Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

To Follow The Water.

In To Follow the Water, Dallas Murphy sets about explaining how the ocean controls climate. Which seems straightforward enough, until you start to unpack it and realize it's sort of an infinitely deep, Mary Poppins kind of suitcase, where you start pulling out pajamas and toothbrushes and medicine, and then keep reaching in and out comes floor lamps and aardvarks and five members of the WuTang Clan and you think, shit, now I have to explain how all this got in here.

Which he does, very patiently and methodically. To Follow the Water begins by doing exactly that, allowing the reader to examine small South American beans as they travel on the Gulf Stream, floating along from Costa Rica to the Irish coast, like little Kerouaks in a nautical On the Road. Once currants, the major players in patterns of global climate, are introduced, he backs up to include a brief history of how the ocean was studied* and takes it right up to the present day, which is where all the aardvarks and defunct hip hop groups start popping out of the suitcase. There are an endless number of variables that effect the ocean currents, and these all have to be factored in before any one current can be tracked, measured, and thoroughly studied.

In order to do this, you have to start with an empty suitcase, a perfectly shaped, symmetrical ocean, with no landmasses to disrupt, no variation in the depth of the water, no organisms, no revolving planet, no wind, no sun. And then these variables are slowly added, bit by bit by bit, noting on the way how patterns and currents and eddys emerge until at last, Murphy tells us well, the suitcase is still filled with things we haven't pulled out yet.

The study of oceans is suitably deep and complex as the ocean itself, if, ironically, a bit dry in spots. But what Murphy does so very well in this book, particularly in the last chapter, is explain the importance of science in helping to protect the environment, in particular, of course, oceanography, because if the ocean goes, so goes the climate, and so goes us.

To Follow the Ocean, while not a book that can be read while keeping one eye on the kids, is a great layman's book for understanding the ocean, a book that makes the reader feel slightly smarter for having read it.

*And includes, in Chapter 2, what Julia Sweeney refers to as a "red herring story," a humorous look on her mother's habit of dropping incredibly interesting tidbits into an otherwise ordinary story ("Julie, I took your car to the grocery store to buy potatoes for potato salad, and, well, I had a bit of trouble getting out because there was a man lying in your driveway, but when I got there I couldn't decide if you wanted Yukon potatoes or red potatoes." "Wait, what? There was a man lying in my driveway?" "Yes, yes, but which potatoes do you want?)

Murphy does the same thing when talking about explorers. "In 1513...a conquistador psychopath named Vasco Balboa had sighted [the Pacific Ocean] from a peak on the Isthmus of Panama. Like everyone at the time, he asssumed it was a sound or a big bay. Magellan sailed confidently northwest..."

Wait! Psychopath? I'm not in fifth grade anymore, I don't remember my explorers very well! Tell me why he was a psychopath! Was he the one lying in Julia Sweeney's driveway?! Tell me!**

**That was a really long footnote for just one word.


To Follow the Water
by Dallas Murphy
2007 by Basic Books
Hardcover, 256pp
ISBN: 1-58243-350-x

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