Adam Nicolson: How to build your own rock pool and commune with an anxious prawn

AN East Lothian rock pool stretches out in front of me like a long infinity pool. At its edge, a beadlet anemone waves all its arms. When I pick up a rock, a crab scuttles into the darkness. Tiny fish dart this way and that. It has taken a while to notice them, to tune in, but now I begin to see them nearly everywhere, slipping in and out of the fronds of wrack.

The world may be less travelable in these pandemic times, but there are still places to which was can journey where whole worlds open up. The author Adam Nicolson tells me that his book about rock pools, The Sea Is Not Made Of Water, has been described as like, “the world in a grain of sand”. But it isn’t the world in a grain, it’s the world in a rock pool, and almost all of us can go there this summer. Almost all of us can see it.

Nicolson’s journey into this world began with a craving. The one thing he felt was missing on the much-loved beach he would visit on Loch Sunart, was some rock pools. The author, grandson of the writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, had begun visiting the area with his wife, gardener Sarah Raven, whose own parents had been taking her there, to a holiday house, since childhood. He had found, though, after roaming the rocks in search of the “stillness” of a pool, that the basalt lumps were bare.

Most people might have just left it at that, gone somewhere else for their rock pool experience, but Nicolson decided instead to create his own. He even asked permission from the Crown Estate. “At one stage,” he recalls, talking to me from his home in Sussex, “it was a really grandiose project and I was going to actually blow up a bit of the foreshore to make a giant crater, but it was going to be crazily expensive, so I didn’t do that.”

Instead, he just got down to it himself, sometimes with a pick-axe and some concrete. Often. he would be there on his own, in the cold and wet, moving huge quantities of rock. “I would feel absolutely exhausted,” he recalls. “People, of course, were incredibly patronising about it. They would say, ‘How are the little rock pools going, Adam?’ ‘Oh, have you made another little pool?’ ‘Yes, I f***ing well have.’”

One of the pleasures of Nicolson’s book is that he’s going about something that many think of as child’s play with a seriousness close to obsession. Tellingly, the Crown Estate officer’s gave permission with the words, ‘I see no issue as they do not appear to be any different to anything built by children during the holidays.”

But the point of the book isn’t the axe-work, or the scale of his endeavour, it’s what happened in the pools as the sea and its life started to take them over. Among the things Nicolson brings us is the full drama of the rock pool, a close-up on the action-film lives of creatures so often overlooked as being inert or unsophisticated.

Public awareness of marine invertebrate life is rising. Already many of us have been captivated by the Netflix hit documentary, My Octopus Teacher, essentially a love story between a man and a very clever octopus. But Nicolson takes us still further down the food chain and makes the creatures there relatable. He explains why sandhoppers jump in what seems like a million different directions when you disturb them – it’s a phenomenon called protean flight which is all about confusing predators. We learn how some limpets garden their own rock surfaces and protect them “by standing high (an act called ‘mushrooming’) to more than twice the height of their shell when at rest, and stamping on the invader”.

He even delves into the fears and anxieties of the prawn. Their response to threat, their startle, is not so different, he observes, from what we might describe as a panic attack. “We and the prawns are cousins,” he writes, “however distant.”

It’s a striking idea, this commonality, and a standout feature of the book. Nicolson observes, “At one point I even thought about calling the book, The Anxious Prawn. If you give an anxious prawn a really nice calming down pill it’s fine. The same pill as I would give you if you felt anxious. That’s extraordinary.”

“I think,” he says, “that the invertebrate is the life realm of the future. People are going to get completely involved with them. We’ve mostly tended instead to these exciting vertebrates of birds and mammals. But the invertebrate world is so fascinating. These things are at least 700 million years of evolution away from us, yet so rich with sensibility and being and all of that… I do feel evangelical about saying, ‘Attend to this. Stop being so damn arrogant. Look at what the prawn knows.’”

It’s eye-opening. Previously such talk might have been dismissed as anthropomorphism, but science and research is showing how some of what we call anthropomorphism is just a recognition of the shared states of living things.

“I have this word zoomorphism,” says Nicolson. “People need to understand how animal they are, so instead of dreading dumping anthropo over the animal world, we need to dump zoo all over the humans. With COP this year, I hope some shift will come, not only about the climate, but also about the biodiversity crisis – some shift to arrogance diminution.”

Even the sea anemone, he notes, has a far more dramatic and conscious life than many of us imagine. “There it is, several levels further down – no brain, no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no gut, no self apparently – and yet able to behave as if it is a conscious thinking being. I witnessed a sea anemone battle. When that was happening in front of me, I was thinking, ‘Christ, what is going on?’”

It turns out that this battle was witnessed in a small aquarium he has set up in his home. “Mine’s just the size of a laptop. I don’t watch television any more. I just sit like this lunatic in front of the aquarium box.”

Should, by the way, you want to see one of these slow-moving sea anemone battle without constructing an aquarium, it is actually a feature, speeded up on-film, of the fascinating documentary by the palaeontologist, Richard Fortey, The Secret Life Of Rockpools – and it’s savage.

“Suddenly this thing was going on,” Nicolson recalls of his kitchen aquarium battle. “It was very exciting. It was like having a kind of Netflix moment in real life in front of me.”

I ask him if he has always been prone to eccentric obsessions. “People use that horrible word about me. I can’t bear being called eccentric. But I have to own up to it. At the moment, I’m building a bird-watching tower where I live on a farm in Sussex. It’s the nearest I could make in wooded Sussex to a rock pool. It’s going to have nesting boxes on the outside of the building, with little windows inside with flaps over them so I can inspect the nests from inside”

“I secretly hope,” he adds, “that lots of people will now start building rock pools. It’s not technically difficult. It’s quite heavy, hard work, but nothing that young people could do in a trice. I’m really old, 63. There’s something about the invitation it makes to life that is very good. Someone gave me this term for it: bioreceptivity. It’s not quite gardening, because it’s not as dominant as gardening. It’s just saying, ‘Here’s an empty dish. Come in.’”

Nicolson’s joy at his project is evident. “It’s like micro rewilding, though not quite. Obviously the lifeforms are all there anyway, so this is just providing a kind of a lens to look at them. I like the smallness of it. You do not need 3000 acres. You need the size of a table. It was absolutely thrilling when these things started to arrive. I dug my first pool in these old these Jurassic rocks that hadn’t had life in them for 200 million years and suddenly it was a kind of prawn arena, prawn Wembley.”

After he has given me a series of tips as to how to create a rock pool, I decide that rather than messing around with that, or even concrete and pick-axes, a quicker way of getting a good look at some of the life he describes in his, would be to go and find a nice ready-made somewhere on the East Lothian shoreline. There are, after all, plenty there.

I’m impatient just to look. I want to see some of the marine dramas he described, without having to go through some elaborate construction process. This kind of impatience, I’m aware, is probably a bit out of keeping with the spirit of the book. Attending to the miniature, stopping and staring, just allowing ourselves to be in a place, these are all underlying themes. Rock pool gazing is almost a philosophy of life, a prescription.

The rock pool I visit is a large channel of water that sits on the shoreline near Dunbar, known as Lady Hall’s pool. It is a giant pool created by humans centuries ago in order for local aristocrat, Lady Helen Hall, to bathe in, and seems in keeping with the spirit of Nicolson’s book. It also has the added benefit, since I’m a keen wild swimmer, of being a nice place to take a dip.

After swimming around for a while, dipping down and reaching for hermit crabs, I take a wander round the nearby smaller pool. Beautiful swirls of weed have turned it into a painting in olives, greens and pinks. It occurs to me that it’s strange that we talk of rock pooling – we even have a word for this activity, that is little more than looking. I have brought a bucket down with me, but after a while I realise that’s only in order to have some tool to make me look like I’m doing something. It’s not about the bucket, it’s about the absorption, and it takes a while to properly get your eye in.

Much of the book is about scale and smallness. After writing his previous book, The Seabird’s Cry, which looked into the incredible global reach and range of seabirds, albatrosses flying 5 million miles, but also the tragedy of their dropping numbers, he had wanted to turn to a world in miniature. “I thought, why don’t you just go right to the other end of this, away from that dazzling vertebrate global world to the tiny. I’d read a marvellous essay by Tim Robinson, the mapmaker, on the fractal nature of things. He had wanted to make an absolutely exact map of the very very convoluted coastline of Connemara and, and he writes about you know the more you try and map everything, the longer it gets.”

Nicolson quotes Robinson, who wrote that such realisation makes us alert to the “unfathomable depth and texture of the natural world; specifically it shows that there is more space, more places, on a seashore, within a forest or among the galaxies, than the geometry of common sense allows’.

With this book, it seemed to me, Nicolson had become lost in a fractal, going ever deeper, ever smaller, his mind constantly twisting in on its own contours.

“Madness lies that way,” he says. “You know, one could go completely off the deep end, literally, in thinking that you can never go too close. The closer you go the more you see and so you end up a watchmaker or utter miniaturist.”

There’s a way in which The Sea Is Not Made Of Water really does feel like someone going off the deep end. It’s a massive tome, stretching to over 300 pages, lunging from geological history to plankton biology, and taking in Heidegger, Heraclitus and others on the way. But the feeling I got on reading it was that this was just the edited version – behind this was a project bigger, longer and even more fractal. He admits there was – and this is just the hugely-edited down version, a fraction of the fractal.

Often as I read The Sea Is Not Made Of Water, I had the impression that it was part of a deliberate project to get us to not only look at nature, but also to care. The importance of caring is a feature of a section he writes on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. “He was a dreadful man,” says Nicolson, “but he said marvellous things. And one thing he said is that nothing has been more destructive than the Descartes idea of, ‘I think therefore I am.’ Because that implies that this radiant rational ego is the kind of core of being. In fact, the thing to say is, ‘I care, therefore I am.’ The whole destructive pattern of human life on Earth has been founded on ‘I think therefore I am’. And a new version of that is ‘I care, therefore I am.’ Once you do that, you actually submit to the validity of other life.”

Unobtrusively, in the background of this book, sit the climate and biodiversity crises. “The warming of the ocean, its acidification, the destruction of life nets and so on are all aspects of the same process which has destroyed or is destroying the climate – and that’s the treatment of the world as a quarry.”

Such is the wonder in his book that I had a feeling that Nicolson might be optimistic about our future. But, in fact, it turns out, he is not very. “I presented a TV show about British whalers a few years ago. The fact that shocks me is that the year in which most whales were killed was the year before there were no whales left to kill. So the graph in other words, just went up and up and then literally off the cliff. Then, when there were no whales left to kill or no whales that were economical to kill, whaling was banned… It is a part of human nature, you just drive up to the edge, and let it crash.”

So, he says, he is not optimistic. “All those graphs all those carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and the temperature rise are still above top projection from 10-15 years ago on a global basis. And so I think that medium term, this century, is going to be really bad and there are going to be terrible implications for the people of the developing world and the global poor. But come, two, three and four and 500 years then, I’m sure, like, the earth will be fine.”

These are, of course, devastating thoughts. It’s enough to turn you into quite an anxious prawn – which is one of the reasons I think in recent years I’ve been wanting to spend more and more time down at the sea, which we will return to now. There’s always some kind of moment there of absorption.

On the rocks at East Lothian, that moment comes when I am drying off and only half way through getting dressed. It seems to me that I’ve failed to see the kind of dramas that Nicolson has described in The Sea Is Not Made Of Water. But then, something catches my eye, in the stony sea puddle below – one movement, then another, five or six prawns, those “very nearly transparent, glass-beings” Nicolson described. One, larger than the others, sits frozen in stillness on a stone, others dart in a seemingly panicked fashion. Not far away a tiny green grab lunges across the pebbles, a fragile prey between its claws.

Still only half-dressed, I bend down and watch, unable to look away. The more I sit there looking, the more I see.

The Sea Is Not Made Of Water is published by William Collins

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992