Once upon a time, I wanted to specialise in geology and/ or remote sensing. Like a few other things in my life this did not come to pass. Reading ‘The Earth: An Intimate History’ by Richard Fortey (my 8th book of 2018) reminded me of the time when I seriously considered a career in geography.
Fortey’s book is a bit hard to classify. On the one hand it very clearly describes the geology of specific locations that the author has visited. But on the other hand Fortey also is weaving a tale of how the study of geology and popular concepts and notions evolved with time. At over 500 pages in paperback and in very small print the book packs a colossal amount of facts in it. As a non specialist at various points in the book I just had to let words wash over me- especially the detailed descriptions of the kind of minerals and kind of rocks that dominated a particular landscape. But there’s still a lot that the layman can understand and enjoy.
Take plate tectonics for example. Almost anyone today who’s had access to university education and news would understand that earthquakes occur because plates move against each other. Or that the shape of the continents as they are today was not always how it existed in the past. Some of us may have even heard of terms such as ‘Pangea’ and ‘Gondwanaland’. Yet plate tectonics was not always accepted or recognised and Fortey draws out in painstaking detail the work of leading geologists and scientists who brought this theory to mainstream consciousness.
All this makes it sound like the book would have been as dry as a biscuit. But this is where the author’s brilliant and almost poetic style delivers a punch. Take the below excerpts for example
“Geology acts as a kind of collective conscious for the world, a deep control beneath the oceans and continents.”
“Autres temps, autres mers. When these mountains formed where New York now stands, there were no trilobites, no shell fish. The sea hosted algae, and perhaps only the most distant ancestors of animals. Yet it seems that even then, plates still moved, and the earth still carried on its stately dance of splitting apart and reassembling. How far back can we go? Even here, right in the midst of the most artificial habitat on the planet, a place where every second counts, there are relics of a deeper time when millennia counted for nothing.”
“They (diamonds) are not really stable under the conditions found in the average jeweller’s shop, for their natural home is deep in the underworld. They exist at the surface on sufferance, having been wrested from their profound origins..diamonds are a kind of offering from the gods of the underworld.”
At one point the author wonders why people are more captivated and moved by the cast moulds of the ancient people who perished in Pompeii as against the bones and skeletons of the people who died because of the pyroclastic flows from the same eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 69AD. He says it’s probably because “all skulls smile alike”.
The book explores a number of regions in great detail. From the Roman ruins in Campania to the islands of Hawaii, to the Swiss Alps and the deserts of Oman to the Deccan traps in India (not really trap but actually derived from trappa, which apparently has Scandinavian roots and means stairs. You also find Treppe in German meaning the same thing) and the Grand Canyon (what book on geology can escape making a reference to the Grand Canyon?).
The author insists that geology encompasses everything.
“You begin to understand how men are in thrall to geology even though there are many places where it does not blatantly announce itself; it rules unseen”
It is hard to argue. Even over the course of the book, subject matters touch everything from algae and microbes (themes from a book I read recently- Microbes by ED Yong) to radioactivity (specifically referring to the Radium Girls – another subject I would like to read).
All in all a great book.