Published 2002-03-04

Kelp grows in clumps, in groves like trees. Among and between the twenty-foot-long strands dart otters, bright-eyed and quick-pawed, hunting out squid or crabs or the tiny abalone that cling to the broad orange leaves of the kelp. The whole forest, flashing in thin diagonal rays of shifting sunlight, sways in a wind of sorts. As the waves of the surface swell and break, the water underneath moves up and down in broad circles. And with this current, the kelp itself moves, indivisible from the motion of the water, glued to the rocky seabed by a sticky appendage, the holdfast.

But sometimes, without reason, the adhesives of the holdfast fail. The single frond of kelp may drift away if its neighbors aren't close enough to catch it and tangle it up. Its tiny airsacs pull it up and away from the grove, out into the sweeping current of the bay. It is thrown against the rocks, swamped on the pebbly shore. The tide changes, recedes, and the plant is left stranded in the hard dry place, under the naked sun, and it begins to dry out, and die.

You see these kelp in masses like hastily-coiled wet orange rope, rotting and attracting the ubiquitous beach flies. You walk along the Pacific beach near your new home where you work with computers. You remember the small place in the middle of the country, the place of your childhood. The dead kelp smells, faintly perhaps of cabbages and fish. When you step on them, the airsacs pop like small balloons.