Illuminating ... [Nicolson] operates in a tradition pioneered by Annie Dillard and upheld by the likes of David Haskell — closely observing a discrete patch of earth (or sea) and taking it as his muse ... Not that he’s a passive watcher. Nicolson engineers his own pools in a Scottish bay, 'gardening the sea' with crowbars and mortar, then evokes their tiny inhabitants in lovely detail. He’s fascinated by the adaptations that permit life in this 'Darwinian laboratory' ... There’s brutality here, but also brilliance — anemones, despite literal brainlessness, adeptly size up their rivals — and astonishing tenderness ... The notion of dredging big truths from small pools isn’t novel ... But few writers have done it with Nicolson’s discursive erudition. He introduces a litany of scientists who have sought universality in tide pools, these accessible, self-contained aquariums ... Nicolson’s at his best when he’s focused on his precious littoral world. Here, even rocks have stories.
Life Between the Tides is, on the most obvious level, a record of three separate tidepools he created over the course of a year in Ardtornish Bay on the western coast of Scotland ... What he encounters as life unfolds in these miniature oceans is a struggle for existence eerily like that in the human world ... Close to the end of Life Between the Tides, Mr. Nicolson, looking back, concedes the apparent 'pointlessness' of his shoreline shenanigans: “They were for nothing.” Yet Mr. Nicolson’s tidepools are for nothing only in the sense that writing about them is for nothing. His tidepool-making is a form of narrative-making, the deeply human effort—unachievable for prawn or periwinkle—to extract meaning where water meets the land, where human history and natural history merge ... A master of exquisite, personable prose, [Nicolson] has written authoritatively about Homer, Jacobean England, romantic poetry, seabirds and the stark landscapes of the Shiants, a group of small, uninhabited islands he inherited from his father. Yet, as diverse as they are, Mr. Nicolson’s books are unified by a similar impossible hankering—exquisitely expressed—for a more cohesive past, for all the things that premodern forms of social life and culture got right ... Life Between the Tides thus tells a story that is not just about tidepools but even more so about the ways, barely remembered today, in which one might strive to live a life in sync with the rhythms of the land and the sea ... A book as shimmeringly beautiful as any of his pools.
There’s a WTF moment about a third of the way through Adam Nicolson’s new book ... The first chapters largely follow in the footsteps of his last book of nature writing...applying the same characteristic form of lyrical scientific investigation into the creatures of the rock pool that he’d deployed on the birds of the cliffs and wide oceans ... We leap from sand hopper to winkle to prawn, understanding the complex interconnectedness of these underexamined lives, learning a new and perspective-altering fact on every page. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a chapter on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. It’s a segment of exquisite beauty, a bravura act of writing that seems not only to provide a model for the rest of this book, but changes the way you understand the whole dizzying Nicolson oeuvre ... We begin to understand that the thread that links Nicolson’s books is precisely this – a philosopher’s wish to provide a way of comprehending the place of the individual in a vast and shifting world, the quest for a good life, the search for new answers to old questions ... The chapter on prawns is one of the best ... The real journey...occurs in its second and third parts, though. We come to recognise that the chapters on rock pools have only been a rehearsal, a study for what is to come ... The best books are never only, or even mainly, about the subject they claim to be about ... The greatest literature – and this unique and terribly moving title is great literature indeed – reaches beyond itself to speak to us of the most profound and essential things. Spending time in Nicolson’s rock pool will change your life and the way you view the lives of others.
The tidal zone is among the most dynamic environments on Earth. Without it, the history of life would be very different, and humans might never have evolved. It is no criticism of Adam Nicolson’s new book to note that he does not explain the origin of life. At one level, it is a simple account of how, over the summers of 2019 and 2020, Nicolson built some small artificial rock pools on the shores of Morvern in western Scotland ... Through the exercise of close attention and unbounded curiosity, as well as study of the scientific and historical literature, it becomes a meditation on almost everything ... Returning to his artificial rock pools, which have now integrated with the natural world around them, Nicolson concludes with dual philosophical and scientific reflections. There is the sense of 'total thereness' that can come from attending to the complexity of a world beyond words.
Wonderfully wide-ranging ... [Nicolson] begins by looking closely at five life forms that appear in his pools ... Nicolson brings each of these vividly to life ... Nicolson’s mind is forever roaming beyond the narrow confines of biology ... As the book proceeds, the vision gets ever broader as Nicolson considers planetary forces and the dizzying notion of deep time and explores the human history of the Morvern shoreline ... Nicolson’s philosophical reflections lead him to ponder Heidegger’s ideas of ‘total thereness’ and ‘being-with’, and the Kantian notion of noumena ... This is a richly satisfying book, a worthy successor to Nicolson’s great study of seabirds ... Beautifully written and driven always by the author’s endless curiosity, his breadth of knowledge and his sense of the mystery and wonder of the world.
In Nicolson’s hands the intertidal zone is shown to be rich and revelatory. His 22nd book, it is as lyrical, learned and rambunctiously eccentric as his previous work ... The early chapters, in particular, are a delight. These deal in turn with the common creatures of the shore — sandhoppers, prawns, winkles, crabs and anemones. His close watching of these miniature animals is full of wonder and warm wit ... Nicolson beachcombs scientific literature with zest. From the internecine warfare of anemones to the sex lives of green crabs, he writes with relish about these often-overlooked animals ... This book is not simply a work of natural history. Nicolson wades lustily into the philosophy of the shoreline too ... It’s heady stuff. And the movement between arguments could be clearer. One moment you’re peering closely to catch the dart of life beneath a rock, the next you’ve slipped and stumbled knee-deep into Heidegger. This approach, though, is most convincing when Nicolson turns to the history of ideas ... Does it amount to a coherent vision? No — and perhaps that’s the point. Life between the tides is uncertain and unfixed. It brims over boundaries, overspills categories. Instability is its only stability ... or a book so focused on non-human life, it is luminously humane.
Detailed and wide-ranging, the book covers natural phenomena—tides, salinity, geological formations, symbiosis among creatures—as well as myth, legend and words themselves, which, when delved into, offer a conduit back to a vanished understanding of existence ... Nicolson shows, depressingly, the continuing devastation wrought by human activity on the ecology of coastal regions ... It's a melancholy end to an informative, engaging and beautifully written book.
f you intend to share wonderment over a place of complex, ever-in-flux beauty, your language had best be as dynamic as what you’re seeking to celebrate ... Nicolson succeeds gloriously in conveying the marvels of a stretch of Scottish tidal coast, mixing history, science, and precise descriptions bright with inventive metaphors and profound revelations ... Nicolson also chronicles human life on this precarious land, delving into myths, rituals, clans, poverty, and war, and portraying scientists who zealously studied this realm of oceanic churn. Ultimately and inevitably, Nicolson explains how our fossil-fuel habit threatens the grand complexity of life he so vibrantly evokes.
Nicolson combines poetry and marine life in his meditative look at the seashore near his home in the Scottish Highlands ... The culture, traditions, and industry of people, both modern and ancient, play a role in this story as do the rocks and tides. Nicolson ties the work of naturalists, poets, philosophers, and current scientists into his contemplation of time, presence, and refuge ... Nicolson’s lyrical history and description of one ecosystem is active, thoughtful, and inviting and will appeal to both the scientific and literary minded.
Evocative ... There’s a fascinating section on 'the dramas of crab life' ... The author’s wonder is infectious, and he makes a convincing case that to better understand the sea, people must pay more attention ... As poetic as it is enlightening, this is tough to put down.
Nicolson brings capacious erudition and acute sensitivity to his intimate investigation of the ebb, the flow, and the teeming variety of life in tidal pools ... Nicolson augments his own lucid observations with those of naturalists, biologists, and zoologists from ancient times to the present ... Illustrated with photographs and delicate drawings, this book is a marvel.