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    Editors’ Picks: Life between the Tides

    Nicholson takes a deep dive into shallow waters, exploring tidal pools through the lenses of history, marine biology, philosophy, myth, and geology.

    By Annelise Jolley

    February 16, 2023

    “There are no boundaries here,” Adam Nicolson writes about the intertidal zone. “The human, the planetary and the animal all interact, and all of them are inter-leaved in the realities of the shore. None makes sense without the others.” This hypothesis – that the human, the animal, and the planetary can only be understood as interconnected parts of a whole – undergirds Nicolson’s latest book Life between the Tides. Over the course of a year, Nicolson studies and delights in Scotland’s western seashore. Digging through rock and shaping mortar, he constructs a series of tide pools in the Ardtornish Bay. Then he sits back and observes the changes that take place in these miniature seas.

    Life between the Tides is a deep dive into shallow waters, exploring the seashore through the lenses of history, marine biology, philosophy, myth, and geology. As a result, the book is many things: part memoir, part field notes, part historical account. The book begins at the micro level: the first section, “Animal,” focuses on rock pool inhabitants like winkles and prawns. In the middle section Nicolson zooms out to the macro, considering the shoreline’s geologic history and the planetary dance of the tide. He concludes with “People” and the mythology, fears, and desires they impose onto the place where sea meets land.

    Nicolson’s prose flows from a precise and seemingly inexhaustible quality of attention. A delighted awe energizes the writing, whether he’s describing a starfish’s arms – “sugar-crusty as an Eccles cake” – or comparing the tide to “a dog nosing in the shallows.” Mixed into these poetic and playful descriptions are photos and sketches of the tide pools and their inhabitants, like pages from a naturalist’s journal. Nicolson is interested in every facet of life in the intertidal zone, invoking literature and science and philosophy (at times with page-long quotations), with a density of detail that can occasionally stretch the patience of the reader.

    He engages in the Adamic vocation of naming. We learn that the scientific identity of a sand hopper (Orchestia gammarellus) means the “little shrimp-like dancer,” as well as meeting prawns (whose Latin name means “miniscule adventurers”), winkles (“the shorey shore-things”), crabs, and anemones. He gives pages and pages to each tide pool inhabitant, narrating their dramas like epic stories. He challenges notions of what constitutes consciousness by exploring forms of animal knowledge that are beyond human understanding.

    Wonder permeates Life between the Tides. The book is a call to know and name the more-than-human world, and to be astonished at the universe contained in something as finite as a tide pool. Nicolson’s humility before the seashore and its inhabitants is a reminder of our own place in this cosmos. The book is an invitation to practice being with other members of an ecosystem and to wonder at all they can teach us. As Nicolson instructs readers after describing a sand hopper’s high-velocity, somersaulting leaps: be amazed.

    Contributed By AnneliseJolley Annelise Jolley

    Annelise Jolley is a San Diego-based essayist and journalist. Her work appears in the Sunday Long Read, EcoTheo Review, the Millions, Brevity, Hidden Compass, and has been noted in The Best American Travel Writing 2019.

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