Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Place Between the Tides by Harry Thurston

I first read this book a couple years ago now. It was another one of those somewhat serendipitous Christmas finds; I saw it at the local bookstore and I decided my grandmother would like it. She loved it, and leant it back to me. I devoured it, despite starting a new job and all of the stress and craziness that accompanies that. We had great conversations about this book, Grandma and I.

I bought my own copy recently, wanting to recapture the same awe and warmth I had felt for Thurston and his salt marsh. It didn't work entirely, but it worked enough that it remains one of my favourite books about nature. I love Nova Scotia and I intend to visit there again soon, but last time I read this I was feeling particularly rootless and dissatisfied with Ontario; this book made me desperately long to pick up and move East. It still did a little bit, but I didn't have that desperate longing that followed me into my dreams the last time I read it. That's not the book's fault, that's just me being in a different place.

Part of this book's charm for me, I am realizing, is the format. I really like the [seemingly] straightforward chronological setup in a nonfiction book. It's an easy way to set up a narrative even where there might otherwise not be one. It worked for me in An Ecology of Enchantment and it works for me here.

A Place Between the Tides is contains years of observation all packed into one "year"; that is, each chapter contains years' worth of observations taken in that month as opposed to a face-value day-by-day chronology. This can be a little jarring. For example, when we first meet the foxes the main vixen is Black Socks; but other chapters discuss White Face, Black Socks' mother, and the fluid continuity of the narrative is marred. At other times it works really well. Because let's face it -- a year's worth of observations on a salt marsh might be interesting, but there may be only three or four really tale-worthy events in any given year.

Not that Thurston tells us only of the big things -- the beaching of a minke whale, or the first glimpses of a litter of foxes, or the hurricanes or the peregrine falcon. He spends a gratifying amount of time on the little things, too, the "ordinary" ecology of a salt marsh, talking about the marsh grasses or the processes that bring nutrients into the marsh or carry them out again. Because of my own personal inclinations, I think he's at his best when offering cool tidbits of information about the marsh or its inhabitants, as here when describing the physical adaptations of the northern gannet to spectacular aerial dives into the ocean:

It has no nostrils, and its upper and lower bill fit tightly together to prevent ingestion of water on hitting the waves. Most important, it has a system of air-cells between the skin of its neck and shoulders and the muscles beneath. Upon diving the gannet inflates these cells to cushion its body and head from the tremendous force of impact.

That kind of stuff fascinates me, and it clearly fascinates and delights Thurston too. Bits like this are woven throughout the entire book, intertwined with poetic descriptions so vivid that I am sure I can see every blade of Spartina sp. grass, every cloud, every minnow. Anyone who has ever encountered a spring evening frog chorus or a June bug will recognize this:

This is the night music of spring, and an anthem to evolution. We listen a long while, until the night chill descends. As we make our way back to the house, June bugs splutter out of the grass, crashing blindly into the clapboard.

There were a few things I noticed more this time around that did have an impact on my enthusiasm for the book. Occasionally the poetic is a little overdone and it slides from vivid and refreshing to excessively wordy and a little purple. What's worse, to my mind, is Thurston's habit of falling into the same trap that many naturalists and environmentalists do. I know why he does it, and I do it myself although I am very deliberately trying to stop. Take this passage:

Because I do not have the ear of an expert birder, I must see the birds to know which ones have survived the contemporary threats of pesticides and deforestation and the age-old perils of migration to return to the north woods. (Warbler populations have declined by as much as 20 percent in recent decades.) For the most part, it is the male birds that sing, feathered Carusos belting out their love songs to attract a mate.

Way to ambush me there, Mr. Thurston. It's a little like watching a Sir David Attenborough nature documentary (you know, "Look at these cute, helpless little baby animals, whose parents work tremendously hard to care for them, and are the pinnacle of evolution to fit this niche... ... EATEN!")

I know why it's done. People need to be aware of human impact, aware of the challenges, and aware of frankly terrifyingly precipitous declines in biodiversity. (Wait, did I just do it there?) But as I grow older and hopefully wiser, I have to wonder, what do we naturalists accomplish by doom and gloom? Wouldn't we be better to use our opportunities, such as this wonderful book, to open others' eyes and show them how remarkable all of nature is? I think the doom leads to disillusionment and helplessness, when it doesn't piss people off; none of these feelings are conducive to creating motivation or passion.

That said, I don't think Thurston ever chastises. He keeps it to facts. Some of the facts are sad. Many of them are not. I don't think the occasional doom and gloom seemed as prominent last time I read it, and I wonder if I'm perhaps a little oversensitive to it now.

Overall, this is a wonderful book about the rhythms of nature, about history and homecomings, about a very special place, and about one man's deep and abiding love for the world around him. Despite the occasional shortcomings, I highly recommend it for nonfiction and science junkies like myself, or people interested in reading about interesting places and the creatures (human and not) who inhabit them. I have Thurston's book Island of the Blessed, about an Egyptian oasis, tucked in the queue.


Anonymous said...

I've come to the conclusions that most naturalists want us to see the natural world as a glorious defeat.

Unknown said...

That's harsh! I think most naturalists are just desperate to save what they love. They don't always go about it in the most effective way, mind you.

Ana S. said...

I agree with you about naturalists - the negativity seems to come from despair, from seeing, every day, things that they cannot save because it's too late and wanting to stop it from happening again.

Anyway...this sounds like a book I'd love *adds to wishlist*

Unknown said...

I think part of it is frustration, too, that they're not able to make other people see things the way they do. At least it is with me. I've decided it's best to start with the young -- the younger the better -- because we're all naturally curious and interested in things like animals when we're kids. When people are interested in something, or love it, they are naturally motivated to protect it. It's a lot harder to win adults over with logic than it is to win kids over with creepy crawlies. :)

It's a really interesting book... I hope you like it!