I’ve always found the world of the rock-loving geologist difficult to relate to; I don’t know what it is about the discipline of geology that has made it so for me – may be something to do with so much jargon, terminology and a regular lack of poetics in their use of language – and I don’t necessarily mean grand gestures of dramatic metaphor, or the sublime visions of the Romantics.
To give an idea, I love this piece of writing – coming from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – about the British Isles, with its subdued, gentle overtones of genesis.
At the height of the last glacial period, the ice had been so dense and extensive that its weight depressed the land beneath it into the earth’s mantle. Think of that: it caused an entire country to sink down into the earth. Conversely, so it was that when the ice melted and its weight was lifted from the land, the bones of the earth rose – in some places by hundreds of feet. Geologists call this effect ‘isostatic rebound’. The rebound was most pronounced in the north of Britain, where the ice had been most massive; on the south coast, by way of counteraction, the coastline dipped.
As the ice melted, and the land tilted, the oceans grew. For glaciation had stored a significant proportion of the word’s water. The run-off from the melting ice across the northern hemisphere joined the oceans, raising sea-levels by nearly 400 feet in places, and transforming the map of the world. Among those transformations was the cutting, sluicing and filling of the channel between what is now England and what is now France. The ancient land-bridge of chalk, weald sands and clay was gouged over thousands of years by rivers. As the sea levels continued to rise, the water flooded up the river valleys, ate at the hills, and eventually overran the bridge entirely. Britain was islanded: the archipelago was made.
The ice retreated up through the land – lobes, fingers, sheets, reversing irregularly, northering. The land it left behind was at first entirely barren. Bare drifts of till, comminuted earth, a glittering domain of boulders, pebbles, sand and clay, rich in metals that had been filtered and sorted by the ice’s latticework. Pools of silver water gleaming in the hollows.
It was in those pools that the deepwood began to found itself. Sphagnum bogs thickened there, the bogs became stew-pots for floating mats of heath, and on those heaths grew dwarf forests of decidous trees: willows, briches and pine, relatively arctic trees, easily dispersed, finding shelter from the glacial winds in depressions and niches.
The wood deepened, keeping a steady distance from the ice: alders in thick stands along the river valleys, willow on the boggy ground, oak, lime, hazel, ash and hornbeam, and through it all a scrub, filling the aisles of the wood and thronging its borders.
In this way, there emerged a youthful, supple forest, new-born out of the glaciers. The blue ice gave to the green wood. Where the wood caught fire and burned, as it did at times, the energy of suns was returned to the air.
– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp.93-4)
This is the kind of ‘more-than-human’ history I wrote about before at Sumptuous World – ‘New ways of doing history’ parts I & II. I love it because I believe those of us in the developed world need more than ever a sensibility of place such that we can more easily see and feel where we are, where we’ve come from, and what possibilities we have for what’s increasingly appearing to be a fairly rocky road ahead. It’s the orientation in this kind of writing that has led me to the idea for what I have called the Isles Project.
It amazes me that, with all its history and influence, there is no generic, situated (in London?) introduction to the British Isles on the cultural landscape; the British Museum, after all, is in the main a reflection (an inspiring reflection? A celebration of empire?) of most other places but here and has little about Britain or the British.
It’s my contention that the time is ripe for a mark on the cultural landscape that does just this: tells the story of these lands, and the relations between people and the lands, from a weaving of human and more-than-human, and poetic, standpoints. I can think of few better ways to adjust the cultural landscape to the socio-economic and political priorities posed by the profound – and potentially deeply disorientating and upsetting – challenges of sustainability.
Robert Macfarlane, incidentally, was a friend of Roger Deakin (see previous here), is a Cambridge University fellow and an instigator of the conference on nature and literature and the eco-literature Archipelago publication.