Isuppose there may be people who know that the word “porpoise” is a corruption of the French porc-poisson, meaning “pork fish”; or that “grampus,” an old name for the orca, is a contraction of the French grand poisson; or that Serendip, the source of our word “serendipity,” is an ancient name for the island of Sri Lanka, but I am not one of them. For these and other fascinating tidbits I have Philip Hoare to thank.
“The Sea Inside” is a charming book: learned, passionate, idiosyncratic, and more than a bit melancholy. Part travelogue, part natural history, part existential meditation, it follows the author’s yearlong journey from the British port of Southampton across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, then on to the Azores, Sri Lanka, Australia, and New Zealand. Hoare’s aim, according to the book’s publicity materials, is “to rediscover the sea and its islands, birds and beasts,” but the quest feels much odder and more urgent than that.
Hoare, whose previous book, “The Whale,” won the UK’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, is a naturalist and a biographer, and both vocations are on display in “The Sea Inside.” He writes fascinatingly about a series of monkish men: St. Cuthbert, a seventh-century missionary to northern England; Thomas Merton, 20th-century mystic and poet ; T. H. White, author of “The Sword in the Stone,” “as adrift from birth” as Merton; and Paul Bowles, a writer who, although more sybaritic than the rest, was equally drawn to the seclusion of islands.
Many of these men also shared a special relationship to the natural world, particularly its creatures. Cuthbert, for example, is said to have had his feet warmed by a pair of otters after spending a night up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea. Such “chilly immersions,” Hoare tells us, were popular with early English monks. A sort of northern St. Francis, Cuthbert is also credited with the enactment of the first-ever piece of legislation aimed at protecting a species of bird: the eider, known familiarly as Cuddy’s duck.
In 676, Cuthbert retired from the world, retreating to a cold and windswept rock off the Northumbrian coast. There, “in his quest for solitude,” he built an enclosure of rocks and turf, constructed so as to prevent him from seeing anything but sky, and remained there for nine years. “Out in the unyielding grey of the North Sea,” writes Hoare, “he became an anchorite on his island . . . both free and imprisoned in his cell.”
Hoare is drawn to figures whose lives embody this particular paradox. He cites the example of Merton, who traded his Greenwich Village apartment for a cell in a Trappist monastery, and quotes White, who retreated first to rural solitude in Ireland and then to the Channel island of Alderney: “How restful it would be if there were no humans in the world at all.” For Hoare, it seems not so much a matter of misanthropy, however, as a desire to be less earthbound, to follow the creatures who go where we cannot — namely, birds and cetaceans.
There are several amazing accounts of the author’s experience of swimming with sea mammals. Early in the book he is unexpectedly brought face to face with a large gray seal: a full-grown male, twice his size, with “shiny dog-like eyes” and a lugubrious expression, who follows him curiously to shore. This is in Southampton Water near the author’s home; later in the Azores, he swims with a group of sperm whales and finds himself “walled in by whale and water.” It is a mesmerizing image: “[W]all-to-wall whales wending this way and that; perpendicular, horizontal, vertical columns in the sea . . . their subtle colours shine through the water; the filtered light playing on their backs, dancing on their sides.”
Unperturbed by the author’s presence, a huge female gazes at him serenely, while calves peer at him from beyond her flanks. Then suddenly the whales decide to move on and with a flick of their flukes they’re off, leaving the author in the ocean, “treading empty water.” Later, in New Zealand, Hoare is surrounded by a super-pod of dolphins, “an eddying mass of swooping, diving cetaceans . . . like a shower of meteorites.” “Everything,” he writes, “is turbulence.” And then, just as suddenly, they, too, are gone.
Although there is a more prosaic thread of sadness running through this book, which has to do with the death of the author’s mother, it seems to me that it is really this feeling of abandonment, of being left behind by these marvelous creatures, that accounts for much of its air of loss. One has the sense that Hoare finds himself on the wrong side of a divide, almost as though he belongs to the wrong species. “But then,” as he himself ruefully admits, “I probably think too much about whales, generally.” For us, however, it is a rather wonderful thing that he does.
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.”