Book Review: Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

With improved technology and a much greater appetite among the young for books to remind them of the wonderful biosphere in which they live, it is heartening to see how many new, high-quality publications are emerging from within India. Here are books that Sanctuary believes should be in every public library and in the homes of all those whose hearts beat to nature’s drum.

Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary
By Yuvan Aves
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing,
Paperback, 286 pages,
Price: Rs. 699

I have been following Yuvan’s writing – musings and field notes posted on his Instagram account, A Naturalist’s Column – for a few years now, so when I heard about his new book, I was eager to read what I was sure would be an incredibly eloquent exploration of coastal flora and fauna. What I did not expect was for this book to also be touching, incredibly thought-provoking, and frequently philosophical. It made me rethink the ways in which I view the world around me. Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary, as its name suggests, is arranged in the form of diary entries or field notes based on visits to different wild spaces in and around Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Filled with thoughts on the flora and fauna he finds there, Yuvan interweaves his incredibly acute, deep natural history observations with the stories of humans and “other species”. “Other species” – a simple term that Yuvan has so intentionally used to evoke a sense of oneness with nature, turning on its head the assumption that somehow, humans are humans, and wildlife are “species”. It’s a reminder that we are in fact, one species among many, and that humans are as much a part of the natural world as, say, the crabs and the kites.

Much of the language in Intertidal is just as intentional in usage. Yuvan uses the phrase “wild places”, not just forests, encompassing a diversity of habitats from marshes and beaches to lakes and grasslands. The book is divided into six different sections: Ocean Meditation, Tree Meditation, Rain Meditation, Detritivore Meditation, Difference Meditation, and Intertidal Meditation. Each has essays exploring these different aspects and habitats in nature, and include a short meditation. These meditations are meaningful ruminations on the internal, connecting them to the external, to nature, and much of the book follows this theme – connecting the outer to the inner.

The writing in Intertidal is incredibly evocative, and words are so expertly used in creative metaphors and comparisons that paint images in your mind – describing sandbars as “stirring with flocks of plovers like moving laterite stones” and waves as “cat-leaping”. Over these sections and field diaries, he visits places that those who have lived in Chennai will be familiar with, such as Ennore Creek, Urur Kuppam (or Elliott’s) Beach, Kovalam estuary, and Pulicat. Each entry, along with the stories of the places – like Kaliveli creek, and descriptions of its geography and biodiversity are woven with the stories of the people who rely on these wild spaces – for livelihood, leisure, resources, and research. Deep observations over time and space have yielded keen insights into life of the oceans and creeks, peppered throughout with local names, adding an extra dimension of understanding of a place and its life.

When one diary entry begins with the sentence “Who sent word to the oysters, limpets and barnacles that granite rocks are being dumped here?”, I get sucked into the narrative of Kovalam creek, of the man-made rock groyne, built to reduce erosion of the sandy beaches, now a substrate for this mollusc life, which has taken advantage of this rocky foundation. The diversity of life is mimicked in the diversity of stories told about different species. Tunicates and sweat bees, ghost crabs and swifts, and painted grasshoppers, each important and as worthy of attention and observation as a human.

Among the many species that encapsulate life on land and under sea, Yuvan also brings out that the land itself is alive. “If one observes and can deeply listen, the ocean and the living earth are intrinsically a magical place. From hermit crab to rock cod to the marine hillocks to the golden tunicates. Everything lives, everything speaks.” This quote encapsulates the entire book for me, it is the message that I take back. I believe that with every reading, each person will take home a different perspective, find a different meaning from the words in this volume. Intertidal deserves a spot not just on your bookshelf, but in your hands as you sit by a creek; in your backpack as you go tide pooling; in your thoughts as you ruminate on the wonderful words Yuvan has written, even days and weeks after.

By Bhavya Iyer

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