NOVEMBER 16, 2020
IN 1788, the Scottish geologist James Hutton published a book called Theory of the Earth, and time got longer. Hutton’s careful scrutiny of the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands, and later the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, convinced him that the geological processes that shaped the earth began not on the night of October 22, 4004 BC, as Archbishop James Ussher’s widely accepted biblical chronology held, but had rather unfolded over millions of years. Telling time through striations in rugged granite, Hutton memorably wrote that “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Hutton had unlocked the vaults of geological time that would later allow Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection.
James Hutton discovered “deep time,” but the literary critic Thomas Carlyle coined the term in an essay on James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. Speaking of Johnson’s work as if it were a force of nature, Carlyle asked, “[W]ho shall compute what effects have been produced, and are still, and into deep Time, producing?” Poets and critics have always been interested in the longue durée of history — from the undying fame of Horace’s poetic monument, more eternal than bronze, to Christian Bök’s ongoing Xenotext, a poem encoded in the DNA of living cells. But whereas poets seek to achieve a kind of immortality, to make the dead speak and to speak after death, geologists see us all as fossils waiting to be: we are all already dead.
David Farrier’s Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils attempts to harmonize poetic and geological time — and does so at a moment when the uncannily rapid pace of climate change has forced us to renegotiate our relationship to the natural and political future. We think in hours and days, not in centuries or millennia, but Farrier sets out to help us overcome this limitation through vivid evocations of what our distant ancestors might uncover thousands and even millions of years down the line. He strives for the ancient Greek rhetorical ideal of enargeia, what Alice Oswald has translated as “bright unbearable reality,” with which poets or rhetoricians would “peer beyond the present moment” and put the future before the audience as if it were happening here and now. Using the tools of the poet, Farrier wants us to think more like scientists, to look at our relative insignificance and fragility straight on.
“To perceive future fossils,” Farrier writes,
means to see what the Anthropocene’s bright unbearable reality reveals; to look at a city as a geologist might, and to approach the problem of making nuclear waste safe from the perspective of an engineer; to understand the chemical stories in a piece of plastic waste; and to listen to the silences that echo in collapsed ecosystems.
Looking at the present as a soon-to-be fossilized figment of someone else’s past alienates you from reality the way a Renaissance vanitas painting does: one of those spooky still-lives in which the radiant bloom of flowers or the over-ripeness of grapes is undercut by a gaping skull or an ominous hourglass. All beauty exists in tension with mortality, these paintings tell us, and you get the sense that a similar conviction drives Farrier’s search for future fossils. Without acknowledging it, Farrier gives a secular account of a temporality that ultimately belongs to faith, in which every action is judged sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity.
Farrier teaches literature at the University of Edinburgh, nearby the Salisbury Crags, and for him future fossils are really signs that, woven together in a geological stratum, tell stories. Every human deed is an act of communication to someone, someplace; every footprint sends a message. Looking upon a grand new bridge spanning the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Farrier observes that, even when “the bridge’s thin towers, its choir of shining cables and elegantly curving deck” have disappeared, perhaps in a million years from now, “the concrete foundation and the rock cutting will still be legible, written into the earth like speech marks around a lost quotation, bearing witness that here, once upon a time, a road crossed a river that will itself long since have vanished.” He hefts a 200,000-year-old Paleolithic hand-axe crafted by early residents of the British Isles, feeling how “[a] gentle depression had been worn away exactly where my thumb was pressed,” and wonders, “Would someone in the far future pick up a piece of twenty-first-century plastic, something molded to fit anonymously in the user’s hand like a bottle or a toothbrush, and feel that same jolt of connection?”
Any journey in deep time will be leisurely, and in Footprints we accompany Farrier on an unhurried (and presumably carbon intensive) itinerary from his classroom in Edinburgh to the sprawl of Shanghai, from the ailing Great Barrier Reef to an ice-core drilling tent in Antarctica, and from a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland to a marine research station on the Baltic Sea. His tour, facilitated by academic grants, notably does not include any government buildings, climate protests, or corporate headquarters, and we realize that Farrier’s itinerary isn’t a political mission so much as a private quest. Marveling at the delicate intricacy of the world, pregnant with a significance that lies just beyond our ken, Farrier speaks the wondering language of close observation that has defined nature writing at least since Thoreau, and arguably since his early modern predecessor, Sir Thomas Browne. He shows us a world rich with sense, everywhere encoded by natural and human activity. “Ice is the planet’s seat of memory,” he writes, what he calls “a global archive reaching back hundreds of thousands of years,” the natural equivalent of Borges’s Library of Babel. And even as we melt and burn away what nature has written into the world, our pollution pumps a new kind of information into the cloud in an act of diabolical translation. When our books have been composted and reintegrated into the earth and the internet goes dark, “our data will persist for thousands of years as molecules of carbon circulating in the atmosphere.”
Farrier draws upon a rich library of imagined futures and mythical pasts — on Walter Benjamin’s urban bricolage in his Arcades Project, indigenous Australian and Scandinavian origin stories, the dystopian visions of J. G. Ballard, and, throughout, the shapeshifting tales of Ovid’s Metamorphoses — to communicate with a particular richness exactly what we will lose, and how we will lose it. But for all of its literary embroidery, Footprints doesn’t try to enchant the world, or, like conservationist writing, make us love what it is our inaction is destroying. The book is neither clarion call nor elegy. Rather, Footprints is what comes after elegy: a bracing but ultimately therapeutic meditation on the truth that, in the grand scheme of things, nature will always overwhelm us. The bright unbearable reality of the Anthropocene isn’t just that humanity’s intemperate power has touched every corner of the globe: it’s also that you and I have never, as individuals, been less capable of confronting the challenges we face. Now that we’ve killed nature, humanity has become everything and humans have become nothing. So there may be a certain quiet comfort to be had in understanding that, no matter how powerful we are, in the long run the universe tends toward entropy.
Farrier has given us enargeia, then, but he has subtly shifted its aims: enargeia, which the Roman rhetorician Quintilian translated as evidentia, was first theorized as a tool of persuasion, evidence used to make a case for action. Yet Farrier’s vividness doesn’t convince us to act so much as to put our action, and inaction, in perspective. The deep future, smoothing over the temporal edges and grooves we use to frame our politics, doesn’t enhance our sense of moral obligation to unborn generations, as Farrier half-heartedly claims in the book’s closing pages. Instead, visualizing future fossils helps us with the private task of coping with the underlying truth of which ecological consciousness is only the latest manifestation: we live in a fragile, contingent world, and everything that we care about will one day disappear. Geological thinking is the Stoicism of the Anthropocene, a resource for learning how to die in the world we have made for ourselves.
But what about how to live? What about how to act? The novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh observed in 2016 that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” Ghosh identifies a need for literature that helps us think the unthinkable of the climate crisis, or that confronts us with the suffering all around us — an art in the service of politics. But there is also a need for a private art that helps us handle the demands of living, and living together, in a world that simultaneously feels tiny and enormous, plagued by problems even a hero couldn’t solve. Particularly in these days of confinement and frustration, there is a need for a literature of grief, that, like Greek tragedy, helps us cope with the limits of what an individual and a community can accomplish. Footprints give us the resources to plot both political victories and failures in a story that lasts much longer than an election cycle, a pandemic, or even the short history of humanity itself. Paradoxically, recognizing that in the end we’ll all someday be fossils may help us return to politics even when we know we may well fail: Farrier’s geological Stoicism isn’t a rejection of public action so much as its necessary private complement. We must look long and hard into the bright unbearable reality of the deep future — and then put on our masks and get back to work.