Life Between the Tides, by Adam Nicolson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2022

(Published in the UK as The Sea is Not Made of Water)

Life Between the Tides is my kind of book. British author, Adam Nicolson, grandson of Vita Sackville-West, sets out to write about tide pools and the intertidal zone, but those subjects turn out to be just launching points for his intense curiosity about the world. One minute he’s quoting Virginia Woolf’s memory of listening to tides as a toddler, and the next minute we hear from Walt Whitman, “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” By the time I was finished, I had amassed dozens of sticky notes in the pages, recording the workings and wanderings of his far-reaching brain. In his chapter on Periwinkles (Littorina littorea in Latin translates to “the shorey shore-things.” Who knew?), I even got a quick course in the geometric concept of fractals, which have to do with the immeasurability of the tides, winds, and the shoreline itself.

Fun fact: Not only do winkles have shells to protect them from predators, but the very smell of a crab in a tidepool will induce them to increase their shell thickness by 30%. Sickening fact: The acidification of the seas, caused by our carbon emissions, are destroying those shells at a rapid rate.

Nicolson does what writers and scientists do best, observe. He creates a living laboratory on the shores of the desolate Western Highlands of Scotland by digging what he calls “rock pools,” the better to watch the growth and evolution of a tidepool. The pools soon become populated with all manner of crabs, prawns and insects, all closely related to those here in Massachusetts. Same ocean, different coast. What a surprise and delight to find a 1896 photo of T.S. Eliot as a child in his summer home here in Gloucester, a short walk from my own. The Anemone chapter opens with an exploration of Eliot’s early love of tidepools, and its impact on his writing. “Looking down into the pool became a model for the way he found his poetry, with no conscious choosing but the anemones ….waiting for the swimmer to ruffle the weeds.”

Nicolson, looking down into his own pool, recounts an epic battle between anemones: “Redfoot pulled itself up to its greatest height, reshaping its whole body and contorting its blue attack cells into a tiara of violence towards Bluefoot.” That’s a sight worth hanging out at the tidepool for. As is “the tenderest of sights,” a limping prawn that is “nevertheless persisting in its life purpose.” He ponders whether invertebrates have emotions. Is that shrimp affected by its disability because it knows it should exist in a certain way, yet is unable to? He comes to the conclusion that they have some degree of awareness, and should be accorded humane treatment, citing studies with crayfish that virtually all life on earth knows what it feels like to be alive.

“The shore is a Darwinian laboratory in which the sculptor of life is the threat of death,” writes Nicolson. Take for instance the sandhopper, an insect that lives at the strand line, browsing on the rotten seaweed. They must be nimble and attuned to the tides, or risk drowning in the water or roasting in the hot sand, so they have evolved complicated inner clocks and compasses. They are also implicated in the creation of micro-plastics as they browse on our plastic debris, with the ability to shred a single shopping bag into 1.75 million pieces of microplastic. This is how plastic, which is a toxin, makes its way up the food chain, poisoning and polluting everything from plankton to whales and eventually, us.  

Speaking of us, there is a gripping chapter on human sacrifice. How this ties back to the tidepool you will have to read to find out, except to say it has to do with the long violent history of the Western Highlands. It is no coincidence that 19th century British economist Thomas Malthus developed his grim Malthusian population theories in this part of the world. You can learn more about him in these pages. You will also pick up a wide variety of fairy tales and myths, many of which use animals as a stand in for human behavior. “Animals can play out the powerful and difficult parts of human relations in a way that allows the scarcely sayable to be said.” And in these tales, “nature will always taunt the stupidity of human self-importance.”

So there we are. “Life is tidal, full of loss and arrival,” Nicolson writes. It’s enough to make you put down your beach read and simply observe.   

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