Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Deep time has been a persistent theme in British nonfiction over the last couple of years, showing up in books like Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. Getting a sense of deep time can be a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis. To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future,” as in Footprints by David Farrier, a glimpse at what the human species will leave behind. Helen Gordon’s Notes from Deep Time engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene.
Gordon was inspired by stumbling upon evidence of what the English landscape looked like millions of years ago. The chalk of the North Downs is what is left of a prehistoric ocean dating from the time of the dinosaurs. In East London, she found an excavation site on Cambridge Heath Road that revealed rock layers deposited during the Pleistocene. She opens by discussing the birth of geology as a scientific discipline, with key figures like James Hutton of eighteenth-century Edinburgh and major bodies like the British Geological Survey.
It gradually became common knowledge that heat is responsible for the Earth’s movements. Stratigraphy, as depicted by the book’s beautiful cover, was a way of differentiating between different eras, periods, and epochs. Gordon travels to California to find out more about plate tectonics and continental drift. She views the Hollywood fault and learns why earthquake prediction is so difficult. In Italy, she sees a dormant volcano and hears about the region’s evacuation planning – though saving lives depends on getting a 72-hour warning period.
I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. Gordon happened to visit Lyme Regis while the recent biopic of Anning starring Kate Winslet, Ammonite, was being shot. She also writes about petrified forests, palaeobotany, and how fossil evidence of colour aids palaeoartists in making their recreations. A chapter on dinosaurs, with trips to the Natural History Museum and dinosaur fossil hotspots in Utah, nicely balances the science with the cultural obsession.
A final section looks at manmade changes. Wandering through the streets of a city, one can have an eye on the different types of rock used as building materials: marble, Portland stone, limestone, and granite all come from different ages and places – they have, as it were, their own “terroir.” Gordon notes that the label “Anthropocene,” not officially accepted as a stratigraphic unit, is said to apply from the mid-twentieth century onward, though some suggest a start date of 1784 (for the invention of the steam engine, i.e., the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). She reports “Capitalocene” as a possible alternative, given that developed nations are more to blame for human-induced climate change.
It was only in the late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Farrier’s Footprints (he visited the same site in Finland). Overall, Gordon’s prose is well pitched to the layman’s level, and she never spends too long on any one topic. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life – such as attending several Jurassic Park-themed nuptial events – keep the material from becoming dry. Notes from Deep Time is an invigorating interdisciplinary tour through the science and culture of prehistory. I’ll be interested to see what subject the author turns to next.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She writes for the Times Literary Supplement and Wasafiri literary magazine, among other publications, and blogs at Bookish Beck. For years after the Jurassic Park film came out, she wanted to be a palaeontologist when she grew up.
Helen Gordon, Notes from Deep Time: A Journey through Our Past and Future Worlds (Profile Books, 2021). 978-1788161633, 336 pp., hardback.
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