Peering Into the Brutal, Beautiful World of Tide Pools

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As Nicolson observes his companions, his relationships evolve. Once, he’d experienced prawns as “meaningless bits of sweet meat” slathered in mayonnaise. Beholding the exquisite form of a live shrimp, however, he’s awed by its “unseen genius,” its life wondrous as his own. Such natural kinships, he writes, deflate “the primacy of the self” and “allow the other a valid and vivid place in your mind.”

The notion of dredging big truths from small pools isn’t novel; Steinbeck urged readers “to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” But few writers have done it with Nicolson’s discursive erudition. He introduces a litany of scientists who have sought universality in tide pools, these accessible, self-contained aquariums. Darwin appears, as well as Descartes, Newton and Galileo, who mistakenly believed that tides sloshed around the planet like bilge water. Most memorable, besides Paine and his sea stars, is John Vaughan Thompson, biology’s “great hidden hero,” who proved that crustaceans had larval stages, only to be mocked by peers. Bankrupted by his studies, he decamped to Australia to work at a penal colony. Genius is rarely appreciated in its time, even when its preoccupation is crab metamorphosis.

In his final act, Nicolson turns to the Scottish coast’s human denizens. For millenniums, the shore inspired mythology, offered “famine food” when crops failed, and facilitated blood sacrifice and corpse disposal. Homo sapiens belong to the intertidal as much as any mollusk does: “We suffer and struggle like the other animals, fight and dominate, threaten and display, make alliances, establish our hierarchies.” In free-diving into human history, however, he abandons his pools, unmooring the reader slightly in time and space.

Nicolson’s at his best when he’s focused on his precious littoral world. Here, even rocks have stories: They formed 200 million years ago, when volcanoes pumped out so much carbon dioxide that they boiled the earth, acidified oceans and triggered mass extinction — events reminiscent of human-caused global warming. “An acid sea is hostile to the life-forms we have loved to find in it,” Nicolson warns. As our planet cooks, tide pools will continue to furnish microcosms, although we may be appalled by what they show us.

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