Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud

Review by Peter Reason, 27 August 2019

I have on my desk three pieces of rock, collected during my ecological pilgrimage on in the west coast of Scotland, that I wrote about in In Search of Grace. The first is a pink granite pebble from the west coast of Mull; the second, a smooth piece of sandstone collected from the shores of Loch Torridon; the third is a chunk of gneiss, rough and crystalline, from the Island of Lewis. The granite was extruded about four hundred million years ago; the Torridonean sandstone laid down maybe two billion years ago; the gneiss, among the oldest rocks on the planet, could be three and a half billion years ago.

You might see them as just pebbles picked up on the beach, but they carry a deeper significance. As I sailed north, living with and learning about older, then still older rocks, I felt myself journeying, not just along the spectacular Scottish coastline, but into ‘deep time’.  Through this journey I came to realize how geological time is of a quite different order from human time—how can we, from our ‘four score years and ten’, conceive of three and a half billion years of these ancient rocks, or the four and a half billion years of Earth? I often tell the story of collecting them and learning about them, which seems to evoke a shared sense of wonder in others. And I have written and recorded a song which I hope catches some of that feeling.

Contemplating deep time shows us how short is our modern span of attention, with the everyday spin of the news cycle, companies making quarterly profit reports, even five-year parliaments. This might lead one to conclude that human life is insignificant; but it can also lead to wonder that we are participants in the unfolding story of life on Earth. Both these views carry some truth.

So when my internet browsing took me to Timefulness: Minding Nature and Thinking in Deep, I was immediately fascinated. In this world of absurdly short attention spans, here was a geologist writing about how we might better appreciate the nature of geological time, ‘how the world is made by—indeed made of—time’. I was not disappointed. As soon as I opened the book I was engrossed. Marcia Bjornerud is a storyteller with an elegant turn of phrase, artfully drawing on her personal experience as well as her expertise throughout the book.

Chapter One is a call to look Time honestly in the face: ‘Most humans… have no sense of temporal proportion—the durations of the great chapters in Earth’s history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of “natural capital”…’ (original emphasis). This means we make major changes to landscapes and ecosystems with little or no attention to long-established patterns—and then are surprised when we run up against natural laws. Just as like a musical symphony, ‘The grandeur of Earth’s story lies in the gradually unfolding, interwoven rhythms of its many movements, with short motifs scampering over tones that resonate across the entire span of human history’. Bjornerud claims that geology is particular among the sciences in requiring ‘whole brain thinking’ and scholarly habits more associated with literature and the arts: close reading, sensitivity to allusion and analogy, capacity of spatial visualization.

Chapter Two tells the story of how geologists mapped the ‘ocean of time’, first from the fossil record, then through natural radioactivity. This is a fascinating story of arguments and debates both between groups of scientists and with theologians and social theorists. The chapter contains technical discussion of isotope geochemistry that may test some readers’ brains, but it is not difficult to follow the gist of the argument without delving into detail. Chapter Three tells of the intrinsic rhythms of the Earth—tectonics, landscape and mountain formation, and the link between these and evolution of life forms. Chapter Four is about the evolution of the atmosphere and the mass extinctions that occurred when the environmental upheavals outpaced the biosphere’s capacity to adapt.

Chapter Five explores the Anthropocene, which Bjornerud describes as ‘the tipping point at which rates of environmental change caused by humans outstripped those by many natural geologic and biological processes’. It is unfortunate that she does not acknowledge the debates around the term ‘Anthropocene’, or explore, even briefly, just which groups of humans have caused this upset. But what she does well is place the rapid changes of present time in the context of ‘great accelerations’ that have occurred in the past. What lessons can be learned from climate change over Earth’s history that are relevant to the present? How do we understand the relationship between uniformity and discontinuity in geological processes?

The argument for uniformity—that present-day processes are the same as those that operated in the past—arose from the work of James Hutton and Charles Lyell in the nineteenth century. This placed cataclysmic events like Noah’s flood firmly in mythology. But overemphasis on uniformity can lead us to overlook the radical changes that have taken place, for example in the ‘Great Oxidation Event’ in which microbes produced free oxygen and changed the composition of the atmosphere; and rapid changes of Ice Ages. The arrival of the Anthropocene challenges the perspective of uniformity. Changes in Earth processes now take place within human memory span: just today I read in the Guardian of the stress experienced by Greenlanders as their landscape literally melts away. Bjornerud tells of revisiting Svalbard years after her research there as a young scientist and her shock at seeing the demise of its glaciers; she remarks wryly that the word ‘glacial’ can no longer be taken as a metaphor for imperceptible change. We are now, as in times past, in a time of ‘great accelerations’. The Anthropocene has ‘put Nature firmly back in charge, with a still-unpublished set of rules we will simply have to guess at’.

In the final chapter, Bjornerud returns to reflection on time, arguing that we are stranded in a ‘Now’, with no links to either past or future and no appetite for intergenerational action. She draws our attention to the Iroquois Great Binding Law of seven generations, and to the work of contemporary artists and conservationists, to the Clock of the Long Now, to the Svalbard Global Seed Bank, places where we are beginning to be future-oriented. But these are just beginnings; as Robert Macfarlane asks in conversation with Barry Lopez about his latest book Underland, the ‘shock of the Anthropocene’ leads to the powerful question, “Are we being good ancestors?”

Bjornerud quotes Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of environmental thought, writing in A Sand County Almanac, that we need to start ‘Thinking like a mountain’. This book joins others in what might be seen as a curriculum on deep time thinking. I am personally familiar with the work of Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker on The Universe Story in both book and on line format; and the Deep Time Walk conceived by Stephan Harding of Schumacher College and available in digital form.

But I will leave the last word to Marcia Bjornerud: ‘Earth is speaking to us all the time,’ Bjornerud tells us, ‘in every stone it offers an eternal truth; in every leaf, a prototype power station; in every ecosystem, an exemplar of a healthy economy’.

Will we learn to listen?

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His most recent publication is On Presence: Essays | Drawings, with artist Sarah Gillespie http://peterreason.eu/OnPresence.htmlHis writing includes In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea (Vala Publications and Jessica Kingsley, 2014). Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu  and on Twitter @peterreason.

Bjornerud, Marcia. Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (Princeton University Press, 2018). 978-0691181202, 224pp., hardback.

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