Samples of seaweed from Lake Montauk pressed and preserved by Dr. Larry Liddle.
By Mara Certic
Dr. Larry Liddle initially didn’t intend for it to be art; it was science, another method for him to learn more about and document his findings. But some 50 years later, Dr. Liddle has found the beauty in seaweed by pressing the plants onto paper and turning them into works of art.
Dr. Liddle, who has studied algae for the better part of the last few decades, will give a demonstration of seaweed mounting at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton.
In 1963, when Dr. Liddle was not quite a doctor yet, but a young man working on his master’s degree at the University of Chicago, he took a summer course in marine botany at Woods Hole in Massachusetts. The course involved field trips where students waded and snorkeled to collect various specimens. There, he learned how to press algae to document his trips.
“It was that summer; that was the reason that I got very interested in algae, and specifically seaweed, and also learned to press algae in the best way, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “So I enquired about going to graduate school for a Ph.D. to look into marine botany,” he explained.
And the rest is history. Dr. Liddle moved to Santa Barbara to continue his studies and eventually became a professor of phycology, the study of algae, at Southampton College, where he is now professor emeritus.
Dr. Liddle has collected seaweed from the Mediterranean, Japan and Thailand, to name a few of the places he has visited, and has pressed hundreds of different seaweeds from all over the world. Pressing seaweed, rather than preserving it chemically, allows scientists to test its DNA and perform species-level taxonomy. But it also creates a unique work of art.
“I like art and design quite a bit, informally,” Dr. Liddle said, “I had taken a lot of art courses in college, and so the idea of aesthetics was important to me.” He explained that in the field of biology, “how you present things is often aesthetically pleasing, in concert with being scientifically useful.”
Dr. Liddle has gone wading, snorkeling and even scuba diving to find seaweed to press, he said, but now he usually sticks to wading through water for his algal extractions. The process of pressing seaweed is lengthy but if done well, the finished product can last for decades, Dr. Liddle said.
It is important, he explained, to keep the seaweed hydrated and to give it oxygen. Dr. Liddle often brings seaweed back from the beach damp, rather than immersed but he brings fresh seawater along with him too. If the water is changed every few hours the specimens will last two or three days, but “the best thing is to start pressing them right away,” he said.
“It’s good to clean them off in the field, get rid of all the silt, and so on,” he explained. “Float them out in clean water, work them as much as you have to.” The real beauty in seaweed pressing is looking at the branching and the shapes of the plants—what in water looks like a slimy green blob can look just like a tree when pressed.
Dr. Liddle spreads seaweed out onto paper with his fingers, as much as possible, before he uses tools, which are more likely to damage delicate pieces of algae. Sometimes, he said, he doesn’t know what he has until he floats it in water, when he gets home. At a seaweed demonstration in Montauk last month, Dr. Liddle had a “green glob” that he was floating in water. “As I floated it out, it turned out it was attached to another seaweed,” he said.
In 2010, Dr. Liddle helped create a seaweed collection for East Hampton Town’s Natural Resources Department. He retrieved all of the types of seaweed he could find in Lake Montauk and pressed them for the department; scanned versions are available on the town’s website.
More recently, Dr. Liddle took samples from Georgica Cove. “There’s an enormous floating mass of seaweed there,” he said, “it’s 25 to 40 meters wide.” Dr. Liddle said that it is green algae and “it is undoubtedly due to the run off of lawns, of nitrates and phosphates.” Dr. Liddle pressed those samples and gave one to the town for its archives. Another has been sent off for DNA testing.
Dr. Liddle has traveled the world, collected some unbelievably rare samples and preserved them for science. But, he said, “some of the most ordinary ones are just as beautiful.”
Dr. Liddle will demonstrate seaweed mounting at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 6, at the South Fork Natural History located at 377 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike in Bridgehampton. For more information visit sofo.org.