Living in the wonderful world of the tides

In ‘The sea is not made of water’, the British author Adam Nicolson dives headfirst into the world of the tides. Between the crabs and the shrimps, he stumbles upon the miracle of existence, masterfully explained.

They are tight, non-fiction writers with the talent to make literature flow from their pen. With Adam Nicolson (64), there is no doubt about it: poetry runs through a man’s veins. Maybe it’s a bit in his genes. His grandmother was the famous British writer Vita Sackville-West, who moved in Bloomsbury Group circles and had an amorous relationship with Virginia Woolf. Genetically determined or not, if you like to enjoy your non-fiction with a pinch of linguistic virtuosity, Nicolson is the place for you.

A preview. “They are almost completely transparent, glass-like creatures, and they can look like… mouches volantes, half-seen phenomena with no more than a hint of internal organs faintly discernible behind the gray of their armor. They tend towards the invisible. When the sun is out, they are most easily seen not directly, but by the shadow they cast at the bottom of the pool, like a flying shadow that projects far below, gliding smoothly over rocks, leaves and sand.”

If you are wondering what ethereal creature is described here, Nicolson is talking about the shrimp, an animal you will never look at the same way after reading this book.

Nicolson is a homo universalis pur sang, who feels at home in science as well as literature and philosophy. The scope of his subject is breathtaking. He wrote books about the classical Greek epics (‘The Mighty Dead’), about the endangered lives of Atlantic seabirds (‘Seabirds Cry’), about the uninhabited shores of the Hebrides (‘Sea Room’) and about the Romantic Revolution of the late 1700s -number (‘The Making of Poetry’).



Crabs have an overwhelmingly tender sex life with hugs and lovemaking that can last for weeks.

In ‘The sea is not made of water’, he focuses on an unfairly neglected piece of nature: life that lives where land and sea touch, in the coming and going of the tides.

His fascination with the underwater world began when he settled on the west coast of Scotland 30 years ago. He came to know a wonderful wealth of fauna and flora. In order to better observe this, in early 2019 he dug a tidal basin: a basin that fills up at high tide and where the water remains at low tide. ‘A pool that boasted silence, a break carved into the changing world. (…) A kind of gardening at sea, but not taking care of flower beds, but the beds of life’. In that pool, he discovers a biotope as versatile as it is treacherous, and one that demands extraordinary agility from its inhabitants.

In the first half of the book, Nicolson focuses on the unlikely talents of the animals that live here. As puny and insignificant as a beach flea may look, it has phenomenal orientation skills and an ingenious internal clock that is set to the sun and moon. Shrimp, on the other hand, live in complex societies built strictly hierarchically and have a developed self-awareness. And it’s hard to imagine, but crabs have an overwhelmingly tender sex life with hugs and lovemaking that can last for weeks.

To substantiate his observations in the pool, Nicolson links back to experiments and research carried out by international scientists. That way he lets you fall from one surprise to another. He talks about fascinating findings about the shrimp’s behavior and psychology, from which one can only conclude that it “has imagination, a mind where the possible can coexist with the real and can make decisions based on what it thinks.” “dreams or fears. to be.”

The essence

  • ‘The sea is not made of water’ is a non-fiction book by the British author Adam Nicolson.
  • In a literary way, he tells the life that takes place between land and sea, in the coming and going of the tide.
  • Nicholson created a tidal pool in Scotland in 2019 to better observe animal and plant life.

Gradually, he expands his vision to include the human life that has taken place on these shores over the centuries. It is a harsh story of poverty, famine and violence and in many ways a mirror image of what goes on underwater among anemones, starfish and porpoises.

Nicolson gears up when he gives free rein to his philosophical reflections. Heraclitus and Heidegger help him understand the overwhelming complexity of life in the pool. He gets in touch with the subtlety with which natural systems are attuned to each other, the precarious balance that sustains them. And it inspires him to a moving ecological consciousness, where modesty and gratitude dominate.

Therein also lies the bewildering-wonderful power of this book: at the intersection of biology, history, literature and philosophy, it tells of the magnificent and unfathomable greatness of existence and forces humility before the life that surrounds us, no matter how small and paltry it is. can look like.

Adam Nicholson, ‘The sea is not made of water’, 416 pages, Atlas Contact

Leave a Comment