Many of us who live in cities, and even those of us in country towns, can be distanced from the animal world, but Vanessa Berry, in her book Gentle and Fierce, finds ways of connecting through domestic and suburban encounters and through depictions of animals in our material culture.
In her book Mirror Sydney she looks at the overlooked – the quirky and the neglected places of suburbia. Here, in this new book, she writes about animals and writers, animals in unexpected places, animals in memories and dreams and animals as images. Many of the pieces in the book pivot on contrasts, as indicated by her book title – how we encounter the wild in a human-controlled setting, how the past is injected into the present, how we can find the world in a room. The book aligns with the way in a global pandemic we have been forced to focus on the local and simple.
The book fills in more of her personality; the pieces add up to a biography of sorts. We learn about her childhood, about feeling a misfit at school, about dark teen years, her travels, her relationships with family and friends. The title refers to sides of her personality, which emerge in the style and flair of her writing. She describes herself as shy, but she writes strongly (as might be expected of someone who teaches creative writing).
The title refers to animals too, of course: how wallabies on the Isle of Man have established themselves in the countryside after escaping a zoo, how animals survive in the city despite the pressures. She wonders how, in a further example of contrast or paradox, humanity’s favourite animals are often the most threatened by human activities.
There are pieces on Robert Smith from 1980s band The Cure dressed up as a spider, and her hunt for a stuffed bear in a university museum, a memory from childhood. Many of her encounters are with kitsch representations of animals such as porcelain or glass figurines and pandas on tissue boxes and t-shirts. Just as Mirror Sydney is about parts of the city that aren’t grand tourist magnets, she writes about animals without heading into the wild.* As she writes about these in her cluttered workspace, she shows how the ephemera of urban life can connect us to the wider world. Rather than be dismissive of such second-hand relationships to animals, she finds positives. These relationships can foster sympathy for our animal companions and wild animals that need protection. She remembers how watching Lassie on TV mediated her relationship with her own dog. Meditating on her book title, she notes how care, whether it be of humans or animals, requires both a quiet, soft touch and force, resolve. And she notes how gentleness is itself a kind of strength.
*There is a website where Berry writes more about some of the places in Sydney that are the settings for her animal encounters.
Has Archaeology Buried the Bible? William Dever, Eerdmans.
Digging Deeper, Eric Cline, Princeton.
Archaeology and the Bible have had a both close and wary relationship. In Has Archaeology Buried the Bible? William Dever says that in the nineteenth century one of archaeology’s purposes was to illuminate the Bible. For the British, he writes, this meant ‘illustrating’ the Bible. Americans had a more forthright attitude, using archaeology to ‘defend’ the Bible (possibly from European scholarship). By the 1980s the roles were reversed, and as archaeology trod its own path, the Bible was seen as useful by archaeologists only when it could further illuminate the finds of archaeology.
Dever is a former seminary student who gravitated to archaeology, and he says he takes a ‘middle ground’ approach. I would imagine he would agree with theologian Tom Wright, who has said that we have little to fear from scholarship of the Bible. Dever’s answer to the provocative question posed by his book’s title is ‘no’. Or perhaps ‘no, but…’. In some cases, archaeology reinforces the biblical text, but then again, sometimes it makes us rethink and re-read.
For example, Dever writes, Joshua and Judges contradict each other as to how exactly the biblical Israelites became dominant in Canaan and what happened to the ‘original’ residents. The evidence suggests that it was more a peasant revolt than invasion. Often the evidence points to shifts less dramatic and triumphant than some of the biblical stories. Archaeology also helps us to hear the voices of the poor, which are in the Bible but can be muted when the Old Testament history books focus on leaders.
Events in the Book of Kings conform to archaeological evidence. There have now been more than a dozen temples unearthed in Syria, and they have similar floorplans to Solomon’s, as it is described in the Bible. But a book such as Judges, in conjunction with the archaeological evidence, gives us a better idea of the lives of villagers. Such things as when camels were domesticated challenge some of the chronology, but other finds confirm the nomadic lifestyle of Abraham’s descendants, which also explains, Dever notes, the nomad’s wariness regarding towns, an undercurrent of the story of Sodom and others. In Digging Deeper, Eric Cline mentions that clay tablets found in the Middle East confirmed the Babylonian exile.
Cline’s is a little book about the practice of archaeology, similar to those in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. He has excavated in Israel, particularly at Megiddo, where ‘Solomon’s Stables’ were found. (In the end, archaeologists decided they weren’t stables at all.) He writes about what to expect on sites, how sites are chosen, how they are laid out, measured, excavated and recorded. He writes about how artefacts are preserved.
He describes the importance of pottery styles for dating, but also says that context is important. Despite us being in what he calls the ‘Third Scientific Revolution’ for archaeology, refining aerial surveys and dating techniques, digging (and getting dirty) is still important. The correlation of artefacts in the layers tells archaeologists much.
He has a sense of humour and says that if his favourite trowel was found at a site, it would be classified as an antiquity. Short as the book is, he also moves beyond techniques to finds and their implications. Four-thousand-year-old mummies in China, in just one example, suggested surprising cross-continental travel, way before Marco Polo. Five-thousand-year-old Otzi the Iceman, found in the Austrian Alps in the 1990s, was so well preserved that a Czech professor could commission a shoemaker to replicate Otzi’s leather boots. (They turned out to be more comfortable than modern hiking boots.)
Cline finishes by discussing the problems of looting in the Middle East, particularly disastrous after the US invasion of Iraq and the actions of the Taliban and Isis, but also driven by the practice of private collectors paying big money for antiquities. Cline insists that ancient artefacts should not disappear into private collections but should be accessible to researchers, subsequently helping with the general public’s understanding of the past, even if what is dug up may prompt a rethinking of cherished narratives.
Melbourne Circle, Nick Gadd, Australian Scholarly Publishing.
I had the same idea for a book, inspired, as was Nick Gadd, by Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, though my idea was slightly different in that I imagined walking the Ring Road, a more literal aping of Sinclair. (Maybe one day.) Nick Gadd takes a more meandering circuit, but nevertheless he aims for a psychogeographical ramble (‘psychojogging’ he sometimes calls it), even if there’s less emphasis on the psycho, as there seems to be in Sinclair’s books, where Sinclair’s vision is kaleidoscopic and intense. But Gadd’s out to chronicle something of the ‘curious feelings’ places can evoke as they prompt memory, and as we peer behind the facades of suburbia. He shows the value of walking in the city, not just for commercial reasons but for the pleasure of discovery, and in this follows in the footsteps not only of Sinclair, but also of the likes of Dickens and Patti Smith.
The book emerged from a blog of his and his wife’s walks around Melbourne. His wife died before the book was published, and it is also a tribute to her, their relationship and the memories of shared walks. As Rebecca Solnit notes, walking does things for noticing and writing. Gadd’s walking prompts interest for stories ‘small, local and hidden in plain sight’. It’s a view of Melbourne from a Western suburbs perspective – looking for the quirky and not so picturesque. He writes about the Yarra and its mangroves, but also the other river, the Maribyrnong, and Stony Creek, which runs through the Western suburbs (and has a parallel to the likes of Sydney’s Cooks River, subject of a fascinating history). The places they visit are not Fed Square, the Block Arcade or Botanic Gardens. It’s a circle whose arc begins at Yarraville and crosses points of working-class interest, from the Westgate to a Footscray cinema to old factories in Cremorne. It’s the Melbourne of Paul Kelly, the Nylex sign, weapons manufacture sites, football. Like David Sornig in his book Blue Lake, Gadd describes being stalked by security guards while walking the docks.
Like Vanessa Berry, Mirror Sydney blogger and author, Gadd is attracted to ghost signs (traces of ancient signs that recall lost brands and businesses). Particularly interesting is a sign of a footballer advertising Champion football studs in Richmond. The kicking footballer is modelled on a player but in its rendering becomes cartoonishly ballet-like. I think of a ghost sign behind the shops of Sydney Road, Coburg, advertising a now long-gone bookshop. The sign remains at the back of a two-storey brick building, where, as with the others, there are odd, mismatching juttings, landings, stairs – all giving the sense of seeing the other side of the uniform face of retail, a more private peek, and the sign gives one the sense of also peering into the past. Gadd muses that such signs can indicate the transitory nature of commerce, the promise of eventual demise. Or they can be seen as survivors, somehow clinging on, offering something resembling continuity, even if thread-bare, in a fast-changing city.
He writes about Garden City, in the Port Melbourne area. Here’s an example of jarring perspective shift – an area of Melbourne unlike the rest but recalling instead mid-century Britain, always a surprise when I see it, in its semi-attached double storey houses, and controversial at the time for its separation of housing and business, prefiguring the suburbs of the 1950s. He wonders at one point about the newer estates and how they will create memories. Recently I walked through Docklands, the office buildings uniformly glass and steel, made individual by cheap architectural tweaks, like London’s docklands, at risk of losing history for a fast buck. It’s at first glance an area wiped clean, with no layers of history, no palimpsest. It’s hard to imagine the buildings here gaining a patina. But underneath there are already odd alleys, street art, remains of industrial buildings such as the long brick warehouses that now house groovy offices. Most places in the city offer glimpses of the past in their odd layouts, remnants, relics.
The Mysteries of Cinema, Peter Conrad, Thames and Hudson.
Peter Conrad’s book Creation: Artists, Gods & Origins contained the rather silly proposition that artists, in the act of creating, had proven God irrelevant. At the beginning of his new book about the movies he makes a similarly provocative proposition – that cinema ‘challenges religion’ with its power to create worlds. Yet he compiles a wealth of evidence to suggest that over cinema’s hundred-plus-year history this is exactly what movie directors have thought of themselves and their art. Conrad notes that while they often describe themselves as dictators and generals, they also think of themselves as priests. For much of the twentieth century, the weekly cinema experience rivalled the church-goer’s in providing transcendence.
Conrad notes that in the early days of cinema actors were known as stars because, in emulation of the way the Greeks thought about the cosmos, they seemed god-like. Stars were also referred to as saints. We might note too that at the Oscars, the host is not the star but the priest who facilitates worship of the stars.
Somewhat like the way Terry Eagleton writes books, Conrad piles up a teetering stack of references from cinema’s history, from the films of Tarkovsky and Charlie Chaplin to American Beauty, in chapters outlining the ways this modern artform has altered our view of reality. He concentrates more on the pioneering and golden ages of cinema, when its creators were puffed up with their own ability, before the art’s settling into predictability. Partly, the hyperbole was driven by the fact that cinema combined the ages-old art of theatre with mind-boggling new technologies that, like the train, the car and the telephone, messed with traditional measures of space and time, making filmmakers seem like magicians and alchemists, as well as miracle-workers.
Cinema, unlike music or painting, is a wholly realised imitation of life. Conrad suggests that while sculpture, say, is concerned with space, and music with time, cinema is concerned with both. Theatre does a similar thing, so cinema is not as unique as Conrad makes out, but in the artform’s ability to use all the tricks of the editing room and the special effects program, it is certainly able to outdo theatre in its ability to suspend disbelief for the viewer. (Conrad drolly suggests that this does not extend to such recent ho-hum fare as the Cats movie.) But as such, says Conrad, it is able to focus more intently on aspects of life. We can see, he writes, how much cinema has affected our worldview by the way eyewitnesses often describe disasters as being like watching a movie. And cinema is able to depict a ‘God’s eye-view’ (which, says Conrad, is explicitly referenced in films such as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire).
Cinema amplifies life but also offers alternative versions of it. While the earliest examples of cinema were documentary-like, movie-makers soon realized the potential for making previously unimagined worlds. As soon as we could show the world as it is, we tried to show the world as it isn’t. This, perhaps, is no different from other art, such as novels, but it may be more intense. Novelists too can mess with time, as in backward plots and ‘sliding doors’ scenarios, and can create whole worlds, but in the cinema we see and hear them.
The movies make us believe in another reality, and Conrad argues that cinema engages in a ‘metaphysical battle’ for which reality is the real one, much like how religion often argues for a truer reality beyond our current one. Director Eric Rohmer said that movies see ‘into that world beyond’. And we can see, from all the examples Conrad marshals, how often cinema refers explicitly to this spiritual-like ability.
Cinema can be life as we wish it would be – say, in a romantic comedy – emulating the promise of heaven and a happy ever-after. But not always – films also revel in the Devilish ability to create hells, either to shake us in our complacent real lives, or to make us more grateful for them. Some directors, like Quentin Tarantino, simply show a perverse enjoyment of fictional misery.
Is cinema’s heyday past? With online movies, the ritualistic weekend cinema trip has become somewhat irrelevant. In this way perhaps, movie-watching has become like how spirituality is spread across the week, not just a weekend communal activity. (And the now ascendant art of streamed TV miniseries stretches this further.) But here the movies also diverge from church-going, being a more solitary activity, without even the pretense of community that comes from sitting in a room full of strangers to watch a film. And of course, despite the moral lessons films can teach us, they remain entertainment, rather different to the hard task of building community through selfless acts towards one’s neighbour.
In Australia we are used to dealing, to a certain extent, with summer fires. But the fires of the summer of 2019/2020 were something else entirely.
In John Pickrell’s comprehensive Flames of Extinction he details the impacts of the fires on flora and fauna – impacts that, partly because of Covid, we as a nation have yet to come to proper terms with. Eleven million hectares were burnt, releasing 600 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. (Satellite images were necessary to see the extent of the conflagration.) On the east coast, 54% of protected Gondwana rainforest was burnt. The Gospers Mountain fire was our biggest single bushfire ever, at one million hectares. In Queensland, tropical rainforest that we thought would never burn, did.
In Kangaroo Island alone 40,000 koalas were killed. The koala, inevitably perhaps, became ‘the emblem of the crisis’. Because of its iconic status, you would think we’d want to protect them, but in the last decade they have been affected by accelerated land clearances in NSW and QLD, and one of the biggest threats is that there are simply not enough large pockets of forest to sustain resilient populations. The NSW government, says Pickrell, has talked a lot about helping koalas but made little progress. Meanwhile, as habitats are squeezed, there are fewer escape routes when bushfires strike.
It is estimated that three billion animals died in the fires. Thousands of birds flew out over the ocean to escape the fires but died from exhaustion or smoke inhalation. Survivors had to face decimated landscapes, and runoff ash clogged and poisoned creeks and rivers. Pickrell writes about cute lemuroid ringtail possums in QLD threatened by small changes in climate, and about the famous, dinosaur-era Wollemi Pine, saved in the wild by daring firefighters helicoptered in to set up a sprinkler system. He also writes about now endangered macadamia trees and various other plants and animals you may never have heard of, but which are part of threatened biodiversity, or may have already been tipped onto the extinction list.
The loss of old-growth forest is felt particularly hard. Because they are wetter, with less fuel load and more established ferns and mosses, they resist fire better, but not the unusually hot fires of 2019/2020. Old-growth forest, whether burnt or logged, is then replaced by younger trees that burn better, encouraging more fires. This is one of the scary, runaway effects of climate change driven by human activity.
In Danielle Celermajer’s Summertime she writes that fires are a challenge to the idea that climate change will be gradual and easily accommodated. As Covid has shown, things can run out of control quickly. And bushfires remain unpredictable; planning takes us only so far.
Celermajer’s book is a more personal story of loss, particularly in relation to domestic animals, as well as a philosophical reflection on how to deal with the existential threat of climate change. She suggests that fires have changed the way we think about summer – fun and sun now has a tinge of dread.
She lived on a farm in a forest in southern NSW. She had to evacuate and had to deal with relocating domestic animals – pigs, donkeys, ducks – that deal with threat and loss in their own particular ways. She describes the hours and days of the dreadful summer, and how it feels to be on alert, consumed by thinking about fires.
She asks how the initial heightened sensitivity to loss can be sustained to tackle the root causes. She asks, is hoping a fire will go back the other direction and spare a town, against the looming evidence, as unrealistic as hoping the predictions of calamity due to climate change won’t come true? We are told relentlessly to make fire plans. Are we making enough climate plans? But she also asks how we balance cultivation of realism with the need for healing and the need to get on with life. Celermajer’s book is a deeper consideration of how, in the aftermath of one crisis, and in the midst of another, we might talk, share about the future, so we can nurture some constructive good. The largest question her book asks is, how do we confront the future without losing hope?
Rebecca Wragg Sykes says that Neanderthals matter. In this book it seems that ‘matter’ is used in the sense that people are interested in facts – and there are plenty of those being unearthed – about Neanderthals, but it could also be that they give us some sort of orientation through understanding the beginnings of the human species. The timescales involved certainly put things into perspective. One of the interesting facts she relays – and it’s not necessarily about Neanderthals, but it does help orient one towards the longer timescales involved – is the following. You’ll recall the prehistoric cave paintings in France, discovered in the middle of the twentieth century. The paintings of Lascaux are closer to us than they are to those of Chauvet. (Only just, but still…) We are perhaps tempted to think of prehistoric peoples inhabiting a narrow time window, but, just as the dinosaurs spanned similarly vast – or much greater – time periods, prehistoric people were around for a lot longer than modern humans.
In the case of Neanderthals, when we study them we study us, as we have Neanderthal DNA. We didn’t just out-compete them, but assimilated them. This is just one part of the reimagining, as Wragg Sykes calls it, of Neanderthals that has taken place in recent years. We now have a more sophisticated picture of them, beyond stereotypes of thick-browed, thick-skulled ape-men. (Curiously, some proponents of strict biblical literalism and Creationism think Neanderthals are fully human and are of the opinion that Neanderthals are a tribe of humans that were separated when God confused languages at the Tower of Babel. Their physiognomy – so clearly and consistently different to homo sapiens – is supposedly a hereditary deformity.)
Recent reimaginings are more than a reconsideration of the Ice Age. Neanderthals were Europe-wide, with variations in culture, depending often on (the fluctuating) climate, inhabiting periods both cold and warm. They were not just mammoth eaters. They ate bear, hare, goose, shellfish, rhino, goat, doves, elephant, fish, eels, deer, beaver, frogs, seals, wolf and tortoises. They weren’t just carnivores, consuming berries, nuts, honey, roots and grains. Unsurprisingly, diet depended on locale. They didn’t just drape themselves in animal skins, but there is evidence they made leather and used needles for sewing. Clothes also likely varied, depending on locale and climate. They made composite tools.
The sometimes grisly archaeological evidence has prompted extraordinary deductions. Experts can glean much from examining teeth, can see scratches from toothpicks or stones used as knives. They can gauge diet from patterns of tooth wear. They can make pronouncements about cooking methods from the locations of hearths, can judge leatherwork from the polish on stone tools. From skeletons, paleologists can tell Neanderthals with extensive injuries were nursed back to health and lived long, with the help of the tribe. Wragg Sykes suggests families likely worked in ways similar to ours.
In his review of this book, Tim Flannery complained about the level of detail (there is plenty, as he says, about stone knives, the author’s expertise). He also complained about the lack of footnotes (actually, they are online), and said the book was subsequently useless for scholars. But the author is attempting to, with all the detail, dispel the image of Neanderthals as simplistic brutes, for a popular audience.
At the same time, perhaps, she is prompting us to ask what makes humans human. She also puts Neanderthals into the wider context of scientific history, and into nineteenth century racism and nationalism. Samuel Edwards, a nineteenth century black preacher, used evidence from prehistoric humans to argue, against hypotheses of the day, that humans have common ancestors, and that there is, therefore, no hierarchy of race. One of the ways Neanderthals matter, I suppose, is that they can put a check on our hubristic claims to superiority, a case, by the way, the Babel story makes, even if we read it allegorically.
King Richard: An American Tragedy, Michael Dobbs, Scribe
There have been many books written on Watergate (and those of Woodward and Bernstein being in no way the definitive word) but Michael Dobbs says he felt he needed to tell the story anew because as Watergate recedes further into the past, people may have a vague idea of why Richard Nixon resigned as president but might not understand the details or remember the key players and how the often gripping drama played out.
The story goes something like this:
In May 1972 burglars broke into the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate buildings in Washington, with the aim of finding dirt on Democratic Party figures. In June the bungling burglars broke in again to repair faulty phone bugs but were caught by police. The FBI quickly discovered links to members of Nixon’s re-election committee, headed by his former attorney general, John Mitchell. Donations to the committee had been used to pay the burglars, and Mitchell had authorized the break-ins.
When Nixon’s aides found out, they hastily organized a cover-up. Nixon soon joined the conspiracy, which included paying hush money to prevent the burglars disclosing links to White House staff. Nixon also instructed the CIA to tell the FBI to back off the case, with the excuse that it was related to a national security issue. (This would later be the ‘smoking gun’ that confirmed Nixon’s guilt in attempting to obstruct justice.)
As the press slowly joined the dots, two congressional inquiries were set up. Nixon’s former legal counsel John Dean, who had participated in the cover-up, turned informant and accused Nixon of involvement. Nixon told the public and press that he didn’t know about the burglary or cover-up. He sacked his top men to try and distance himself.
At one of the hearings, which by now were watched by an increasingly enthralled public, an aide dropped the bombshell revelation that Nixon had a taping system in the Oval Office and elsewhere. The recordings would potentially illuminate who was telling the truth – Nixon or Dean. Over ensuing months there were legal wrangles over the tapes, which a judge had subpoenaed but which Nixon refused to hand over, on the grounds of executive privilege, while simultaneously releasing edited transcripts to try and appease the judiciary. (Nixon debated destroying the tapes but decided that could be seen as destroying evidence. He also convinced himself the audio would exonerate him.) Finally, Nixon was forced to hand over the tapes, which corroborated Dean’s testimony that Nixon had obstructed justice. Nixon resigned in August 1974 before facing inevitable and imminent impeachment.
As well as showing a vindictive, obsessive and uncouth side of Nixon, the tapes revealed that Watergate was only part of a campaign of wiretapping and other illegal activities encouraged by White House staff (including the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, where in one sense the Watergate drama began). While the tapes suggest Nixon didn’t know about the burglary beforehand, he did brainstorm all manner of dirty tricks, contributing to a win-at-all-costs, revenge-driven White House atmosphere. Sometimes he was just venting; aides wouldn’t carry out his more outrageous demands, but at other times they were infected by Nixon’s darker side, while others (such as Charles Colson, later famously ‘born again’) took Nixon at his word.
It is a story that continues to unroll. Recently there has been more evidence unearthed of Nixon’s deviousness, including his serious and treasonable attempt to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks of his predecessor Lyndon Johnson. There have also been accusations of longstanding ties to the underworld and shady funding.
The title of Dobbs’s book alludes to the fact that Nixon is often described as a figure from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. He was victorious but destroyed himself in the process. (His chief of staff Bob Haldeman said Nixon was the strangest man he’d ever met, and never really understood him, even after working with him day-to-day for years. Biographer Richard Reeves, amongst others, noted that Nixon was a loner in an extrovert’s profession.) Nixon lacked the gifts of rich parents or natural charm but succeeded against the odds through grim determination and an ability to bounce back. But he got so used to deviousness that he lied even to himself. And he was so used to being the underdog and outsider that even when he won the presidency he remained obsessed with slights from enemies. (He later wrote that his 1972 landslide election victory felt oddly hollow.)
Nixon became one of the most significant politicians of the twentieth century, but rather than his foreign policy achievements or domestic political successes (that gave middle America to the Republicans) being his legacy, they were overshadowed by his downfall, which became a lesson for all subsequent political leaders. His name became synonymous with political scandal, reverberating through subsequent American history.
Dobbs’s book does a remarkable job of following the chronology briskly while making tight diversions to fill in the back story and relate biographies of the main characters. And Dobbs writes about how even the little details he includes, like what Nixon had for lunch (pineapple and cottage cheese), shed light on the man. Dobbs concentrates largely on the first 100 days of Nixon’s second presidential term, which makes for an abrupt, seemingly premature ending, but Dobbs’s thinking is perhaps that he is ending at the point where Watergate had run out of Nixon’s control, and although it dragged on for another year before he resigned, in hindsight we can see the end was inevitable, especially once the tapes, so infamously linked to the whole sorry saga, were released.
Notes from Deep Time, Helen Gordon, Profile Books.
Making Deep History, Clive Gamble, Oxford University Press.
Science writer Stephen Jay Gould once commented that the idea of deep time is geology’s greatest contribution to science, but its contribution is to put human beings in our place, chronologically speaking, as well as perhaps in regards to our opinion of ourselves.
In Notes from Deep Time Helen Gordon writes that in terms of geological time human history – so much of our focus – is like the blink of an eye. All humans that lived in the past few thousand years may as well, when it comes to the perspective of millions of years from now, have lived at the same time.
In contrast, she notes, we think of the dinosaurs as inhabiting more-or-less the same timeframe – the age of dinosaurs – but, for example, Stegosaurus lived in the Jurassic, and Tyrannosaurus in the Cretaceous, so there were 70 million years between them. The dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, meaning that in time we are closer to T-Rex than T-Rex is to Stegosaurus. Such is the reorientation that deep time thinking involves. And when we think about the age of rocks in billions rather than millions of years, it’s even more head-spinning.
One of the other things about deep time thinking is that what we think of as solid is actually in flux. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the pioneers of geology began realizing that even bedrock was capable of change, given enough time. As Gordon poetically puts it, ‘Bones become rock. Sands become mountains. Oceans become cities.’
This was a challenge to Victorian religious views, but not a knock-down argument against. One of the fathers of geology, James Hutton, said that rocks were ‘God’s books’, and Charles Lyell, another father, saw understanding of the geological record as a divine gift. But it certainly prompted some reassessment.
Notes from Deep Time is a series of dispatches from deep history, more-or-less independent chapters on faultlines in California, geological personalities, ice cores and climate change, paleo-artists trying to envisage dinosaurs, burying nuclear waste (which Robert Macfarlane also covered in his book Underland). What links them is that they are all attempts at giant conceptual leaps into the past, or, in the case of nuclear waste, into the distant future.
Gordon writes about discussions within the scientific community over the concept of the Anthropocene. This recent chronological neologism points to the effect of humans on the geological record. Our activities are now so significant they will show up in ice core samples as spikes in carbon dioxide, and in the earth as layers of concrete intermingled with plastics, and buried nuclear waste. Yet some ask, is naming an era after ourselves anthropocentric? She surmises that humans have an in-built need to order things, even if this means giving names to timescales unfathomably beyond our own.
If the history of geology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as related by Gordon, seems a bit Brit-centric, that’s because British geologists were at the forefront of discoveries, from extraordinary geological map-maker William Smith to eccentric clergyman William Buckland. Clive Gamble tells the story of two amateur geologists, John Evans and Joseph Prestwich, who helped place humans into deep chronology.
Evans and Prestwich made good from their respective trades and took up geology as a hobby, in good Victorian-era fashion. Influenced by discoveries in France, they sought evidence that humans had lived with mammoths and other megafauna, which had been recently discovered in the Siberian permafrost. The bones of these animals had been found alongside many stone tools, suggesting humans had hunted and butchered them. (In one British quarry so many hand axes were found that the quarrymen used them to fill potholes in roads.) The only problem was, there weren’t any human bones. It turned out they weren’t looking in the right place. Gravel beds where tools were found weren’t where early humans were buried, but they soon would be found, upsetting ideas of the special creation of humans.
This was, again, religiously controversial. Evans and Prestwich thought their discoveries sat happily with their faith. They were comfortable with the timescales involved, even if others were not. Yet, Gamble writes, they were less comfortable with the implications of the writings of Charles Darwin, who was being published at the time they made their discoveries.
As Gamble points out, the situation was complicated, and more interesting than the simplistic depiction of a fight between religion and science that it has recently been reduced to. We see in Gamble’s account how evidence prompts speculation, and how this intersects with culture and orthodoxy. There were mixed views within churches and scientific communities, the latter being, at the time, gentlemanly, amateur affairs, rather than vigorously professional. Visionary ideas mixed with the ridiculous. There were debates over whether humans had existed before Adam and whether early humans were wiped out in an earlier flood. (Incidentally, while evidence of stone tools indicated humans lived with extinct, prehistoric animals such as mammoths, Evans and Prestwich had no way of dating their finds exactly and could only speculate – which they only did reluctantly.) There were also debates over how all this fitted with the strong Victorian ideology of progress, and distasteful debates over degeneration and race.
Gordon writes about how geology is a pursuit that relies on imagination. This is an underrated aspect of science. The extent to which humans can fit evidence into a conceptual vision is unique, as far as we know, and to be celebrated, but it requires a sometimes thrilling, sometimes unsettling review of our perspective, and in the case of deep time, it is something that, perhaps paradoxically, made us reassess our place in the order of things.
The Heartbeat of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, Black Inc.
Spiders in Germany use the electrical fields of trees to fly. Static electricity makes your hair stand on end, and in vaguely similar fashion the electrical fields of trees make spider silk threads stand on end, turning them into parachutes that help the tiny spiders launch into the air. Can humans feel these electrical fields? Other animals do and though it’s not conclusive, Peter Wohlleben, in his latest book, thinks we possibly can.
Wohlleben’s bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees was about the connections trees make with their kin. In his latest book, amongst other things, he writes about the connections animals, and in particular humans, have with trees, and the value of this for our wellbeing. He begins by arguing that human senses, despite our orientation to the modern man-made, are not as detuned to nature as we might think. And so he recommends walking in the forest, meandering, paying attention to the sights, sounds and smells.
The rest of the book is similarly meandering, from one intriguing topic to another. Writing about the sentience of trees in The Hidden Life of Trees brought on some skepticism in some readers, and the same may apply here. He asks if trees can see, hear and have memories, and his answer is yes – or more precisely, sort-of. The trick is that we have to upend our animal-centric ways. For example, he says that while we think of brains (in heads) as the central parts of our anatomy, in trees it may be the roots, which seem to show a similar ability as in animals to remember. He describes trees receiving and adjusting to sensory inputs of light and vibrations in air. This might seem a little out there, but this is exactly what seeing and hearing is.
If we wanted to describe him as a tree-hugger, he’d probably approve, and he recommends the practice for wellbeing. But don’t expect trees to hug you back. Trees are like some shy teenagers – recoiling from human touch. Stroke a young plant and it is likely to get defensive and grow shorter branches and a thicker stem. (This is because stroking it mimics the action of the wind, or animals bumping into it.)
Amongst these extraordinary bits of information is the admission that there is much that we don’t know, including exactly what’s in the soil. In New York recently, soil in Central Park was surveyed and found to contain 100,000 species of bacteria. You might have heard that trees move enormous amounts of water through their bodies via transpiration – water exiting the leaves sucks more water through the tree, ultimately from the ground via the roots. Actually, says Wohlleben, the evidence suggests this isn’t true, but it’s not known exactly how trees do this. There are mysterious processes at work.
It is one thing to know about trees, another to respond emotionally, and the argument of the book is that science only takes us so far. If we are to redress environmental problems, we need emotional connections. And so Wohlleben writes about the importance of old growth forests, and of variety in forests. In moving back to the territory of his earlier book, he explains the importance of the forest as a community containing the young, the old and the bodies of the dead, and how this community lowers temperatures, and the blood pressure of humans. (He’s a forester, but a different one, who is fairly critical of the forestry industry, and he argues that tree plantations in no way do the same job as an old, intricate, natural forest.) And I’d like to think that attention to trees in more than economic terms – beyond seeing trees as resources to cut down – helps us to focus outwards and cultivate our capacity for caring.
In one of the chapters of his book Land, Simon Winchester describes the creation of the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, which in 1889 went from a settler population of zilch to 15,000 overnight (literally). In one example of those famous land rushes, an early morning government starter let loose a tide of people hungry for their own piece of the American West, and they surged on horseback or with wagons (the horse-riders had a jump on those lumbered by their possession-filled wagons), flags in hand, ready to stake and claim their proto-homestead square. (Some had illegally started out the night before.) By nightfall the burgeoning town was a sea of candle and lamplight, tents and flags. Enterprising hangers-on created pop-up bars and stores. Water, electricity and fine buildings followed in the weeks and months ahead, in exceptionally quick fashion. The head-high grass that had sustained the plains (and which stopped the Dust Bowl conditions that arose in the early twentieth century after the grassland ecosystem had been ploughed and destroyed) and the Native American population were quickly muscled out and forgotten.
It’s often said that the idea of owning land is foreign to many Indigenous people, who think of themselves as controlled by the land, rather than the other way around, though of course Indigenous people claim and defend territory. The difference to the Western idea of land ownership in the, say, Native American context is that Native Americans thought the concept of selling the land to someone else was as nonsensical as selling air. The land claimed them, and it was not for them to relinquish, to trade away, even if there were battles over land, such as the Lakota’s domination of the Great Plains over other nations. The idea of a government hundreds of miles away, whose members hadn’t even seen the land, selling off that land (or giving it away) was anathema and nonsense.
The development of Western ideas of land ownership is central to Winchester’s book, which begins with the story of buying his own bit of American dirt, and which describes partitioning, mapping, reclaiming, creating, conquering, contesting, repurposing and rewilding land. In a way the contrast between the Western way of thinking and the Native American (and Australian Indigenous) way of thinking is a contrast between seeing the land as something that gives, and something (somewhere?) we can take from. This, of course, leads to greed and inequality, by the likes of, in our own sphere, Gina Reinhart. Winchester is fairly diplomatic when it comes to Reinhart, but she is an example of a particularly Western perspective, someone seeing land as something that can be destroyed, its guts ripped out for profit.
Winchester is also diplomatic about something like England’s enclosure, saying it was a matter of balancing inequality against inefficiency, a notion that shows a somewhat Tory indifference to the individual hardship caused to the less fortunate. (Enclosure was as much about securing vast lands for the wealthy as it was about making the land more productive.) Similarly, he is even-handed in his judgement of the laird system in Scotland, which he thinks worked well in places. He describes the deplorable origins, in the clearances, but also thinks changes now wrought by politically correct bureaucrats are detrimental to tradition, in contrast, he notes, to Keats who thought such parasitic gentry should be euthanized.
Yet Winchester is sympathetic to the native population of North America regarding the issue of national parks, created, you assume, for decent reasons – love of nature, securing their preservation for all the people, not the few that could grab the land, yet Native American people were driven off these lands – the distinction between man and Nature was extended to its original inhabitants, who were now seen as potentially polluting interlopers (even if they just polluted the view). Often, Winchester notes, this has been advocated by misanthropes, from John Muir to Ted Turner to the Duke of Edinburgh, who didn’t want their slice of paradise encumbered by other humans. The creation of national parks is, then, not that different to the land grabs of the nineteenth century in the US – the idea that native people should get out of the way of progress is a flipside of the idea that native people should get out of the way of pristine conservation – built on the same assumption that the land is somehow disconnected to the people, and not part of their identity.