Adam Nicolson - The Sea is Not Made of Water - image of hardback book on a yellow duvet cover, there is a drawing of a prawn across the white dust jacket.

Our latest Emma and Liz Reads book (if you want to find them all, click here or on the category in the category cloud), and we started it in January, finishing last night. Chapters were quite long so we did some in two parts. I originally acquired this in September 2021 and I’m pleased to say that I’ve read all the books I reference in my round-up post here including the charity shop splurge I link to in that post, as I’ve also just finished Nova Reid’s book “The Good Ally” which is also in that list. I’ve enjoyed Adam Nicolson’s books for a long time and was excited to pick up this one; it was a partial (majority, I think) success, although not exactly what we were expecting.

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

(2 September 2021)

These oscillations are patches in time, just as the patches on the rock are oscillations in space. Micro-tides flood and ebb across every dimension of their world. Their micro-catastrophes and micro-blooming are the guarantee of calm. Life is unsealed. There is no distinction between flux and stillness; they are one. The core of being is interplay, and is give-and-take of quick and still is the animation of life (p. 321)

This book takes a very close look at a patch of coastline in Scotland, and using the remit “Life Between the Tides” to cover, it turns out, flora and fauna, history and people, geology and the tides themselves. We had expected it to be more of a nature book and to be fair, the text on the flap makes it clear it takes in a zone “where the philosopher, scientist and poet can meet and find meaning”.

Emma and I both loved the straightforward nature bits, and learned some fascinating things about winkles, prawns, starfish and sea anemones and sea urchins (I was amazed to discover the sea urchin is related to the starfish and those five lines running up them are the fused remnants of the “legs” that starfish have. Another interesting thing we learned was the plural for the prehistoric proto-cow, the aurochs: aurochsen. Nicolson spends a lot of time digging and creating two rock pools, then a final one in the conclusion, and studying what colonises there and how the creatures interact and that was fascinating.

There was a lot of philosophy in the book, and I can see that this was written during the early days of lockdown, as this was mentioned in the conclusion when he made a pool then couldn’t visit it – I imagine Nicolson then curled up with some books and we had Iris Murdoch and attention, goodness and unselfing, which I could just about deal with having spent a lot of time absorbing stuff on IM over the years, and then on to Heidegger et al., which flummoxed both of us. He does come to the conclusion, I think I’ve understood, that being-with is the thing, sitting in communion with nature, history and the tides rather than imposing meaning or purpose. I think.

There was also a lot of history in places – social and political, which was OK, but also a long history of all the previous incorrect theory of the tides, which we sat there in our respective armchairs trying to understand before realising we only really needed to understand what actually happens (and we we much aided in this by me having happened to have just read Katherine May’s “Enchantment“, which had the best and simplest explanation of the tides I have ever found, which helped us grasp the explanation in this book). I enjoyed the sections on geology, having always been interested in it, and we both found the myths and legends of the sea and this area interesting although also a bit horrific in places. In summary, I think we both agree we enjoyed this book more than we struggled with it, on balance; that it wasn’t quite what we’d expected; and that we learned some new things.

I should mention the illustrations: animals and people by Kate Boxer and maps and figures by Rosie Nicolson, with photographs by the author. The colour plates were in both our hardback and paperback copies and explained a lot of the descriptions of life in the rock pools and aquaria. Halfman, Halfbook reviewed this very well last year and gave a good overview of the structure which I might have missed a bit in the episodic way we read it.

In an interesting note, Emma’s paperback had a different title and subtitle: “Life Between the Tides: In Search of Rockpools and Other Adventures Along the Shore” although still a pretty cover with a nice prawn on it.

Our next book is Deborah Frances-White’s “The Guilty Feminist” for a bit of a change from the nature of the last two books.