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

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


The tidal zone is among the most vital and dynamic environments on Earth, but also one of the least well known. Here, the author Adam Nicolson explores formative works on the subject that have informed his book, The Sea Is Not Made of Water.

Interview by Caspar Henderson

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

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


What drew you to write a book about life between the tides?

My wife’s family has a lovely Victorian house beside the sea on the west coast of Scotland. They have been going there for many decades, since the 1930s, and it has been a fixture in our own lives ever since Sarah first took me there 30 years ago. It is very remote, down five miles of rough track, and standing at the head of a wonderful bay, with a ruined medieval castle and lighthouse to one side and a long view down the coast the other way to the hills above Oban. The whole place is an invitation to look at the sea, to come close to it, to fish in it, sail on it, to experience the coming and going of tides and winds. But I remember reading years ago Frank Fraser Darling saying that the places exposed when the tide drops are that miraculous thing, the revelation of another world, not an extension of a beach, but the sea floor and all its life rather miraculously opened up for us to see and poke into. I think it is that sense of the delivered-strange that lies behind the book. The twice-daily strangeness.

What are some of the things that most surprised you when you began to look?

It wasn’t exactly surprise that I was after. I knew what I might find, but I wanted to look very closely, to hang out a bit with what was there, to defamiliarise what is really quite familiar to anyone who has had even quite a cursory look at the shore. So it wasn’t about rarities. There is a wonderful paragraph by William Golding that I quote in the book, where he says that ‘our grandfathers’—this is the 1960s—may have wanted to ‘lasso’ and name the rare and the weird, to grab them, and attach a name in Linnaean Latin to them, and put them in their cabinets of curiosities. But Golding saw that we were somehow beyond that. Very powerfully he says ‘in the light of Belsen and Hiroshima’ that when we go to the shore we nowadays must stand there a little gormless — that is not Golding’s word, but I think it is what he meant. And of course everything that has happened since, the current understanding of just how much damage we have done to the world and its other inhabitants, can only intensify that idea. It is somehow no longer acceptable to preside over a place. The only thing we can properly do is look to see what the world actually is, what is actually living there, what its detailed ingredients are, what its systems add up to. Long answer! But the surprise came in looking closely: the actual habits of sandhoppers; the way in which prawns live with each other; the extraordinary senses of the winkle; the terrifying animosity of a sea anemone; the tenderness of crabs. My friend the nature writer Tim Dee says the only mantra is ‘Wait and See’.

I must say, I have not previously given much thought to crab sex, which you describe as having “patience and delicacy [and] a sense of choice that is implicit in every one of their steady and careful moves.” You write about intentionality and mind in what many people consider ‘lower’ creatures. What would you say to those who might accuse you of anthropomorphism? 

The fear of being anthropomorphic—of attributing to animals qualities that strictly belong only to people—is the great bogey of this whole subject area. The Cartesian assumption behind it is that mind is somehow the preserve of human beings and that other creatures are purely mechanical. A lot of science now understands that to be untrue. Experiments with crayfish, for example, have shown that in a normal condition they are prepared to explore all parts of their environment. After they have been given a mild electric shock (a classic scientific use of cruelty as a route to knowledge) they become reluctant to emerge from any dark corner they can find. But when they are given an anti-anxiety drug (of just the kind given to people suffering from anxiety) the crayfish return to their normal exploratory selves. It is clear from these experiments that these animals experience anxiety. Their anxiety is not the same as a fear when confronted with, say, a predator. Anxiety is a state of mind which both remembers past trouble and projects it into a possible future. This capability can only mean that the crayfish (and by extension other crustacea) have a mind, a sense of past and future, of a remembered reality and a potential one, and adjust their behaviour to match conditions they understand, a thought process that can be altered by mind-altering drugs. To have understood this about crayfish is not a form of anthropomorphism but a recognition that mind extends far beyond the species of which we are a part. And I think it is only that understanding which will allow a change in attitudes to the natural world.

In the second and third part of The Sea Is Not Made Of Water you turn from the small creatures of the coastline to larger forces that shape it—the tides, and geology—and to human experience.  There are different perspectives at work here: the planetary and deep time; the mythic, fairie and religious belief; social and economic history that takes account of cruelty and disruption. These, I take it, are approaches to how one may ‘dwell’ in a place?

Yes, in a way that question is continuous with the one before. The whole enterprise of this book is to blur the boundaries of the way we usually look at things. A tidal shore is a marvellous laboratory for that idea as nothing is constant there, everything is subject to repeated if rhythmic change. And so I wanted to extend the territory of the book as far as I could, out into the planetary, down into the microscopic, into the social and historical as well as the philosophical and the scientific, and to find reflections and equivalences in all those different dimensions of the real. The driving force behind that is the recognition that no lens is good enough. Every way of understanding something excludes as much as it sees. Only multi-dimensionality can start to approach the nature of what is there. ‘Dwelling’ has a slightly mystical air to it, of which I am wary. The terms I prefer are Heidegger’s—a thinker I only discovered in the writing of this book—of ‘being-with’, ‘lingering alongside’, an all-pervading consciousness of the autonomy of other life.

Apart from the ‘obvious’ things such as reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases for which we are responsible and being more mindful about what we consume, what can those of us who are occasional visitors to the coast best do to help it flourish — to stay closer to a regime of what you call “smaller and more regular catastrophes”?  You ‘cultivated’ a tiny coastal pool, but Scottish waters are teeming with salmon farms. I may have overlooked it, but I don’t think you write much about plastic pollution.

I did mention plastic pollution in connection with sandhoppers. Their habit of chewing on what they find stranded on the beach means they are the great disassemblers of anything that is there – including human rubbish. If a normal plastic shopping bag is exposed to sandhopper shredding, it will be turned into about 1.75 million pieces of microplastic, the tiny toxic fragments that easily spread across the sea and which poison and pollute all forms of life from plankton to whales. That is one reason to pick up the mess: it is not beach- but sea-cleaning.

“The surprise came in looking closely: the actual habits of sandhoppers; the way in which prawns live with each other; the extraordinary senses of the winkle; the terrifying animosity of a sea anemone; the tenderness of crabs”

But what can we do beyond picking up the rubbish? Essentially, I think, we can change our minds about our relationship to nature. This is not a book about the destruction of the marine environment—Calum Roberts and Carl Safina, among many others, have written superbly and movingly about that—but about the necessity of getting to know. You can’t act unless you care, you can’t care unless you know and you can’t know unless you look. The three small pools I made in the bay, each at a different height in relation to the tide, each in different conditions of quietness and exposure, were in their small ways acts of what I have learned to call bio-receptivity, small invitations to life. And I know how small they are! On the far side of the Sound of Mull from the bay is a salmon farm which dumps as much sewage into the sea each year as the town of Oban. Anything we as individuals can do, beyond what it stands for, cannot compare with that. All we can do is follow in the footsteps of the heroes like Aldo Leopold. This is not ‘Think like a mountain’, but an attempt to think like a rockpool, and that is what I hope we might all do.

Why did you choose Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the first of your five books?

The American critic Steve Mentz has written about Ariel’s song near the beginning of the play and it was his words in At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean that showed me what the heart of this attraction to the sea edge might be. Ariel sings a song about the death of the king in the storm and the transformation of his body in the shallows into a kind of treasure. ‘Of his bones are coral made/Those are pearls that were his eyes,/Nothing of him that doth fade,/But doth suffer a Sea-change/Into something rich, & strange.’ No lines are more famous but everything about the edge of the sea, which is both full of destruction and rich with a wonderful glimmery glamour, is in those lines. It is what TS Eliot called ‘the menace and caress of the sea’—an amazing phrase in which the violence and beauty of the shore are made nearly to rhyme with each other. The book I have written is summed up in the words of those two poets.

There are many guides to the natural history of the coast. What do you particularly like about the Photographic Guide by Gibson, Hextall and Rogers? 

Yes, I have relied on lots of different and excellent guides, including Heather Buttivant’s marvellous Rock Pool and Julie Hatcher and Steve Trewhella’s guides to beachcombing and rockpooling, but of all of them, this Oxford photographic guide became my mainstay, simply because it works! Expert, clear, satisfactorily simple for the non-scientist. (It also has a very good waterproof cover.) And none of this exploration could have made sense unless I knew what I was looking at. I also have to mention the rather more austere but utterly invaluable Student’s Guide to the Seashore by its estimable authors J. D. Fish and S. Fish.

Ha ha! OK, let’s talk about The Presocratic Philosophers: A critical history with a selection of texts. People may have heard about Heraclitus and have a general idea about not stepping into the same river twice. What more is good to know?

I started reading this book, which I have to admit is not at all easy and you have to go slowly, because one of its authors was my father-in-law John Raven, who sadly died before I could meet him but who I know loved this bay and often encouraged his children to come looking for marvels here. But as I slowly dug my way into the descriptions of the first Greek philosophers, making their obscure and opaque statements in the eastern Aegean 2,500 years ago, I came to see how Heraclitus could be imagined as the presiding genius of a tidal shore. You can’t step into the same river twice because a river flows. If it didn’t flow, it would not be a river. And for Heraclitus everything shares that condition. Everything flows. Nothing is constant. The identity of anything consists not of its static being but of its passage through the world and time. If the tidal realm is defined by flux, Heraclitus is here on the shore.

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More powerful than that, though, is Heraclitus’s conception of the identity of things consisting of the union of opposites. The road upwards is the same as the road downwards. You cannot conceive of a high tide unless you also conceive of a low tide. They are the same thing seen in different lights. And this relationship of opposites is tensed like the body and string of a bow, or the frame and strings of a lyre. Unless frame and string are pulled against each other, the bow or lyre would not be a bow or lyre. If the frame won that battle and the string broke, or the string won and the frame collapsed, the bow or lyre would no longer exist. Coherence is the tension of opposite forces in balance or as Heraclitus expressed it ‘Strife is justice’. If the strife does not persist, one element prevails and the result is tyranny.

This is exactly what modern biology has discovered about the workings of ecological webs. Nature is not in balance but in tension. Competing forces interact to create a rich ecology. A rockpool is tense with that competitiveness, through which a flux of micro-catastrophes and micro-triumphs is constantly churning. Look at a rockpool and you are seeing Heraclitean theory in action.

Would it be right to say that Philip Gosse’s Omphalos is, at least in part, an attempt to deny catastrophe and change? 

Yes! It is the strangest and saddest of books, written by the man who in the middle of the 19th century had done more than anyone else to promote a love of the seaside and its nature. He loved rockpools at least partly because they were a form of stillness in the flux of the shore. They looked like a kind of Eden to him, perfect gardens which change could never threaten. So Gosse became a kind of anti-Heraclitus: for him, in a good world, nothing flowed. All was still and perfect. God had made it like that.

But what does such a man do when geology and paleontology begin to show that the history of life on Earth has indeed been a Heraclitean river, endlessly changing, vastly long, a sequence of unimaginable transformations not at all like the one week of creation in Genesis? He responds with the theory in Omphalos — a massive extension of the love of rock-pool-stillness to cover everything that had ever lived. At the moment of creation God did not make individual adult animals. Every plant and animal is dependent on a life cycle that has embedded in it the process of generation, from adult to egg, to embryo, to child to adult. And so God did not make animals; he made life cycles. Every plant and creature was made with its whole past and future implicit in it. This is the idea that lies behind the title of the book: omphalos is the Greek for navel. Even though God had made Adam whole and adult, he would have given him a navel because the cycle of life, his own generation and birth, required it.

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But it was not only the creatures that were made with their past and future already implicit in them; the Earth itself and all its life was made, in this one week of creation, with its past pre-enclosed in its rocks. God made the fossil record as he made the world. The first trees had rings in their timber, the first molluscs had growth lines in their shells and the first man had a navel, and so the Earth itself had all the cycles of its own immense past embedded in it. ‘It may be objected,’ Gosse wrote, ‘that, to assume the world to have been created with fossil skeletons in its crust – skeletons of animals that never really existed – is to charge the Creator with forming objects whose sole purpose was to deceive us.’ His answer was straightforward and unanswerable: ‘The law of creation supersedes the law of nature.’ God made the world with the past that was natural to it.

Gosse’s own beloved wife had died soon before he made this desperate dam against change. He was alone in the world with his son Edmund. And so Omphalos is a kind of plea for stasis, for an escape from the damage and destruction of being alive.

Please tell us about the Tim Robinson book you have chosen.

Tim Robinson, who died earlier this year, is undoubtedly one of the inspirations for this book. His maps of the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara (his ABC as he called them) and the encyclopaedic books that accompany them are object lessons in the modern meaning of topography as an act of very, very close attention, of care as the core of understanding. His 1996 collection of essays, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara and other writings, contains his thinking about the nature of a shore and, beyond that, the essential unknowability of things, largely because of the fractal nature of reality. He had read, in a famous paper by Benoît Mandelbrot in Nature, how the length of anything expands according to the scale at which you measure it. The smaller the measure, the longer something becomes. Robinson had thought at first he could make a map of the shore of Connemara in all its wriggled, involuted complexity, but the Mandelbrot revelation revealed in a perfectly logical way that his ambition was meaningless. Reality will always outstretch any understanding of it and as Mandelbrot wrote, ‘coastline length turns out to be an elusive notion that slips between the fingers of those who want to grasp it’.

This is what William Golding had meant. The world is not there to be lassoed. All we can do in the end is linger alongside it.

Interview by Caspar Henderson

June 24, 2021

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Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson is the author of books on landscape and place (Sea Room, Sissinghurst, Perch Hill), on birds (The Seabird’s Cry) and on literature and history (The Gentry, The Mighty Dead, The Making of Poetry and When God Spoke English). He is the winner of the Wainwright, Ondaatje, William Heinemann and Somerset Maugham prizes.

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Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson is the author of books on landscape and place (Sea Room, Sissinghurst, Perch Hill), on birds (The Seabird’s Cry) and on literature and history (The Gentry, The Mighty Dead, The Making of Poetry and When God Spoke English). He is the winner of the Wainwright, Ondaatje, William Heinemann and Somerset Maugham prizes.