Book Review: Shallow Water Dictionary

Sea-green designates more than a color. A sea-green is a place, a place defined as…’land overflowed by the sea in spring tides.’…If the greenhouse effect proves true and the ocean level rises, then politicians, highway engineers, biologists, real-estate developers, and others will pay much attention to the sea-greens becoming salt marsh. But who will speak of sea-greens by name?

When I was a kid, most afternoons in the spring, summer, and fall, you could find me prowling the banks of a man-made pond near my parents’ house. I was looking for baby turtle, and if not baby turtles, then minnows, and if not minnow then tadpoles. I was studying the way algae formed and died back. I was sneaking up on the Great Blue Herons or the kingfisher that hunted the day’s meal from a willow tree. I was observing the tremendous stillness these birds inhabited as they waited for their prey.

It is here I learned about leeches and the way silt sucks at your feet. It is here I learned how to jump the inlets. It here I learned not to jump the outlet because it was a haven for copperheads. It is here I watched a large copperhead swallow a bullfrog, who seemed so stoic because of the venom that had penetrated its body. And it is here that I learned to watch the way the world was changing: the algae blooms and resulting fishkills that occurred more frequently, the droughts that shrunk the pond to almost nothing, the flooding that left wracks further and further from the edges of the pond when hurricanes swept inland.

At the pond, I learned to want to know the names of things, to understand the natural history of a place. I learned that if I (or anyone I was with) didn’t have the name for something — or at least a really good description — they wouldn’t remember seeing it. A turtle, for instance, wasn’t a turtle. It was an Eastern Painted Turtle. A Yellow Bellied Slider. A weird hybrid of a yellow bellied slider and a red-earred turtle. An Eastern Musk Turtle (threatened species). A Spotted Turtle. A Box Tortoise. A Snapping Turtle. Tadpoles were black and small. Polywogs were large and grey-brown and had bits of gold that would catch in the light. The best place to find tadpoles and polywogs was where the cattails no longer grew on the southeastern bank. The snakes were mostly copperheads, but once an Eastern rattler, sometimes King snakes, sometimes garter snakes.

All of this is to say, when I saw a review of John R. Stilgoe’s Shallow Water Dictionary, I knew I wanted to read it.

The book is slimmer than I hoped, and focuses on “estuary English.” But that alone is a trove of information I didn’t know about. For instance, creek refers to “saltwater inlets of small streams that empty into the sea.” The things I’ve been calling creeks most of my life are, primarily, streams and rills.

The book, while filled with bolded definitions, in the style of a dictionary is more of a meditation on estuaries, and estuary English, and explorations into the origins of words. Silgoe’s writing is quiet and beautiful, often veering to the poetic especially when he focuses on colors toward the end.

Stilgoe laments that we are losing the art, which is to say the lyrical specificity, of estuary English (among other things). He says, “most people essentially ignore their surroundings, and walk if they walk at all, oblivious to nearly everything,” and quotes Thomas Henry Huxley’s assertion, “To a person uninstructed in natural history, a country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.”

For anyone with an interest in natural history or words or who simply spends a lot of time near the coast, I recommend this book. Although, really, since it’s a compact 48 pages, I think most people give it a go (if you can find a copy).




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