Unfathomable depths

A wide-ranging — and sometimes exhausting — treatise on the life and times of the Atlantic Ocean explores its influence on the history of civilization

Veteran journalist Simon Winchester has, in recent years, taken to writing what might be called geological blockbusters. His method is to focus on a relatively contained event — the eruption of Krakatoa, say, or the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 — and envelop it in several layers of context, social, scientific, historical, political. Winchester’s technique gives him license to pursue tangents hither and yon, which are annoying and charming in equal measure.

The subject of his new book, “the S-shaped body of water covering 33 million square miles’’ otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean, gives him an even wider latitude to explore the interaction between Earth’s physical geography and human civilization. The Atlantic has had a profound influence on the history of humankind. Winchester tracks the Atlantic from its beginnings, when it “started to achieve properly oceanic dimensions about 190 million years ago,’’ to the present day.

For Winchester, the Atlantic is the very cradle of Western civilization, “a focal point, an axis, a fulcrum, around which the power and influence of the modern world has long been distributed.’’ Primitive man first wandered to its shores in Africa. Phoenician merchants defied superstition and took their trading ships to the Iberian coast and Morocco. The Atlantic fostered trade and commerce; war and empire building; exploration and exploitation. It linked Europe to the New World, a vital passage in the creation of cultures and societies.

“The Atlantic is the classic ocean of our imaginings,’’ he writes, “an industrial ocean of cold and iron and salt, a purposeful ocean of sea-lanes and docksides and fisheries, an ocean alive with squadrons of steadily moving ships above, with unimaginable volumes of mysterious marine abundance below. It is also an entity that seems to be interminable.’’

Winchester has not written a straight history. He proceeds thematically, and his book is a kind of compendium that’s, well, rather oceanic in scale. In no short order, he takes in the politics of fisheries management and the disastrous depletion of the Atlantic cod (and other species); the Atlantic Ocean in literature and art; the advent of naval warfare; the rise and demise of whaling; the history of the slave trade; the voyages of Magellan and Columbus; oceanography; map-making; plate tectonics; the quest to chart the Atlantic’s currents; global warming; and how the shipping business transformed “from a business that involved tides and winds and gulls and sextants and signal flags and the smells of tar and sea-wet rope, into a universe of slickly oiled machines, of GPS-made, computer-calculated navigation courses, and loading cranes programmed by machine and timed to the millisecond.’’ “Atlantic’’ is best digested in bits, rather than taken whole.

A lively, accessible writer, Winchester is also prone to rhapsodic outbursts. His sentences are borne along by rolling waves of clauses and subclauses and hyperbolic description — “It is when one begins to add up the total numbers of the vast aggregation of humankind who live in some kind of communion with this sea, of those who can rightly be considered belonging to an Atlantic community, or who are — if they are in any communal sense ocean-blessed or ocean-styled or ocean-crossed — to be considered in some regard Atlantic people.’’ The effect can leave one feeling a little seasick. Yet Winchester’s passion for his topic and prodigious research, which he salts with anecdotes about his own seaborne adventures, give his book a zestful, if peculiar, dynamism. (At times, it’s as if he has rendered a scientific treatise in the form of a prose poem.)

Though the Atlantic Ocean is millions of years old, we are still fathoming its complexity and influence. For example, the central Atlantic Ocean long vexed sailors. Polynesians traversed the Pacific, and Arabs had voyaged across the Indian Ocean, but this section of the Atlantic presented formidable obstacles because of topographic, climatic, and marine factors. Treacherous currents off northwestern Africa ruined many a voyage; it wasn’t until the 15th century that Portuguese navigators, aided by mathematical calculations, cleared this barrier, which opened the way to further exploration. The Portuguese were pioneers, followed by the Spanish. But Winchester doesn’t forget about the Vikings, first across the dangerous North Atlantic (graveyard of the Titanic and scores of other vessels) and into North America. Winchester also weighs the claim about St. Brendan of Ireland crossing the Atlantic in a leather boat, though he finds scant evidence of it.

Winchester salutes explorers of the age of sail, and the scientific voyages of the 19th century — the United States Exploring Expedition, the “Ex-Ex,’’ which set sail in 1838, and the mission of Britain’s HMS Challenger in 1872 and after. But he worries that we are growing indifferent to the Atlantic’s grandeur. Today, sterile supertankers and container ships plow across the ocean; the Atlantic is something that most of us merely fly over. We know more about the planets above than we do about the depths of our own ocean.

Winchester is geologically minded about the very long term — some millions of years from now, the Atlantic will cease to exist. He also worries, however, about the near term threats from pollution, global warming, and over-fishing. “We pollute the sea, we plunder the sea, we disdain the sea,’’ goes his lament. “We dishonor the sea that appears like a mere expanse of hammered pewter as we fly over it in our air-polluting planes — forgetting or ignoring all the while that the sea is the source of all the life on earth, the wellspring of us all.’’ Though we may gobble up all its fish and use it as dumping ground for our plastic water bottles, Winchester suggests the Atlantic has a resilience all its own. That, in the end, it may simply roll on long after we are gone.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at  

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