerative agriculture and this lesson keeps coming up: regeneration implies reciprocity and healthy community dynamics. Seaweed, for me, is the ultimate symbol for this lesson. It’s a foundational part of ocean/world ecologies yet its strength comes from its ability to facilitate and nurture biodiverse landscapes rather than predate, trick or dominate. The way seaweed lives can, and should, be an example of how we can live. How fascinating that the stuff that most of us dodge on the beach contains such an important and timely lesson. What/who else aren’t we listening to? Fascinating.
You’re part of the Seaweed Appreciation Society — could you please share a little bit about what that is and what goes on there?
The Seaweed Appreciation Society International (SASi) is run by Lichen Kelp who’s based in Naarm/Melbourne where I live. I met Lichen at the first SASi meet-up a couple of years ago and we’ve been collaborating ever since. SASi is mobile and fluid by design but it’s interested in looking at seaweed through an artistic lens, from as many angles as possible. It’s experimental, playful, informal, intimate and always grounded in community and accessibility. SASi has done foraging workshops, talks, dinners, exhibitions and Lichen’s even working on a transportable seaweed bath. SASi had a whole suite of seaweedy events planned this August, as part of their Siteworks residency, but they were unfortunately cancelled. It’s super fun, come geek out with us!
How do you find that connecting to nature through your interest in kelp enriches your life?
Hmm, that’s a nice question. I suppose, when I think about it, seaweed has deepened my understanding of what “connecting” and “nature” really mean. So, there’s that. Also, algae is so ecologically critical and yet so invisible to many of us. Developing kinship with seaweed has, for me, directly translated to acknowledging all the other things that are critical yet often unseen, like fungi, soil microbiology, air, webs of connectivity or like our personal intentions and dreams. Seaweed has helped me attempt to live in a way that respects the unseen. That’s rich.
When you say that kelp is a symbol for the lesson that "regeneration implies reciprocity and healthy community dynamics" I'd love to know more in depth about what you mean by this and even a real-world example that might illustrate it for readers?
Well from the ecology angle, reciprocal/healthy community dynamics basically = biodiversity. But biodiversity doesn’t just mean we have lots of different things bumping around out there. It means things are relating, interacting, finding their niches, expressing themselves, emerging, self-organising. Naturally, this is place-based, nuanced and adaptive. So you take that idea, with all its glorious complexity, and then you trace over it with seaweed. Look at kelp from above in the intertidal, see it swaying with the swell on a calm day. Watch as it fades in and out. It’s hypnotic. You forget where the kelp ends and the water starts, it’s one big moving carpet of pattern. Then see it again in a big storm, being absolutely thrashed against the rocks. Surely it’ll all just fling off. But there it is again in the morning after the storm has passed, looking like water. You know one of the strongest natural adhesives is produced by the holdfasts of kelp? Kelp is literally one of the best things at holding on. So not only is kelp like water, kelp is also like rock. If you add that multi-dimensionality to the roles kelp plays underwater (it builds community) and the fact that marine algae produce over half the world’s oxygen (it allows us to build community) you can see why, for me, it might be mega symbolic.
You mentioned kelp has deepened your understanding of what "connecting" and "nature" really mean. How so?
Oh, I’m going to struggle articulating this. Hmm. I’ve already mentioned how seaweed plays a connecting role in the ocean by building community, that’s connection. Then there’s how it grounds itself, by holding on, connecting. Then there’s how it blends into the ocean, becoming like water, which deepens the connection to unity. I was told by a Chilean woman that in her community they forage for cochayuyo (bull kelp) to give to their babies to chew on when they’re teething, like a dummy. She said that the cochayuyo, extending up from the depths, was the oceans umbilical cord. For them, having their babies chew on the ocean’s umbilical cord was an important part of their connection to their coastal environments. And then there’s the seaweed that’s always stuck to me (is it inside me?). Such a firm but fluid connection. Then, nature. For me as a writer, but also as just another person in the community trying to re-connect, dismantling the neoliberal algorithm is like one of the central duties. Central to that is challenging the definition of nature as something out there (i.e. definitely not me because I’m special!). When you connect with something nonhuman and you feel the permeability of that connection, you kind of swallow your concept of nature. It’s like that story at the beginning where maybe some of us have eaten some magic sushi. It’s always good to digest your definitions. I’d suggest wrapping them in a sheet of nori before eating. Hopefully you get a magic piece too.
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