December 12, 2017

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

A present from a New Hampshire daughter, The Tide is a delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking mix of lucid, often poetic, language with numerous literary quotations plus detailed scientific explanations of the tides that embellish our lives on this earth. It is Aldersey-Williams’s thought-experiment.

It is also his history of the oceanic tides, mixed with a bit of mathematics. But not more than you can handle. As he notes, “You may be relieved to know that I will leave the mathematics aside here.” And, given that many tell us the world’s tides are soon to be much higher, this is a most worthwhile book.

It is, as he states, “not a book about the sea” (sailors, ships, and winds), but rather a book “about the seas” and the ever-changing space between land and water. The tide, he explains, “offers an irresistible mathematical tease” as we attempt to understand and predict it. It is both a horizontal and a vertical force. That is a “scientific challenge” and “a physical; and psychological influence on our culture.” The classic story of King Canute’s (or Cnut, as the author spells it) attempt to stem the tide may have altered the English view of nobility.

This is the author’s story of watching tides around the world, from the English Channel to, of all places, Griswold Point on the Connecticut River, with a cousin, David Redfield. Tides are entrancing: they give us slow, relative motion that produces a “hallucinatory feeling.” Water is, after all, “an inelastic fluid (that) cannot be compressed or expanded.” I too have been mesmerized: by the 10-foot tides in Tenants Harbor, Maine; by the rising waters in Bosham, West Sussex, England, that regularly swamp cars in the local bar’s parking lot; and by the rushing tidal currents in the Straits of Shimonoseki, between Honshu and Kyushu, Japan, through which we once sent our Navy ship (at slack water, of course!)

He acknowledges the inevitability of climate change and global warming, and the fact they will lead to rising seas: “The greatest impact of rising sea levels and the changing tides that may accompany them will be on human habitation.” After all, we easily succumb to the human drive to cling to shores. “In the long term, if not the short, ‘managed retreat’ is our only option. The sea always wins in the end.”

Trying to ‘stop the sea? “It is a futility that Sisyphus would understand all too well.” So New York is a potential Venice … and New London too!

But do not be deterred by such pessimism. The Tide is full of rich, poetic language, as in this description of birds above the sea: “Once aloft, the birds first coalesce as an egg-shaped cloud low over the water, before gaining height and taking on ever more extravagant, twisted shapes like a pixelated flamenco dancer.”

It is enough to send me down to the end of Ely’s Ferry Road to watch the Connecticut River slip by the marshes of Essex.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams was published by W. W. Norton, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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