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Tracing our history through word and land 

LP Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” We are still unravelling the mysteries of the earth’s history and are increasingly working out through geology and other studies just how differently things were done in relation to the planet’s health. Nick Mattiske considers our history in the context of two recent books dealing with the subject.  

The Earth’s layers of rock tell a story of spans of time as mindboggling, and as humbling, as the distances of deep space.  

As Marica Bjornerud relates in Timefulness, these layers of rock—the Earth’s pages—are a history continually revised and overwritten, and written in a language it took some time to interpret.  

Timefulness is an argument for geological literacy, for the value of understanding our past, our place in it, and its implications for the future. We tend, Bjornerud says, to be ignorant about much of Earth’s history, and I suppose this has partly to do with the tendency to think geology is a specialised endeavour.  

Even if geographical education is not what it used to be, most primary school children can name all the continents, but while dinosaurs continue to fascinate, most children couldn’t name the geological era the dinosaurs lived in (the Mesozoic).  

For many of us, the present is pressing. We live in a time of narrowed vision, despite all the interest in history, and the information that swamps us. Bjornerud suggests that economic rationalism is part of the problem—we seek the cheap, quick fix and the short-term gain. Also, we are anthropocentric. We think the world revolves around human beings, partly because we dominate so much of it. A literal reading of Genesis has at times fed into this, making us think the world is made for us. But this neglects the message of the Book of Job, where God effectively says, “What would you know about it? Were you there at the beginning?”  

In a similar way, geological history can give us a perspective on humanity that puts us in our place, taking into account the timeframes for mountain building, erosion and the water cycle (in the Limestone Coast region of South Australia, to take just one example, it takes 500 years for the water to filter through the few kilometres of limestone from Mount Gambier to the sea). 

 Bjornerud also argues for the practicality of understanding unstable geological areas and what we are doing to the planet. Although we now move more rock and soil than all the world’s rivers combined, we are not masters of nature, and our interference with nature is causing climate change, pollution and extinctions.  

Our attempts to fix the problem are often based on a misplaced faith in technology. Bjornerud warns that thinking of the world as something we can simply manipulate, as in a laboratory, will bring us undone. The planet is not so easily engineered. Geological and planet-wide processes are complex and not entirely predictable.  

In the 19th century there was conflict between uniformitarians, who, like Charles Lyell, thought landscapes were created largely by slow, uniform processes, and catastrophists, who argued for periods of stasis followed by cataclysms, from volcanoes or the biblical flood. They were both somewhat correct. The Earth is formed by both long processes and sudden changes. The global climate has repeatedly gone through times of slow cooling and rapid heating. The lesson is that it can get off kilter quickly, but takes a long time to recover. And we cannot assume continuity. Rather, a focus on geology will remind us that this planet we call home is changeable. 

The long human memory of such changes is the topic of The Edge of Memory. Patrick Nunn argues that in a literate culture we underestimate the power of oral cultures, but they can pass on memories for extraordinary lengths of time, educating people about the availability of resources, such as water sources, as well as telling about past catastrophes that are only recently being corroborated by Western science.  

In particular Nunn is interested in how within the myths of Indigenous Australia we can discern the traces of historic volcanic eruptions and sea rises. As with the Homeric legends of Troy, the myths have been embellished in order for them to persist over millennia but have some basis in historic reality. They are not just stories, but also historical evidence. And in Australia’s case, cultural isolation has meant a certain purity of retention, untainted by cultural mixing and (until recently) conquest.  

The memory of relatively recent eruptions (some only 5000 years ago) persists in stories of giants making ovens in the ground and rivers of fire, while the bunyip tales may refer to long-extinct megafauna. In other Indigenous stories relating to sea level rises, consistent across the country, we can trace the trauma of hunting grounds drowned, and peninsulas and people cut off from the mainland. Ten thousand years ago Australian shorelines were kilometres from their present position. The Great Barrier Reef was a series of sea cliffs, but the shores advanced inland in a span of only decades at up to five kilometres per year. Obviously such creeping but catastrophic change perplexed Indigenous people but was cemented in their lore.  

The biblical flood story, which tells of a similar catastrophe, was originally taken to be the account of a real event. In the 19th century, with the rise of modern biblical criticism and anthropology, it was decided the story was a myth, especially as there was evidence of similar tales from other Near East cultures, from which the Israelites supposedly borrowed, and it merely told a theological story.  

More recently, it has been suggested that the story does have a basis in actual events that were possibly traumatically widespread but not world-wide in the sense we understand it, and that various cultures remembered it in different ways (for Israel it was a reminder that the loving God has a plan for his people). Beyond the specifics of the story, it warns us, as do the stories of other ancient cultures, that we are not in control.  

Nick Mattiske 

Nick Mattiske is a bookseller and blogs at Coburg Review of Books. 

Author: Marcia Bjornerud 
Publisher: Princeton University Press 
To purchase Timefulness visit Footprint BooksJourney readers can enjoy a 15 per cent discount by clicking here and using the discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.  

The Edge of Memory  
Author: Patrick Nunn 
To purchase visit Bloomsbury

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