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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth: An Intimate History

Air Date: Week of

Taking down the history of how the Earth was formed would seem an exhaustive and near impossible chore. But author Richard Fortey set to the task with relish, employing the curiosity of a scientist, a penchant for travelling, and a love for storytelling. He talks with host Steve Curwood about the fruits of his expedition: “Earth: An Intimate History.”


CURWOOD: When the first geologists took pick axes and shovels to the earth, earth science seemed an undecipherable code carved into the deep crags and canyons of mountains and valleys.

The idea that the earth’s crust might consist of huge sheets of land pushing and sliding against each other was, well, just a notion – and in certain circles, a laughable one.

Even the father of geology, James Hutton, said of the planet’s history, “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Well today, geologists can confidently date the history of the Earth to four and a half billion years, and the theory of plate tectonics is a hard science. It took many centuries to reach these conclusions, but as author Richard Fortey points out, it barely constitutes a blink in geologic time.

Mr. Fortey is a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and he’s written a book called “Earth: An Intimate History.” In it he tells the stories of Earth’s formation and of the people who devoted their lives to the study of it. Richard Fortey joins me now from the studios of the BBC in London. Hello, sir. Welcome to Living on Earth.

FORTEY: Hello.

CURWOOD: Mr. Fortey, I have to say that I’m a bit envious of your job. Because for this book, you and, I believe, your daughter, decided to travel the world to see the actual evidence of the geologic change and how it’s affected civilizations—and you got to visit all these cool places.

FORTEY: Yeah, it was a lucky thing to be able to do, sometimes with my daughter, sometimes with the rest of my family. But you know, there are places that are quite easy to visit like Hawaii, or the Grand Canyon. Others a little more esoteric perhaps, like the Deccan traps in India, and so on. But it’s a wonderful thing to do. I needed to choose places that seemed to me to have the greatest connotations, both geological and for the human connections with the geology. Of course, the world is an infinite feast from which I could pick only a few items. What I wanted to do for the intimate history was to take the items which would make the story hang together best.

CURWOOD: So, the way the earth was formed, what does that have to do with how we live today? You write that geology can shape civilizations, culture even.

FORTEY: Well if you look back into history, the way the world has divided up into, say, linguistic groups, cultural groups, is ultimately under the control of geology. So, for example, think of the differences between the peoples north and south of the Himalayas.

CURWOOD: Mm-hmm…

FORTEY: It’s extremely hard for people to cross – even the individual valleys within the Himalayas have cultural differences. Their history has been controlled to a large extent by those barriers. That’s a great control.

But even on a small scale, the way cities looked – you know, the kind of cities that could be built – was controlled by the rocks that underlay it. For example, you could build tower blocks in New York because you had that nice, firm metamorphic rock to drive your piles down into. And the particular building stones are what have given, well, let’s say the majority of French cities and towns their own peculiar and interesting flavor. So geology controls the character of the world to a large extent.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the Alps. We know, of course, the story of Hannibal coming across the Alps. Why does the geology of the Alps make, in fact, that excursion necessary? And what does it mean in terms of human and cultural history?

FORTEY: Well the Alps are really one of the places where mountains changed their meaning, their cultural meaning. Remember if we go back to, say, the 16th century, mountains weren’t places of awe and wonder as they are now. You know, people didn’t go mountain walking for pleasure. They were horrific, they were something to be shuddered at and left alone. It was really, well, should we say, the invention of the Romantic Movement – people like Goethe and so on – that turned mountains into places of wonderment. And in a purely practical way it’s when you could reach them via the early railways, for example, that they became accessible to the larger numbers of people. Now, of course, they’re considered places of spiritual refreshment. Well, you have to go back to Emerson and people like that to understand where this kind of emotion about mountains began. They weren’t always like that. The Alps, of course, are also a classic area, perhaps the classic area, for unscrambling the story of how mountains are put together and their origins.

CURWOOD: You have this great line in your book that describes the Alps, and it reads like this: “It is a place where nature has apparently relished stirring up the strata on such a scale such as to make wriggling rock conundra to torment the minds of scientists.” To the untrained eye, what does such a scene like this look like? And why does it torment you scientists who look at it?

FORTEY: Well, you have to imagine you’re standing on the shores of Lake Lucerne, or somewhere like that. You look through to the other side of the lake and there you can see the strata folded back upon themselves, piled up, one lot of rock apparently piled over another. How did this happen? And it’s taken, well, perhaps 150 years for geologists to work out how these mountains were put together. And you can see the gradual unraveling of the mountains as more and more observations were made, and eventually these were fitted together within the theoretical concept of plate tectonics.

CURWOOD: I don’t suppose most would think of this today, but the science of geology, certainly a century ago, was a pretty controversial field. And one geologist even suffered a nervous collapse for his efforts trying to present his material. Could you tell us about Charles Lapworth and his ultimate contribution to the field?

FORTEY: Oh, well Lapworth was a brilliant man who solved the problem of a structure in the northwest highlands of Scotland called the Moine Thrust. Lapworth realized – for very good evidence, because he was a marvelous field man – that the Moine Thrust was a layer where one enormous load of rocks was pushed bodily over another layer of rocks. Older probably over younger. But many, many people disagreed with this; they wanted the rocks, as it were, to be piled up simply in the right order. And Lapworth suffered mentally tremendously as he fought out this controversy, to the extent that he used to dream or have nightmares about being crushed under what he called the great Earth engine.

CURWOOD: As I read your book I get the impression that the amount of time that any individual researchers on the face of the planet, compared to the length of this planet’s existence, which is, what, four and a half billion years? I mean, to understand the Earth is rather like understanding culture by being dropped in it for three seconds and being able to grab all the information you can in that brief moment, and then trying to describe the entire culture. I mean, how the heck do you do that?

FORTEY: Well, partly right. I mean, geologists are historians of billions of years of time, and all you have to go on are what information is left behind in the rocks. So sometimes the further you go back in time the more difficult it is to infer what exactly was going on. So you have to use smaller and smaller hints to try and construct the face of the world.

CURWOOD: Now what’s the most impressive geologic feature for you personally?

FORTEY: Well, a single feature is a difficult one to identify, of course. I have to say that I almost reluctantly was persuaded by my publisher to go down the Grand Canyon. Why reluctantly? Because it is so well known I thought, this place is almost a kind of geological cliché.

And, of course, how wrong I was. When you’re actually there it is truly staggering. And to descend down into it – which takes, of course, as you know, even on mule back, a whole day – is to see laid out before you the most explicit vision of geological time, two billion years old. These rocks at the base – and you can see, above them you can see the comparatively younger rocks, which are, let’s say, a mere five, six hundred million years old – laid horizontally and unaltered above them, as if they’d been laid down not so long ago.

And yet these very, very deep rocks have been twisted, baked, and are themselves the remnant of one of these ancient geological cycles I was talking about, deep and distant past. So it gives you a respect, really, for the enormously complex and long process it’s taken to put the world together. And if people could only get that feeling for how long the earth has been here, and how complicated it is, and how it’s been put together by cycle after cycle. Maybe they would think more carefully about mucking around with it today and doing things that have never been done in geological history before.

CURWOOD: Richard Fortey is a senior paleontologist with the Natural History Museum in London. His new book is called “Earth: An Intimate History.” Richard, thanks for taking this time with me today.

FORTEY: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.



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