Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier

Review by Peter Reason

Footprints David Farrier

In 2013, a spring storm uncovered, on the shores of Norfolk, the oldest traces of humanity discovered outside Africa: fossil footprints made by early humans 850,000 years ago. They showed a mixed group of adults and children heading south: a trace of human activity long ago that soon disappeared as the tide washed away the prints.

David Farrier asks us to consider what traces we modern humans will leave behind in the deep future. We tend to see the planet as a ‘succession of sinks and taps’ and this keeps us focussed on the present. ‘Earth’s long pulse shapes the arc of our lives, but to see this is a tremendous challenge to our everyday imaginations’. Farrier’s book is his response to this imaginative challenge: chapter by chapter, he focusses on a different dimension of contemporary life and imagines the traces these will leave in the deep future.

He starts with the construction of modern roads: we move vast quantities of material, link the centres of human activity and in doing so create divisions in wilderness and deposit huge quantities of synthetic particles abraded from tyres and brakes. Every stone quarried from the ground leaves behind a hole of equal size (or more). Even as fragments, road will leave permanent traces on the planet. The high seas are not exempt: shipping lanes are marked on the ocean floor by the debris dropped from ships: discarded plastic tipped on top of layers of clinker dumped overboard by coal burning steamships in the nineteenth century.

From roads Farrier turn to cities, which are, he reminds us, ‘incipient ruins’. He focusses on Shanghai, a city that has experienced ‘convulsive expansions’ in its growth from small beginnings into a megacity. Built on former swamp land, Shanghai builds high and digs low: its skyscrapers are constructed on piles that reach ninety metres below ground; and its metro lines and shopping malls plunge many floors below sea level. It is here that Farrier sees the potential for preservation, imagining tunnels filled first with thick marine mud as the city is flooded by the rising sea, then crushed flat under layers of sediment. Many things will leave distinctive traces: plastic, stainless steel, glass, but distorted out of recognition.

So the book continues, with chapters on plastic, ice cores, coral reefs, mining, extinctions, microbes, and how these all store traces of human activity. Each chapter weaves together the stories of his inquiries: the people he meets, the evidence and perspectives he gathers. Between these, he weaves reflections on myth and literature—Farrier is, after all, an English Literature academic. The discussion of the story told by ice cores compared to Borges ‘Library of Babel’; reflections on extinctions threaded through with tales of Virginia Woolf; the chapter on coral loss is titled Medusa’s Gaze. There are references of J.G.Ballard, Ben Okri, Roland Barthes, Ursula Le Guin, William Golding, and many, many more.

My understanding is that Farrier is attempting to draw on these literary sources to cast our imagination forward in deep time—which in his introduction he argues is so difficult. For me, this strategy was not wholly successful, and for quite a while I put the book to one side, my bookmark resting hauntingly between two-thirds and three-quarters through. I personally find the book cluttered with references and stories that seem tangential. He also covers so much scientific ground that I wonder about the accuracy of his information—and how quickly it will become out of date.

As I wondered how to write about this book, I remembered other writing on deep time. There is Marcia Bjornerud’s Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. She agrees with Farrier that we are stranded in the ‘now’ with poor links to deep past or future; and commends strategies such as ‘the clock of the long now’ and Aldo Leopold’s injunction to ‘think like a mountain’. Barry Lopez’ Horizon in places takes us very effectively back in deep time in his stories from archaeological explorations in the high Arctic; and of palaeontology in Africa; as does Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. Robert Macfarlane deals with similar questions in Underland, and in conversation with Barry Lopez suggests that the ‘shock of the Anthropocene’ leads to the powerful question, “Are we being good ancestors?” And Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky raise the question of whether we will be ancestors at all in Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis.

We must remember, though, that all living beings impact the physical processes of the planet and have done so since very early times. The invention of oxygen-producing photosynthesis by cyanobacterium in the Archean period changed the atmosphere of Earth for ever. Tiny algae known as coccolithophores used the calcium carbonate washed down from rivers to structure their bodies; these, crushed and sedimented, form the chalk cliffs we are all so familiar with. In the process, coccolithophores were part of a process that drew carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this contributing to the regulation of planetary temperatures; the white cliffs of Dover can be understood as solidified atmosphere. At the other end of the spectrum of size, whales are part of a similar process: they consume prey at depth and defecate iron rich liquid faeces on the surface, thus fertilizing the plankton that draw carbon from the atmosphere. Finally, as Elizabeth Kolbert shows us in The Sixth Extinction, we must not forget that our own early ancestors brought about the extinction of the megafauna shortly after they migrated into a new region of the planet; and massively impacted the landscape in Neolithic times with the agricultural revolution, the consequences of which we are still living with.

While I find myself critical of Farrier’s approach, he joins an important debate and raises questions about modern humanity’s impact on the planet in deep time. It is, of course, easier to look backwards into deep past than forward into the deep future. But are past, present and future so separate? In the coda to his book, Farrier points out that ‘Future fossils pose the peculiar challenge of learning to see a change that is both promised and already arrived’. If the signs of new reality are all around us, if what seems most transient conceals that which will endure, how do we see it? How does our life now impact, not just to the seven generations of the Bible and the Iroquois Great Binding Law, but to humans thousands of generations separate from us who are wholly alien to what we can know or imagine?

I don’t know what moral responsibility we hold for humans—for all living beings—in the deep future. But I am sure it is important to draw ourselves out of our obsession with the present, to locate our human selves as a species, participating in the long process of life on Earth. And to this, Future Fossils makes an interesting contribution.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

David Farrier, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, (4th Estate, 2020). 978-0008286347, 307pp., hardback..

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