|Jul/Aug 2001 Book Reviews|
Century, Random House (May 2001) 307 pages
ISBN: 0 7162 7049 1
"This is the story of a menagerie of eccentric and talented ecologists who, as a hobby, established a privately owned field laboratory in south-west Ireland." This promising start to Trevor Norton's book suggests a typically quirky Irish story. And so it is, although it is as much history, memoir, and marine biology as story.
Yet to describe Norton as "Bill Bryson underwater," as the publicity flyer does, sets up expectations in the reader which are not entirely fulfilled. Yes, Norton's writing is often very funny and he describes some eccentric and funny characters, but he also writes poetically and lovingly aboutscience.
He is exceptionally good at making such seemingly dull things as sponges and seaweeds into objects of fascination. Sponges, as he says, "...have a tendency to just sit there and squirt." Nothing very poetic about that. But the crumb-of-bread sponge, which Norton acknowledges looks like an old sock, greyish-green in colour and smelling "faintly of fish decay" displays, for him, "the elegant simplicity of fundamentals... ingenuity of design... [and is] a moonscape in miniature, graced by tiny volcanoes each emit[ting] a continuous stream of water from the labyrinth of tunnels within."
On the subject of predators, he remarks that crabs "are assassins in pie crusts"; that spiny sea-urchins wear hats and "rarely leave home without donning a shell, a leaf or, for special occasions, a tuft of algae"; and that the three common species of horse-fly "divide up our bodies between them," but one has the "endearing quality" of becoming "so engrossed in its dinner you always get it."
In spite of this light touch, serious science and serious scientists are as much a part of this book as Irish characters and blarney. Trevor Norton is, after all, a Professor of marine biology. And his main intention in this book seems to have been to document the pioneering work of Professors Jack Kitching and John Ebling in establishing environmental and ecological research into marine communities. At the same time, Norton remembers the idiosyncrasies of these two remarkable individuals who encouraged and taught a whole generation of marine ecologists—himself included.
Writing of a time before subsidies and grants, a time when scientists often made their own equipment and spent more time on field work than paper work, Norton recalls the fun and the frustrations this entailed. Jack Kitching, for example, was the first marine biologist ever to dive in British waters. He did so with an inverted milk-churn for a diving helmet: it had an inserted glass window, and a garden hose to replenish the air. Jack never lost his ability to do science on a shoe-string. In fact, at his Irish field laboratory he hung onto his battered and temperamental rowing boats, and to candle-light and fireside sing-songs, long after modernization and prosperity reached that part of Ireland.
Like Jack, Ireland also retained its traditions and its character. "Ah sure," Norton was told on one recent visit, "it has all changed now. But even if it hadn't it would still be different."
There is no arguing with that. And that kind of Irish logic, and the characters who use it, are the source of much of the humour in this book. Amongst these memorable characters there is Ernie Donelan, who once converted his taxi into a hearse by cutting a hole in the back and who progressed to become "Ernest Donelan & Son. Complete Funeral Service and Car Hire Service," which who still provided unexpectedly eventful taxi rides. There is Mrs Donovan, who lives in fear of the priest's visits in case he accidentally despatches any more of her chickens. There is Mrs.B., landlady of Norton's temporary lodgings, who announces that her other lodger "travels in ladies' undergarments." And there are the Bohane brothers, weavers of words and good friends whose practical skills help to keep the labs going.
Norton does not always seem comfortable with dialogue, and sometimes the details of scientific rivalry are unnecessarily personal and detailed. But overall Reflections on a Summer Sea is light, enjoyable and funny. It is also delightfully illustrated with black-and-white sketches made by Norton's wife, Win. It is a book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys nature stories, anyone who loves Irish stories, and anyone who is interested in anecdotes about the early scientific study of ecology.