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The life cycle of the limpet teaches universal truths

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

The Sea is Not Made of Water:Life Between the Tides Adam Nicolson

HarperCollins, pp.384, 20

Adam Nicolson is one of our finest writers of non-fiction. He has range — from place and history to literature and ecology, from the friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge to the poetics of Homer, from the archaeo-ethnography of his own Hebridean island to the hardy and threatened lives of seabirds. To each he brings a vigorous curiosity and intellect, coupled with an emotional receptivity that ruffles the surface of his prose. Now he has turned his attention to the foreshore of Scotland’s west coast, and a particular point on the northern edge of the Sound of Mull — near Rubha an t-Sasunnaich —with its weeds and its wracks and its shelled and glutinous sea-creatures.

Building a series of berms, he creates rock pools. He waits for them to fill; he observes, he records, he researches. Something of a filter-feeder himself, he waves his writerly tentacles in the stream, letting the tides of academic work drift overhead, sifting them for nutrients. The social life of the anemone, the leg muscles of a sandhopper or the gutweed diet of the periwinkle may not be subjects high on most people’s must-know-more about lists — but Nicolson manages to recover something palatable and universal from their study.

The Sea is not Made of Water picks up on several trends in popular ecological thought. One is the fractal refocusing on smaller and smaller organisms, the recognition that the drivers of the world’s eco-systems are not the charismatic apex species — dolphins, tigers, rhinos — but microbes and plankton; not trees, but the micro-world of the soil beneath, bacteria and the minute biochemical exchanges of fungal hyphae. Moderating global temperatures likewise depends in large part on the carbon sequestration of specks of dirt or the tiny rhizomes of sea-grass.


Rock pools, then, are miniature oceans, and barnacles and crabs the giants that inhabit them. Their strategies for survival, their feeding and mating, become dramas in an alien world which, when you zoom in close, are revealed as ever more wondrous and sophisticated, ever more relevant. Prawns feel anxiety and pain; static creatures without a brain can still have a mind. Nicolson takes two beadlet anemones up to the aquarium in his house and watches as they detect each other — and ‘fight’.

From his homemade pools, he also lifts his gaze to take in other aspects of the shoreline — geology, tides and clan history. The intertidal zone is a place of cultural as well as physical ambiguity, of drownings and hauntings, the twilight territory of the sìth (the invariably malignant Gaelic ‘fairies’). It is where the tensions between Campbells and Macleans spill over into murder and violence. He manages — at a bit of a stretch — to link all these back to the simple creatures in his pools. Their fears hold in them the same cautionary message as in ours: ‘Take advantage of the world, it says, and eat its fruits, but recognise the danger that lurks in strange places.’

Nicolson’s overarching theme in this book picks up on another strand of eco-thinking — one that goes to the very heart of what ecology is, and which has recently been given new impetus. In his pools is a tension that is necessary to keep the habitat balanced. Fierce competition and vicious predation go on, but each species needs the others to prevent a trophic cascade that would harm them all. And therein lies the paradox: to survive, to live, to reproduce requires intricate devices of communication with your own subtle secretions and smell-detection — but also the unconscious acceptance that the crab crushing you to death is needed for the continuation of the species.

Examples of the inter-dependence of different organisms, even mutual care, are being discovered all over the natural world. ‘Being with others,’ muses Nicolson, ‘makes us who we are, and the acceptance of others enlarges us.’ It takes impressive ambition to lead readers from the life-cycle of a limpet to an axiom that cuts to the core of what it is to be human. But the great pleasure of this book — and so much of Nicolson’s recent work — is that he does not allow the specifics of his enquiries to keep him from probing the big questions.

The final scene has him pushing out from shore in his little boat. Two philosophers are on board with him, in the shape of a book by George Steiner about Martin Heidegger. With the required caveat about Heidegger (his having been an unapologetic Nazi), our oil-skinned narrator can call on his ideas to endorse his own. Heidegger dismissed both Plato’s yearnings for a better world and Aristotle’s proto-scientific focus on physical reality. ‘I have always thought,’ admits Nicolson, ‘that neither science nor religion is good enough. But what to put in their place?’

A solution of sorts comes from his ghostly crew. The concern of all three aboard is the perennial problem of how to be in the world. Each one has spent a long and varied career addressing it. Steiner provides the phrases that come closest to an answer, perhaps because they have a Nicolsonian ring to them: ‘The highest densities of meaning lying in the immediate… the luminous thereness of what is.’ What better illustrates that than a figure hunched over a rock pool, peering down into its sun-flecked depths?

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