Adam Nicolson is the author of two dozen strangely assorted books, including a brilliant history of the making of the King James Bible, accounts of the Battle of Trafalgar, Homer's world and its antecedents, life in the Hebrides, sailing the sea, and an intimate look at the lives, manners and mores of a dozen seabirds.
These works and others are, to a greater or lesser degree, concerned with grasping views of the world that are either lost to time or alien to our species. Now, in "Life Between the Tides," Nicolson provides us with dramatic glimpses into the activity and consciousness of a number of sea creatures and, following that, of the way of life and outlook of the ancient coastal peoples for whom these beings provided sustenance.
Few places have been more entrancing to naturalists, past and present, than rockpools. Nicolson builds three of them in a bay on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands and, following his predecessors, explores the anatomy, habits and personalities of the creatures he finds in them.
Beginning with the sandhopper, he notes how adeptly it adjusts its behavior according to circumstances: "These half-soft, semi-elastic, glossy-shelled bodies shelter a decision-making, life-perpetuating, ingenious set of selves that has evolved over the aeons."
Scientific though Nicolson's descriptions are, it is clear that these tiny crustaceans are like people to him as he observes their "little hands and feet" removing grit from their shell-coats. Also at work are "the shore engineers," the winkles (Littorina littorea, or "shorey shore things") who can cultivate little gardens and who defend them by lifting their shells and "stamping on the invader."
Prawns, crayfish, starfish, anemones, crabs, mussels and limpets all spend time under his gaze. Along with their anatomical design, activities and means of communication and orientation, he discusses their "feeling of selfhood" — which he insists these seemingly insignificant creatures have just as we do.
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.
Finally, as he did in "The Seabird's Cry," Nicolson shows, depressingly, the continuing devastation wrought by human activity on the ecology of coastal regions. The book ends with a description of the calamity of the Torrey Canyon, the supertanker which, carrying 117,000 tons of crude oil, struck a reef and broke apart in 1967 off the coast of Cornwall.
The disaster, which killed 20,000 sea birds, was compounded by the decision to pour millions of gallons of toxic chemical dispersant into the sea. It killed everything it touched. When life finally returned to the poisoned shoreline it was in boom-and-bust cycles, unable to sustain the diversity of animal and plant life that previously existed.
It is a melancholy end to an informative, engaging and beautifully written book.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Life Between the Tides
By: Adam Nicolson.
Publisher: FSG, 370 pages, $30.