Adam Nicolson explores the marine life inhabiting seashore rockpools with a scientist's curiosity and a poet's wonder in this beautifully illustrated book. Originally published in the UK as The Sea Is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides.
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.