The sea-shore, with its stretches of sandy beach and rocks, seems, at first sight, nothing but a barren waste, merely the natural barrier of the ocean. But to the observant eye these apparently desolate reaches are not only teeming with life, they are also replete with suggestions of the past. They are the pages of the history full of fascination for one who has learned to read them.
The very word seashore brings together two opposites into an ecosystem all its own, neither water nor land nor something in between but its own thing entirely. The dual nature fits Henrietta perfectly: not part-schoolteacher and part-scientist, not a half-perfect melding of any two poles, but a unique whole though created from two opposites.
The story starts with deep background: an old book, the likes of which those of us who frequent used book stores have seen many times. The book itself becomes a character of sorts, certainly a structural element as a brief paragraph from its imagined pages begins each numbered section. And with every section, we find out more about what it is to be seashore.
It is hoped that this book will suggest a new interest and pleasure to many, and that it will serve as a practical guide to this branch of natural history, without necessitating serious study. Marine organisms are interesting acquaintances when once introduced, and the real purpose of the author is to present, to the latent naturalist, friends whom he will enjoy.
Barrett’s Contributor Note includes the observation that the “demure fringes” of botany and marine science, such as Henrietta and Daphne occupied, were “relatively welcoming” to women. And Daphne, author of the fictional Wonders of the Shore (as opposed to Charles Kingsley’s volume of the same title, as shown in the header above), not only remains where she is welcomed – producing marine biology books for non-scientists – but has a secret alter-identity, known only to Henrietta, as a successful cookbook author. Neither this, nor that. In Daphne’s case, however, I sense the watery-land view of seashore: not something whole and unique, but two halves pasted together, one half always wanting to expand but crowded by the other. But maybe that’s just my reading.
The focus of the plot itself, once the stage is set (and the impatient may find themselves straining at the bit to get there – but do yourself a favor, relax and let the story set its own pace) is one of the annual vacations Henrietta and Daphne spend together making observations and collecting samples for the forthcoming Wonders on Appledore Island at the invitation of writer Celia Thaxter. Appledore Island, the Isles of Shoals, is a real place, though the hotel is long gone. What remains is the Shoals Marine Laboratory which continues investigating the seashore under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Seavey, as women are now permitted beyond the demure fringes of science.
Celia Thaxter was a very real person as well; in fact, about a decade ago I sang for a choral director whose specialty ran to historically based programs. He’d earlier created a concert of Victorian and contemporary art songs titled “Music from Celia Thaxter’s Parlor” based on Thaxter’s poetry and the sheet music that remains, just as the island and the sea remains. Celia doesn’t come off very well in the story, I’m afraid; she seems to be a bit of a snob, in fact. I’m hoping the real-life poet was more generous.
Every coast-line shows the destructive effects of the sea, for the bays and coves, the caves at the based of the cliffs, the buttresses and needles, are the work of the waves. And this work is constantly going on. The knotty sticks so commonly seen on the beach are often the hearts of oak or cedar trees from which tiny crystals of sand have slowly cut away their less solid outer growth.
We see the destructive effects in the human story as well. Daphne is embraced by the crowd at Mrs. Thaxter’s salon, while Henrietta does not fit in so well. A storm blows through the island one evening: “By morning the storm had blown away, leaving the shore littered with seaweeds and all kinds of creatures – exactly, Henrietta realized when she woke, what Daphne needed.” But Daphne has her own plans, and Henrietta is excluded. Yet this destructive effect, like the storm, provides all manner of opportunity for Henrietta, including some time spent with another Thaxter guest who did not quite fit in.
As each wave retreats, little bubbles of air are plentiful in its wake. Underneath the sand, where each bubble rose, lives some creature. By the jet of water which spurts out of the sand, the common clam mya arenaria reveals the secret of its abiding-place. Only the lifting of a shovelful of sand at the water’s edge is needed to disclose the populous community of mollusks, worms, and crustaceans living at our feet, just out of sight.
Barrett has a real talent for telling stories about historical science that subtly mirror parallel stories outlining the complexities and puzzlements of the characters’ relationships and emotions. The connections are between the dual threads are powerful, yet never obvious.
I wondered, at the end of the story, if Henrietta had regrets. I don’t think so, beyond a momentary flicker once in a while. I think, had she been a different persons, she could have felt out of place on either land or sea, caught between science and teaching, between married and single, between secrets and revelation, but instead found her own place in the wonders of the shore. Maybe not a place anyone truly understood, not even Daphne, but her place. Seashore: not land, not water, but something entirely its own.