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A Healing Food For Our Era
The Aboriginal Native 
Seaweed Connection

by
John Lewallen
 
When people don't use plants they get scarce.  You must use them so they come up again.  All plants are like that.  If they're not gothered from, or talked to, or cared about, they'll die.   - Mabel McKay, Pomo Elder, quoted in News From Native California

When I first moved "back to the land" from Oakland to Mendocino County with my family in the late 1970s, I had no idea that Aboriginal Native Americans have been harvesting seaweed on the Northern California Coast for many thousands of years.

In those days we enjoyed visiting an undeveloped hot spring just south of the Mendocino County border in Sonoma.  "Skaggs Springs" bubbled gently into a cool stream which meandered through an ancient oak grove.

One Christmas Eve, Eleanor and I were soaking at Skaggs Springs when out of the mist came Bevan Trembly, a grinning readheaded man wearing a rainbow-colored watch cap.  Bevan informed us that the springs was the site of an indigenous Kashaya Pomo village called "Ka Ho Wa Ni."  A dam construction project was about to put this beautiful place, where the waters, trees and sedge grasses used in basket making had been infused with millennia of Kashaya love and worship, at the bottom of  Lake Sonoma.

During the political fight to stop Warm Springs Dam we met Bevan's friend, Kashaya Elder Laura Somersol.  Then in her eighties, Laura Somersol was a world-famous basket maker.  She appreciated the tan oak acorns I would collect for her in the fall, which she used to make acorn mush, the staple of the traditional Kashaya diet.

Laura Somersol told us that all her life she had loved harvesting seaweed with her family.  The Kashaya call the seaweed they harvest mei bil, sea leaf.  Mrs. Somersol said the mei bil would appear as early as February, growing on rocks "like a permanent wave."  She showed me the wide-mesh rinsing basket used by her grandfather to rinse sand and shellfish from the mei bil in to the sea.

The Kashaya have a saying, Bevan Trembly told me.  "When the grass is growing, the sseaweed is growing.  When the grass is gone, the seaweed is gone."

Gradually I figured out that mei bil is Porphyra, nori.  I took a sample of my first nori harvest to Laura Somersol, who confirmed that I had found the Aboriginal Native Americans' favorite seaweed from among the hundreds of species of marine algae growing on the Mendocino Coast.

Every year thereafter I saved some of the earliest, tenderest nori harvest for Laura Somersol.  I made sure never to rinse hers in fresh water, which would ruin the taste of the mei bil for Aboriginal Native Americans.

The best mei bil harvest is in the late winter or early spring.  Whole clans visit their rocky seashore to gather tender young blades, pulling them from the rocks and drying them in thin mats on nearby tables, sheets, logs or rocks.  Sandy blades are rinsed in the sea.  It is a joyous, communal time, an ancient earth-bonding in a difficult modern era.

Aboriginal Natives usually deep-fry the mei bil in fat, making a crisp, tasty, nutritious food enjoyed all year.

To me, mei bil is blood, the blood of earthsea given by the Great Spirit to the people of the bioregion.  Nori is black, but if it decays slightly it bleeds red as a human wound.  "Nori tastes like my own blood, " Maine wildcrafter Larch Hanson has written.

I oppose all government restrictions, seasons and limits imposed on Aboriginal native American seaweed harvesters.  It is arrogant and genocidal to interfere with Aboriginal Native seaweed harvesting, with a spiritual attunement and seasonal rhythm which has evolved over thousands of years.  Aboriginal Native people need mei bil for physical and spiritual wholeness.

Laura Somersol passed away a few years ago, and Ka Ho Wa Ni hot springs now is part of the bottom of Lake Sonoma.  Still the mei bil blooms yearly on the Mendocino Coast, and Aboriginal Native Americans come to the seashore to harvest seaweed.  May I always have Aboriginal Native American friends for whom to harvest the best spring nori in gratitude!
 






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