To describe Helen Gordon’s book as a Geology text, a Science book, a History book or an introduction to Earth Sciences would all be accurate but none of those do justice to the scope and style of its content. This was a lucky find whilst browsing the shelves of my local indie bookshop and it was the title and cover together which made me pick it up. I made a quick scan of the chapter headings and read a few passages, and immediately I knew that I needed to read the book. As the sleeve notes tell us, ‘The story of the Earth is written into our landscape: it’s there in the curves of hills, the colours of stone, surprising eruptions of vegetation. Wanting a fresh perspective on her own life, the writer Helen Gordon set out to read that epic narrative. Her odyssey takes her from the secret fossils of London to the 3-billion-year-old rocks of the Scottish Highlands, and from a state-of-the-art earthquake monitoring system in California to one of the world’s most dangerous volcanic complexes, hidden beneath the green hills of Naples. At every step, she finds that the apparently solid ground beneath our feet isn’t quite as it seems’.
Let me explain my somewhat biased interest. As a teenager I was a geology nerd. My secondary school was run by Dominican nuns and one of them, dear Sister Agatha, taught geology as an ‘O’ level subject. She won me over big time. Subsequent field trips to Cornwall also turned me into a collector of minerals and I then got to study geology to degree level in Plymouth. So the scene was set and for all of my life since then, I’ve maintained a strong fascination for the subject; for rocks, minerals, fossils and for shapes in the landscape. I will return to that latter part later in the post.
There have always been barriers between disciples of the subject and the rest of humanity. Not least of these is the idea and structure of Deep Time itself. Geologists speak of time not in days or weeks, not in years or decades, not even in centuries. Instead they speak in terms of epochs and eons, thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of years. These passionate men and women are looking at the history of our planet, looking at its long past. giving meaning to its present and somewhat scarily, laying out its future, with or without humanity. This book has a philosophy and it lays out a brand of existentialism which accepts that our planet will probably outlive our civilisation.
Right from the start I was in love with the author’s style and it was no surprise to find that she teaches writing at university. This is no boring textbook, but it has a narrative flow and is an utterly readable tale full of wonderful characters and settings which any novelist would be happy to turn out. This is quite a story to tell and it needs a narrator like this to draw the threads of the narrative together. The main reason for this is that the individual characters each tend to have focussed on only one small part of the whole. As a science, geology is subdivided into areas such as geomorphology, petrology, mineralogy, paleontology, stratigraphy, crystallography, vulcanology, seismology, the list goes on. Even within those areas there can be multiple specialisms and the author has done a grand job of shining her spotlight on those who have defined and in many cases fought to label for example, their own colour coded period on the table of deep time. I have always marvelled at that specificity of study, and not only in geology. As the author so aptly puts it in Chapter ten:
I’m fascinated by people who devote their lives to one subset of knowledge, whose thinking becomes deep rather than broad, who come to know the world through the prism of baking, say, or car engines.What are the random quirks of fate, the pragmatic or romantic impulses, the formative experiences that cause people to specialise in one area rather than another? Why does a doctor choose to become an authority on the liver, heart or colon? Why does a geologist turn to the Cambrian, the Permian or the Triassic?
After the scene-setting first chapter, the rest of the book is divided into three main sections. The first of these, maybe unsurprisingly, is entitled Rocks and Ice and Gordon walks us through the relevant processes, the laying down of sediments, the formation of rocks and the history of the battle to date the layers. The real drama came with the development of a whole new sub-set of geology, namely plate tectonics. This was still relatively new when I was studying for my degree.
The second section of the book is called Plants and Creatures and it opens with one of my favourite chapters called Ammonite. Here we not only delve into the fascinating world of fossils but we meet the extraordinary Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning and we are reminded not just of the history of the fossil record but of the still very pertinent subject of women in STEM careers. Being a rock hound I’ve always had but a sketchy overview of the whole subject of paleontology. The second chapter in the section brought me face to face with a new piece of learning and the new (to me) subject of palaeobotany. Yes, I knew that plant life started as a green slime which became moss and then plants followed by trees. The length of time that this took is itself a staggering example of a deep time process. What brought me up short was the realisation that I had never considered how the moss ever learned to defy gravity and climb vertically to become an upstanding plant. Even more unbelievable was the awesome mix of physics, botany and natural engineering that produced trees. This is why for me, the subject still has an awe and wonder about it .
Next comes the essential chapter on dinosaurs including the notion of the ‘Jurassic Park Effect’ which inspired many youngsters to study the subject. Dinosaurs, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are probably the ‘poster-boy’ topics in geology and Gordon gives them all a fair airing.
The final section is called Man-Made which looks at another of my pet interests, that of Urban Geology. Here we see how rocks have become part of our urban furniture and using examples in London and Naples, Italy, we see how the marbles, limestones and granites that cover so many major buildings are a portal to many past worlds. Having succeeded in grounding our existence firmly in the context of deep geological time Gordon then brings up the ongoing debate about whether humanity has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Man-made climate change in terms of deep time, may prove to be a short-time event. In order to consider a deep future, we are introduced to the question of nuclear waste storage here Gordon expertly explains the existential crisis which that presents.
To me, this book is technically brilliant (the 270 footnotes testify to the rigour of the research done) and it is beautifully readable. I have always been haunted by the memory of standing in a steep river valley on the north Cornish coast and describing the story of the landscape to my companion at the time. He said that my knowledge was impressive, but did I not worry that knowing about the rocks and processes detracted from the beauty of the place? To me, the opposite was true, and in Helen Gordon I believe I may have found a kindred spirit for in the final chapter she wrote this:
There’s a pleasure in knowing the names of these things. It’s not about a need to categorise the world, sectioning it into little boxes. And clearly you don’t have to know the names of rocks- or trees or plants or birds – in order to enjoy a landscape. But if you do have this information, something changes about the way that you exist in that space. A named landscape thickens. It’s to do with history and context but also, I think, with the quality of attention. To assign something its name, you need to take the time to pick out identifying features. You look for longer. And the more you know, the more things stop being a backdrop – blurred, indistinguishable, hurried over – and become somehow more present in the view, more insistently themselves, the way a familiar face stands out in a crowd.
This has undoubtedly been my best non-fiction read in a very long time. If the thought of touching four billion year-old rocks in Canada thrills you, or recognising a particular fossil on a polished stone building fascia then this book is for you.
Helen Gordon Twitter: @helenlpgordon
My Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter: @TJMasters & @timorahilly