Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Geology: Acquiring Another Passion with Purpose

My reading takes me in strange but wonderful directions.  For the past week or so I have sat in my blue armchair in my Osaka apartment vicariously living the time and travels of geologists.

What I knew about geology was mostly confined to experience with volcanism and seismology and practical information about what to do during an earthquake.  Quick quiz: during an earthquake in an urban area where is a major "kill zone" - the place where you are most likely to die?  Answer: in the shadow of the building you just exited.

This was the part of the education for a child of the Pacific Northwest and the Ring of Fire.  I was in high school when Mount St. Helens blew and I will never forget the massive ash cloud rising into the sky and coming down as grey rain onto our lawns and cars.  It was sublime in the Burkean sense of that word:  "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror..."
Aside from these great and terrible contemporary events, Geology has a slower, softer side in the study of the layers of the earth where even a small stone or even sand can be of interest.  This is the study of the Earth over almost inconceivably long stretches of time.  Human lives are measured in decades; the earth in hundreds of millions of years.  The age of the dinosaurs ended "only" about 66 million years ago. This is the longue durée on a scale few of us contemplate as we toodle down the highways in our cars listening to our radios cursing the 15 extra minutes it will take us to arrive at work that morning.  Geological time, too, is sublime;  it is terrifying to think that what we hold most dear and most important right now is utterly irrelevant to an indifferent Earth.  We will die one day and become part of just another layer of sediment on  this planet.  Take a moment to ponder this:  one day our bones will be part of the fossil record. We will all inevitably be "brought down to Earth";  no need for our fellow homo sapien sapiens to do it for us.

Ichthyosaurs attending a lecture on fossilised human remains Henry de la Beche 1831

When the object of study is the Earth itself it cannot be confined to one country or region. And so geologists travel with passion and purpose.  The Englishman Sir Roderick Murchison travelled to Russia in the early 1800s to study rocks and fossils which could be compared to these things found in other regions of the world.  His findings were presented in beautifully written letters which are still a pleasure to read today.  Have a look at When Life Nearly Died by Michael Benton for an excellent history of the discovery of the Permian era and the mass extinction of life that occurred long before the dinosaurs appeared and disappeared.

Today, for the general reader interested in geology and other sciences, "creative non-fiction" is a genre that is not only accessible but has produced literary masterpieces.   John McPhee and his Annals of the Former World , for example.  What an extraordinary work.  For just a small sample, here is one of the most quoted passages in this most worthy book:

"The Himalayas are the crowning achievement of the Indo-Australian plate. India in the Oligocene crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed into the newly created Tibetan plateau and drove the Himalayas five and a half miles into the sky. The mountains are in some trouble. India has not stopped pushing them, and they are still going up. Their height and volume are already so great they are beginning to melt in their own self-generated radioactive heat. When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in a warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as 20,000 feet below the sea floor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”

My passion is the study of human mobility which is something I discovered because I was one of the mobile.   My foray into geology, however, makes me wonder about the intersection of the two.  For years as I have sat on the back porch of my house in France I have stared at my garden wall and I have never once wondered where the stone came from and what it might be. Why that stone and not another?  Human minds made those decisions based on what was available, I presume, and they were instantiated by human hands.  And what was the barrier for since it extends the entire length of the street?  It was meant to keep people and animals out but what people?  As I stand on my balcony in my apartment in Osaka the main features I see is a low basin surrounded by small mountains.  What forces carved that basin? How old are those mountains?  Before the tunnels and railways how did human pass from one side to another?  Facts on the ground?  Absolutely and we have no power to wish them away.  The plates will move, the volcanoes will erupt,  and the mountains will rise only to be eroded away.

And it occurs to me that my vision, my passion and my knowledge are terribly limited when I confine it to modern times and one species.  If "the proper study of man is man" (and we can quibble about that one) then surely the forces that act on us are equally important.  In Migration Theory: Talking Across Disciplines Caroline Brettell and James Hollifield argue for this broader approach: "Migration is a subject that cries out for an interdisciplinary approach.  Each discipline brings something to the table, theoretically and empirically."  Their books brings together anthropologists, geographers political scientist and economists and each chapter adds something to the great questions about why and how people migrate?  I searched the book  for mention of geology and "no results" appeared on my kindle screen.  However,  there is an excellent chapter on migration and geography by Susan Hardwick.

I resolve to persevere anyway.  I find geology fascinating and I like reading these books that send me to the dictionary or web pages for terms and concepts that I didn't know or had forgotten.  And I have new questions to ask whether I am gardening in my backyard or walking in the mountains in Japan.  I aspire to understand better what made that mountain blow in the Pacific Northwest, what made the rocks in my garden wall, why I see mountains, mountains, mountains when I travel around on this island in East Asia.  Above all I treasure the sensation that I am transcending the ephemeral.  I would like to think in geological time as easily as the geologist.

If nothing else that longer perspective calms me.  All those issues around international mobility that excite such passions?  They are the air that is moved by a butterfly's wings to an Earth that has seen hundreds of millions of years of far greater, more terrifying things.  The sublime in the modern and Burkean senses of that word.

"All of those broken bones in northern Japan, all of those broken lives and those broken homes prompt us to remember what in calmer times we are invariably minded to forget: the most stern and chilling of mantras, which holds, quite simply, that mankind inhabits this earth subject to geological consent - which can be withdrawn at any time."  Simon Wincester


Ellen said...

The minute I saw the title, Simon Winchester came to mind. I got hooked on his books when he came to Paris to be the speaker at the AARO event and also at the American Library.
Like us, he has moved around. As a geologist he was in Africa when he decided he wanted to write and became a journalist. As a journalist, he was sent around and then he decided to write books. When he spoke to us, he had just become a US citizen.
I was pleased to see his name at the end of your post.

Maria said...

Sometimes, at twilight, when I am looking at nearby mountains, with twinkles of lights reaching up their folds, I think of how permanent those mountains are, and how ephemeral are the lights. And how, if the mountain so wishes, the earth may simply shrug, return to its place, and those lights blow out. After that, the view of the mountains silhouetted against the deepening sky would remain the same. Except the only twinkles would be the stars in the sky.

I, too, remember Mount Saint Helen. I was eleven at the time. I also remember a man who was interviewed. He lived near Spirit Lake and, despite being told to evacuate, he said he would never leave. He didn't.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen, if you like Simon Wincester, then you will love Craig Childs. Start with The Secret Knowledge of Water.

Maria, What an elegant and eloquent comment. Thank you. Yes, the lights will one day go out and it will matter not one whit to those mountains. :-)

I know exactly who you are talking about. What a stubborn man but I admired his resolve to stay. Wasn't there a song written about him? Off to google.......

And, yes!!!! There was a couple of them actually. His name was Harry Truman and he is still a local legend. "So long Harry Truman" indeed....

And here is another that is also pretty good - very Seattle rock and roll