Detours into a vast and strange world
The Sea Inside
By Philip Hoare Fourth Estate, 350pp, $32.99
SOMEWHERE in the middle of his marvellous and marvellously idiosyncratic journey into the inner space of the ocean, The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare detours briefly into the life of TH White.
White, perhaps best known as the author of the Arthurian romance The Once and Future King, was also, as Hoare notes, a member of ‘‘ a particular breed’’, a man whose rejection of middle-class life in favour of a ‘‘ feral state’’ in the woods and fields of rural England (and later the Channel Isles) is part of a peculiarly English reaction against modernity.
These days the kookier trappings of the tradition have faded but its influence remains. In contrast to the more sober American tradition, British nature writing remains rooted in romanticism, emphasising a fascination with a prelapsarian past of farms and forests and hedgerows and — as Hoare’s countryman Robert MacFarlane’s curious passion for swimming in lochs and rivers demonstrates — an exaltation of physical engagement with the landscape.
This exaltation of physical engagement is present in The Sea Inside (plunging into the sea at Southampton in December, Hoare experiences an ecstatic stripping away of care he describes as ‘‘ capillary clarity’’) but moving alongside it is something deeper: a sense of the mysteriousness of the ocean, and of the way it reflects and transfigures us. The sea, Hoare wants us to see, is a place where we may rediscover something we seem to have lost, a sense not just of wonder but of connection to something more profound and less easily understood.
In this sense The Sea Inside can be read as a sequel of sorts to Hoare’s previous book, Leviathan, which wove together science, memoir, history and personal reflection to create a work that was a cultural history of the whale and whaling, and an attempt to tease out the contradictions of our relationship with the natural world.
Like Leviathan, The Sea Inside is unclassifiable, a meditation disguised as a series of journeys and digressions that move in a widening gyre from Hoare’s home in southern England to the Isle of Wight and London, and on to the Azores, Tasmania and, finally, New Zealand, shifting effortlessly from fascinating ephemera (apparently the bite of the grey seal can cause a serious bacterial infection, ‘‘ seal finger’’, which can result in the loss of the affected digits) to historical narratives such as that of Truganini, or Maori warrior Te Pehi Kupe, who travelled to England to buy guns from George IV and may well have served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Queequeg. And while at times the connection between the subjects under discussion and the book’s ostensible subject matter can seem surprisingly distant, each has a part to play in the book’s larger design.
Despite these many digressions there are still a lot of cetaceans in The Sea Inside: off New Zealand’s South Island Hoare swims into a superpod of dusky dolphins and finds himself suspended in ‘‘ an eddying mass of swooping, diving cetaceans’’, their bodies ‘‘ exquisitely airbrushed black and white and pearl-grey’’; in the Azores he swims with sperm whales, losing his sense of the limits of himself in the proximity of their vast bodies.
Hoare’s descriptions of these creatures are imbued with an often startling beauty. Seeking sperm whales in the Atlantic he is surprised by ‘‘ how invisible they are; like birds that vanish in mid-air, they often seem to disappear in the sea’’; later, off New Zealand, he describes the way another sperm whale’s sonar buzzes are so powerful they can be seen as perturbations in the ocean’s surface, ‘‘ creating localised circular patches, as if a ray gun had been trained through the water’’.
Yet Hoare’s interest in the whales is not merely descriptive. For written through the fabric of this remarkable book is a more elusive attempt to make sense of the way our glimpses of whales and their inner worlds demand we engage with ways of being that are radically unlike our own.
There is something apposite, of course, in so peripatetic a book asking this of us. After all, as cetologist Hal Whitehead observes: ‘‘ Sperm whales are nomads, almost continually on the move. Their most stable reference points are each other.’’ Or, as Hoare puts it, ‘‘ home to a whale is other whales’’. Yet running beneath this is another idea, one about the transformative power of the imagination and the ways in which the ocean asks us to give ourselves over to it, one Hoare glimpses when, floating in the open Atlantic, he comes face to face with its vastness. ‘‘ The whale’s environment would mean death for me. But it represents life in such a vast dimension it takes all the fear away.’’
Maori warrior Te Pehi Kupe travelled to England to buy guns