An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Kelp and Exile by Harmony Holiday

The ocean’s iron lungs.

Part of the Spectacular Herbs series.


We cannot be exiled and we cannot be accommodated. Something’s got to give. —James Baldwin

It’s possible that what can heal the water, the land, and the human body, is the same nautical weed that comprises the gorgeous intricate forests deep within the Pacific Ocean. Kelp is a sloped word; a slanted, pulpy, confrontational-sounding alien substance to pronounce. A crushed lip on the axis of help and culpability; a mundane pose struck with otherworldly meaning. Can you picture it swaying there? Brownish green blades undulating in its surrounding blues, tangled like a noose of star sent to guard an eroding planet. Can you imagine its underneath texture of floating leather, feather, and iodine downed in a dream, a sea-roof of serpents with no teeth, or drowning sheets of music which, at the near final moment, mutate and become the ocean’s iron lungs?

I am hung up on kelp as untapped redemption, entranced by the way it hangs and welcomes an ecosystem into its shabby embrace. I am wondering if this marine weed can teach us something we need to know about exile and return from exile. I wonder if kelp demonstrates why some exile is a form of willed suffocation—stubborn barrenness wishing to exact revenge through surrender, forfeiting its immunity to toxic environments in order to serve as evidence of that toxicity. Kelp proves that the protection we call immunity is as much ritual as it is biology. A species has to believe in the mask of its own mythic invincibility to access that resilience within the biosphere.

Kelp proves that anything we live with but refuse to see or acknowledge has the potential to strangle us like an endlessly replicating virus or help the subconscious unconstrict and breathe new life into its terrain. As we ignore the many sources of toxic radiation permeating the earth from its air to its oceans, it only makes sense that a potential plant antidote to that rampant poison is the same plant that furnishes an organic mineral that protects the human thyroid from radiation and associated metabolic damage. The thyroid is a gland shaped like a shield that regulates how we metabolize food as energy. It atrophies to the point of shutdown if confronted with an excess of stressors such as radiation, malnutrition, overeating, any misuse or overuse or underuse of our caloric energy. The thyroid is on the frontline and the first down in a body under siege. Kelp is these things as well, and they need one another with an ever-swelling urgency, like oceanic binary stars.

Kelp farming is one of the final hopes we have for rehabilitating the earth’s natural immunity; this sentient sea plant helps clear the pollutants we burn off for fuel, it provides a rescuing energy nestled so deep beneath our looking that it lets me wonder whimsically if we should be going underwater instead of to the Red Planet on our overblown hunts for new territories to conquer and ruin; if we are already underwater and don’t realize it, just like fish don’t know they’re wet. What if what we call “outer space” is just the bottoming out of a thousand oceans. Poetics adrift and aside, it is a fact that kelp protects both the body and the earth from the effects of all forms of radiation while protecting our oceans from extinction. Since radiation seems to be the slow assisted suicide of humanity, and since the oceans are dying with no sign of reprieve, kelp is the love plea at the ledge, pledged in wet green salt and private exaltation.

Black Under Blue Light / Our Genocidal Habits

And I hate all that ugly blue light. I’m a black girl; you can’t put blue lights on black girls. I don’t trust them. They don’t know what they’re doing. —Beyoncé

To discuss the planet’s jilted radiance and why it needs rescuing by the fairy-like energies of kelp forests, we must discuss blackness, the Blues, the darker than blues, the unsettled depths, and the forms of escape and return that come with that dark—the latency and hiddenness turned to blatant omnipresence. Black bodies radiate heat from having absorbed all light, and like stars on a less refined level, practice chemiluminescence, the act of distributing light without heat. We collect and redistribute light as information, acting as human suns with little reciprocation. The sun is very bright and very cold; it gives but it also kills those who cannot handle its frequency as collateral damage of the generosity of Ra’s spirit. Its bright cold is the apotheosis, and the bright cold of the black experience in the West is that too. Both are always in danger of the same kind of overexertion that would incinerate the planet if we don’t learn how to treat it. To be responsible for so much life-force and beauty and have to transmute it into a threat is devastating. To turn away from our own light kills us slowly.

In a more advanced and sincere dimension, no emanation could cause cellular damage because the cells would see all sources of light as information. Light that feeds the body would not also threaten it if we were in tune with the natural order of being. On this planet, our technologies, the machines we invent and contrive to mimic intuition, to see ourselves on the inside, to speed ourselves up and to hear ourselves think in several locations at once—x-rays, microwaves, radios, and their gloves of waves—fill the air with their mechanical particulars in hopes of making the navigation of our own bare particulars more efficient. What we gain in efficiency we forfeit in protection. We have scrambled the frequencies of the planet with so many competing waves or messages that our DNA must mutate to accommodate it.

This kind of unkempt advancement was never sustainable. Yet, for many, it is irresistible. It makes us feel fast and important to nuke a box of food-product, or shine so much light on the skin we get a photo of the organs it encapsulates, or distribute music and ideas at the moment they occur. We’re reluctant to consider technological processes toxic. At the same time, we’re quick to demonize the sun and turn fear of the sun into an industry while failing to see any correlation with the rest of our light intake, or with how we treat the bodies that are most sun loving and sun mimicking. When did we decide we should fear natural light? Meanwhile, we all but revere the sickly blue light from computer screens that tell our bodies it’s always morning, those fuzzy waves of sound and sight that let us remain in constant contact. We now have measurable amounts of what can be called “radiation addiction” so that many people cannot sleep without the television shining its tattered, chaotic spotlight on them, so that nestling up to a phone in bed as it fries our inner cellular data, or handing a child an iPad until it’s such a habit that she screams when it’s taken away, are all now-common behaviorisms that constitute bodies addicted to radiation. We’re addicted to having toxic levels of the wrong kind of light shining on us at all times—crude, lying light always permeating the truth of the body until it becomes a siphon of lying information, and inflamed and diseased with the very same information. This incessant access to broken maps of light is one aspect of our misunderstanding of freedom and our inability to adequately love and seek those bodies and sources that inspire us to struggle toward it.

It makes sense that the most devastating and obsessed-over form of warfare is nuclear warfare; we are fighting small doses of that battle with ourselves every day, inundated with scandalously invisible information that nonetheless signals a constant electromagnetic call to arms. The computer I am typing this on is at war with my biology, and I give it some leverage because the joy of communicating ideas outweighs the fear being poisoned by a machine for the time being. The amber glasses I’ve purchased to protect my eyes from the machine’s malicious blue light sit off to the side atop my copy of Amiri Baraka’s short story collection Tales, and all is well in this risk of all unraveling. The excess of damaging radiation from these devices is a promise of daily life in the West, and globally nuclear radiation abounds. The deepest blues are now as adulterated as the ultraviolet glow that inspires radiation addiction. All blues within the light spectrum seem to be under siege.

Black body radiation is defined as an object that absorbs radiation falling on it at all wavelengths. Black human bodies are not much different; they emanate radiation after absorbing or being bombarded with light. Being around us can be like getting too much sun for those who burn easily, and the more we radiate the planet with machines, the more we weaponize the black body, both against itself and its genetic opposites. Will black bodies be made to sing this news from the omnipresent frontline, ourselves carriers of the truth and consequences of this grotesque excess of broken light? And yet in true human fashion, we use this same radiation to “treat” cancers, burn the damaged cells into oblivion, and hope they don’t take the healthy ones with them? We are as addicted to radiation as we are to repurposing poison for healing. What nourishes us should not also destroy us. We are trapped in the grammars of our sickness, in adage and action.

They Plan to Leave

Kelp is one of the few sources of organic iodine on the planet. Iodine is a dense, deep purple mineral and one the human body uses to synthesize Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, a pituitary hormone that stimulates the thyroid’s production of Thyroxine, which stimulates metabolism in all tissues in the body. Kelp is not the only source of iodine but it is the best organic source and it is as essential for the survival of our oceans as it is protective of our metabolic functions. Beyond just stimulating the thyroid’s hormones, iodine prevents damage from those pernicious and constant sources of radiation or sick invisible light we live within, proving that there is a symbiotic and always-fluctuating relationship between hormone health, metabolism, and light waves.

If we are exposed to detrimental or false light sources—false consciousness—our bodies become vulnerable to metabolic stagnancy, awaiting exogenous signals for what should be innate, second nature behavior, as if the misuse of light has obscured the body’s natural instincts and insights, rendered us dark unto ourselves. It makes sense that the same mineral which protects us from this crutch of contrived radiance, is also essential to key metabolic processes in the body, processes without which we are minerally and hormonally depleted. It’s clear that as we destroy our oceans, which protect us from multiple forms of toxic radiation, our own bodies’ protective receptors are destroyed with them. We get the warnings we deserve. If we fail to heed their teetering domino, we get the collapse of interdependent biological and ecological processes one by one, in a dotted black and white hopscotch of racialized environmental injustice.

We do not need to become luddites to protect ourselves from radiation in the atmosphere. We just need to become more like ourselves, more reliant on the technology of the body, less on the desperation of mechanical reproductions of wanna-be embodiments. We can dismiss one way of light and enter another in order to establish a sequence of events that might stave off the effects of radioactivity and hyper-blue lighting.

Hyperballad of the Bluegreen Redeemer / They’ll Come Back

Radioactivity in the air and water has increased since 2011’s Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, when a nuclear plant that lost power in its cooling system began leaking nuclear waste which traveled the Pacific Ocean to reach California where the New York Times recently reported an increase in radioactive particles in the wine produced in the state’s northern region. This is the closest I’ve seen the mainstream media come to acknowledging that there is cause for concern. In Japan last year, a man who worked for the power plant died of lung cancer, and his is the first acknowledged Fukushima caused death. Increased risk of thyroid cancer and leukemia are associated with nuclear contamination. Some scientists will promise that the Pacific is fine, that we should eat sea life and swim in it as if the leak never occurred.

If you dig a little deeper you’ll find the conspiracy theories promising the opposite and suggesting that acting as if the radiation isn’t there will have lethal effects, and that we should be diligently protecting our organs however we can. The truth is somewhere in the middle of denial and doomsaying. There is cause for alarm. We protect our psyches by pretending the hedonism of our lifestyles will exempt us, that the myth of safety that is Americanism will prevail over even the promised effects of nuclear radiation. This kind of obliviousness is easy to cultivate and maintain because very few Westerners really wonder where the goods and services and foods and waters they consume come from, or how they are derived. By “wonder,” I don’t mean simply reading the label, but being abundantly curious about the people and environments and economic structures that allow our lives to feel convenient. Convenient for whom and to what end?

Toxic water leads to a toxic food supply and to a toxic human population, contaminated people. I don’t need to remind us that wine comes from grapes, that in trying to garner the elitist attentions of many New York Times readers, the article discussing radioactivity in California’s wine also reveals that the state’s produce is occupied by the same radiation. Most of the produce sold in the United States is either from California or Mexico, both on the Pacific Coast hugging the newly radioactive ocean. Nuclear war can occur without formal declaration, and here we are, eating and drinking to oblivion, bit by bit.

Kelp, a seaweed that can grow up to two feet per day, provides food and shelter for around eight hundred species within the ocean. The increase in ocean temperatures, which is happening steadily at about three degrees per year, causes kelp to wilt and disappear. In its absence, vast “urchin barrens” (accumulations of grotesque amounts of sea urchins where the kelp would have been) eat the dying kelp, as if they are proliferating desperately in a rallying, relaying effort to inspire the kelp population to match their speed. Some want to blame the urchins for the disappearance of kelp, but the urchins would themselves be checked and eaten by otters if otters hadn’t been hunted by humans to near extinction. Kelp farming, besides helping to produce a source of food and nutrition that also helps heal and revive oceanic ecosystems, can create an environment in those oceans that absorbs some of the nitrogen that spills into them from fertilizers and pesticides and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. This practice of regenerative agriculture has the potential to stave off the immanent radioactivity of the sea, air, and land. If the ocean’s ecosystem comes back to life with the reintegration of kelp forests, the oysters that will be saved and as a result will help filter some of that water. The Iodine content of the kelp might temper some of the distressed radiance of our machine age.

The inevitable triumph of kelp causes one to wonder if the return of the diasporic body—once stolen, colonized, and cannibalized—to the places from which it came would also return the globe and ourselves to homeostasis. As we fight to make the West hospitable for all of the stolen life and land it holds, maybe we are fighting for our destruction, at war with our potential for total recovery. Some days I believe this. Others, I believe that we must ruthlessly turn this environment we now inhabit into exactly what we need it to be, that we are here and were colonized the way kelp is expressed in the ocean, as healers, as what must itself learn to thrive in order to provide safe conditions for others to enter their rightful place as well. We can recreate our highest degree of functioning right where we are. We must, at the expense of assimilation. We must force the Western way of life to assimilate to us, to human biological needs, and quickly, which means we need to find out who and what we are before all the synthetic blue, and to be that.

They are Farmers, You are a Thief

Here I go again into my black forest. —Fred Moten

I wanted to oversimplify all of this, to manicure the topic of kelp in a way that would flatter our unenlightened self-interest, to suggest with bravado that we can all save the brave new world by eating and supplementing with kelp to protect our vulnerable organs and glands from our radioactive and hyper-radiant environments, but that’s insubstantial advice, an empty commercial of a suggestion that insults biological intelligence at this stage of the unannounced world war we’re in. For one, the kelp itself may be radioactive or contaminated with arsenic as it tries to clean up the ocean it’s trapped inside of. The species that feed on it may also be just as contaminated, and so it’s not about us and what we can consume to save ourselves.

Kelp is something we need to focus on producing, farming, and returning to its earned place in the omniverse before we focus on harnessing it to heal our bodies. Its power at present is diminished and suppressed, as is the deepest power of the ocean. Kelp is an emblem of our capacity to triumph over our potential end times. It is a reminder that there is no such thing as a natural exile. Nature loves us more than we love ourselves, and she calls us ever back to ourselves so that everything we attempt to steal or banish from her will punish us either with the domino destruction of our entire ecosystem and planet, or with the inevitable return that will force us to see ourselves for the destruction that we are.

Yes, maybe take kelp or something with safe levels of iodine in it to protect your thyroid and your body’s metabolism from your inevitably toxic lifestyle of synthetic light and radioactive food, air, water, and discourse. More than that, find ways to help produce kelp forests, or at least more widespread awareness of them, and invent ways to help reduce our collective contribution to their immolation. They look like enchanted mythic lands, where blue is everything’s favorite color and there is no word for exile, so there need be no word for return. They look like forever, like what our return to forever should feel like if it is to live up to the hype of heavens. Let us live up to them.

Let the black body dream of an ocean of friendly ghosts and not an abyss of captivity and retribution. Let us break the spell we have placed on your exilic world by waking up to the fact that anything we allow to happen to the planet we also allow to happen to ourselves. Exile is our destiny if we let sacred plants atrophy and disappear. Let us farm some kelp and promote its regeneration and nurse its forests back to life in our consciousness. Let us steal ourselves back from the false glamour of mood indigo exile and the willful ignorance or naive faith in simulations that keep us estranged from our natural environment. Let us reunite with ourselves and our latent saving power a little more effectively every day. Kelp is a hopeful, merciful energy, a tower of blades meant to soothe their own incisions, may we let this one harrowing ecosystem remain as black and blue and beautiful and self-possessed as it is. May we allow the kelp forest to teach us what it knows about embodiment, regeneration, and the infinite potential of our shared habitats to become either our shared exile or our shared return.

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