Caught by the River

The Sea is Not Made of Water

Sue Brooks | 8th July 2021

Adam Nicolson’s ‘The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides’, recently published by William Collins, is an exploration of the natural wonders of the intertidal and our long human relationship with it. Sue Brooks reviews.

Morvern. What a place this is. The great land mass between Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Mull where a small finger points out in the SW corner across the Sound. I have never been there, but after poring over this beautiful book with its many photographs and illustrations, it feels as though I am carrying an imprint.

There is the white house in the lee of the castle; there is the bay and the three pools created by the owner of the house in the summers and winter of 2019/2020; there is the boat with the long line floating on the glassy water. ‘Slack water high tide’. This may have been where the story began. Adam Nicolson gazing at the stillness and silence and imagining how it could be recreated in a pool.

Such a marvellous idea, set forth in the introduction with the excitement of a child. Adam in Wonderland. It’s all there in the first fifteen pages. The pools would be a gift and an invitation,  ‘something in the act of becoming’. All we have to do is open our eyes.

But first, the prologue — Orchestria gammarellus — the sandhopper. Have you ever given it a thought..? Here it is, brought into its full being by one of the many unsung heroes resurrected on the page — Colonel George Montagu (1753- 1815) who was courtmartialed for adultery and devoted the rest of his life, with his mistress, to the study of the natural world. ‘Under his happy and free-thinking hands, the sandhopper entered the annals of science’. Do sandhoppers make decisions? Yes, they do, and we are given another clue as to what this book is about — ‘the exploration of the layers of understanding, skill and volition in the most unconsidered corners of life.’ Think again, when you see these frantically jumping creatures, and ‘be amazed: they are the fizz of life itself’.

The mood changes at this point. In three days of frenzy, the first pool is constructed. He waits, impatient and excited for the first visitors. He reads Virginia Woolf and under her influence reaches a more contemplative state of mind. He visits the pool by moonlight and encounters Palaemon elegans — the common prawn. It is love at first sight. The prose and the man are enraptured ‘glimmer-still with points of white electric light, pure and pin-like, scattered over them…the swimmerets paddling, while the long walking limbs in front, straddle across the pool floor…How blunt I am compared with what they are’. Kate Boxer feels the same. Her portrait of Palaemon elegans adorns the dust jacket and covers a double page in the book. Like Adam, she seems to feel ‘assailed by the singularity of things’, their beauty and their mystery.

Another pool is built, further down the tide, with even greater excitement. Could it become a mating hotspot for the green shore crab? It was too soon to tell, but one day Adam’s wife, Sarah, finds a large male crab holding a smaller female in his arms to protect her while she moults and becomes soft enough for mating to take place — ‘the patience and delicacy of it, the reality of communication between the sexes, the sense of choice that is implicit in every one of their steady and careful moves. It is not like anything you might have imagined for a crab’. The same tender sympathy is given to the story of John Vaughan Thompson and his delicate drawings of the zoea and megalops in the life cycle of the crab, the first to establish metamorphosis in the 1820s. He died with his discoveries unrecognised, isolated in Australia, a ‘sensitive, clever, bruised figure’.

Philosophy is never far away. Adam’s intertidal studies have brought Heraclitus into the picture.  However much he would like harmony and stillness to prevail, there is no evidence for it. More than two and a half thousand years ago in Greece, Heraclitus was right — constantly shifting tensions are at the heart of things and if one power source dominates for too long, the balance shifts catastrophically. 

Part II moves on from marine animals in the bay, to the history of the land, its rocks and tides and human efforts to make sense of it. Other heroes are introduced — Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler and Philip Henry Gosse — each one vividly alive through the details of small domestic incidents which encapsulate their attempts to impose order upon ungovernable forces.

 And finally, to the people who have left their marks on the western shores of the Highlands and their stories. There can be few more enthralling than the one told here about the sacrifice on Lady’s Rock. It is accompanied by a full page drawing by Kate Boxer of Catherine Campbell submerged on the rock with only her hand above the rising tide. Today a navigation beacon stands there with a flashing light. What to make of the enduring power of this story? It seems one that has a deep resonance for the 21st century. Our ancestors were well aware of the dangers and horrors of daily life, the rapid changes in wind and tides and the need to assuage the forces that were beyond their understanding; to acknowledge them in ritual, in song and in story. It is another of the themes of this book; to pay attention to the distant past as well as the present; to read the writing on the wall and find some accommodation with it.

Taking a giant step forward to the beginning of 2020, a third pool is built in the bay below the white house. It is out on the lowest edge of the tide, a richer and fiercer environment than the earlier pools. Covid-19 enters the human world and prevents a return to the shore until the following summer. What will he find there?  ‘On one unforgettable day’ he writes, ‘the common sea star spread its twelve pink and white tuft-encrusted limbs across the sunlit edges …a radiant morning gleaming in the shallows’. His cup of wonder is full and overflowing.

Is this all we can know of other creatures — their phenomena? Is there more than science and religion in reaching a deeper understanding of our relationship with the natural world? At the end of all the exploring, he takes us back to the beginning with the greatest hero of them all — the philosopher Martin Heidegger — ‘to understand the presentness of others is to exist. Being with others (human and non-human) makes us who we are, and the acceptance of others enlarges us’. It can be called love. I think of other nature writers I have read in recent years, and how they often, in their different ways, say the same thing. But Adam Nicolson is in a different league. The Sea is Not Made of Water is as provocative and original as its title.

In the course of reading, I have got into the habit of bending over my small garden pond, full to the brim with rotting leaves, and, by some miracle this year, tadpoles. I saw how they turn onto their backs to breathe, and break the water tension with their mouths so that little air bubbles appear. Several have sprouted one pair of legs and one floated immobile in a patch of sun with two pairs. I watched and waited in case I might witness the moment when it took its first steps — ‘something in the act of becoming’. A tiny example of what Adam Nicolson is writing about, breaking every boundary to offer the invitation. All the glory of life is there, in a rock pool, in a garden pond, everywhere. All we need to do is look. Really look and Be Amazed.


The Sea is Not Made of Wateris out now and available here (£20.00).