This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.
Editor’s note: This piece is from Barnaby’s archive.
Tawny, golden, geometric grace on the damp and luxuriant forest floor – thus we have ferns, so close to perfection in their form and habit that I am hard-pressed to fashion a deserving description of the soft, leaning stands of paling plants that greet my wanderings in October’s woods. I have marveled at them since I was a kid, and I still do. There are others of the same mind.
I stood in the woods only yesterday, preparing to cut more firewood. Reluctant to break the stillness with my chainsaw, I lingered in a patch of ferns up to my waist, gazing up through the flaming leaves of autumn as I followed the departing calls of geese winging high overhead. Looking and listening, my thoughts took me to a time far away.
It was in the northwest part of Spain where it is rainy and lush and where, in deep forests, there grow vast stands of tall ferns. The time was late fall, and the beds of ferns, in their faded gold hews, stretched great distances off into the woods. I was much impressed, and as I drove along, I occasionally saw men cutting the ferns and loading them onto trucks. I wondered what use the people thereabouts might have found for such an abundant resource – perhaps mattress stuffing or animal bedding?
The purpose of my trip was to meet with a man who could tell me something of Spanish methods of growing and handling shellfish, that being my business in those days. Upon my arrival in a little coastal village, my host met me, and we entered into an informative (if somewhat exhausting) interview. My high-school Spanish got me by, but it was much like a 2-hour session of calisthenics with all the gesticulating sign-language and arm-waving.
When we had had enough, my host took me on a tour of his processing plant and the waterfront. The plant functioned mainly to depurate and to ship mussels and oysters, and I found it all very interesting. There was not much mechanization, yet their equipment and methods were clearly workable, thriving on simplicity and low-cost labor. Their work boats were colorful, stoutly-proportioned wooden vessels, and despite the ever-present smell of tar, with which they preserve everything, were basically clean and quite elegant looking.
At last we entered the packing and shipping area. There, backed up to a loading door, was a truck heaped with the ferns I had seen. “What are those for?” I asked. I had never seen a truckload of ferns before that day. My host took me by the arm to where a crew of ladies was counting out oysters into flat, wooden boxes. They lined the boxes with ferns first, and between successive layers of oysters, they placed more mats of the dried, golden ferns. The ferns made a beautiful packing material – abundant, cheap and very classy looking. I was impressed.
Every time I tear my way through Styrofoam packaging today, I recall the ferns in Spain. And whenever I find myself wading through a tall stand of ferns, I am reminded that their simple beauty has not been lost on the world… that I am not the only one who has noticed.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.