Thursday, June 16, 2005

Geology as Metaphor

I've never really regretted my decision to train as a geologist, even though I'm very interested in literature and poetry as well. Geology is a fascinating and very broad subject about which very few people are properly educated. If they were, they would appreciate much more about the world around them: the way that geology controls landscape and flora, the soil in your garden, the coastlines, the buildings around us, Any real appreciation of nature must begin with geology. I spent the first part of my career as a geologist, about twelve years, just studying or doing research. This was a long period of learning, just visiting places where rocks stuck out of the ground and looking, describing, photographing, tapping with my hammer. What I discovered then, I now put into practice as a geologist.

Like most geologists, I have a good sense of the four-dimensionality of the world. I can envision the three-dimensional nature of the earth, and then add the fourth dimension, which is time. To do this, I have to clearly separate my observations from my interpretations. My observations represent the three-dimensional, static picture of the earth. My interpretations provide the historical, dynamic interpretation: for example, these layers of rock over here were produced by sudden chaotic deposition, while this erosive scar over there is where a slope collapsed to create the chaotic mass of sediment. Geology is a sort of puzzle game in which features of the earth are seen to be nested inside each other like elements of a Russian doll. Once we understand how one fits inside another, we are able to understand the chain of influences and earth surface processes which produced them.

An extra layer of complexity, rather intriguing, resides in the dynamic interface between the present influence of geology on our lives and its past historical record. Here is a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss' 'Tristes Tropiques' that helps to explain: "I count among my most precious memories... a hike along the flank of a limestone plateau in Languedoc to determine the line of contact between two geological strata. It was something quite different from a walk or a simple exploration of space. It was a quest, which would have seemed incoherent to some unitiated observer, but which I look upon as the very image of knowldege, with the difficulties it involves and the delights it affords. Every landscape appears first of all as a vast chaos which leaves one free to choose the meaning one wants to give it. But over and above agricultural considerations, geographical irregularities and the various accidents of history and prehistory, the most majestic meaning of all is surely that which precedes, commands and, to a large extent explains the others. A pale blurred line, or an almost imperceptible difference in the shape and consistency of rock fragments, are evidence of the fact that two oceans once succeeded each other where, today, I can see nothing but barren soil... When the miracle occurs, as it sometimes does; when, on one side and the other of the hidden crack, there are suddenly to be found cheek-by-jowl two green plants of hidden species, each of which has chosen the most favourable soil; and when at the same time two ammonites with unevenly intricate involutions can be glimpsed in the rocks, thus testifying in their own way to a gap of several tens of thousands of years suddenly space and time become one: the living diversity of the moment juxtaposes and perpetuates the ages. Thought and emotion move into a new dimension where every drop of sweat, every muscular movement, every gasp of breath becomes symbolic of a past history, the development of which is reproduced in my body, at the same time as my thought embraces its significance. I feel myself to be steeped in a more dense intelligibility, within which centuries and distances answer each other and speak with one and the same voice."

This passionate exposition of the the special character of geology science is immediately followed by the drawing of a comparison: "When I became acquainted with Freud's theories, I quite naturally looked upon them as the application, to the individual human being, of a method the basic pattern of which is represented by geology." To put it simply, Levi-Strauss saw that the psychologist was trying to make the same journey as the geologist through the chaotic landscape of a mind, trying to find the underlying historical development and perhaps discover where some key change had occured, or to use the metaphor that Levi-Strauss intends, 'where one ocean succeeded another'.

This evening I attended the launch of a magazine of poetry and literature called "Upstairs at Duroc" at WICE. There was a reading of poetry by several authors and then, afterwards, I got into a conversation about geology with one of the poets. I was explaining why geology interested me and she immediately latched onto what I was saying about the erosion of sediment from one place and its deposition in another as a metaphor for the way life and death continues, displaced from one place and flourishing in another, referring to her recent experiences in Sumatra where she had witnessed some of the results of the Christmas tsunami. The erosion and deposition metaphor might equally apply to the distribution of wealth, accumulating in one place while being denuded from another. I told her about the debate between the uniformitarians or gradualists and the catastrophists. How the experience of seeking the tsunami had modified my views about geology by showing me the devastation that a single event occurring once every hundred years can produce. Such catastrophic events events can surely wipe out the last hundred years of steady, gradual sediment deposition, completely modifying the nature of the geological record. She, in turn told me about Hawaii, where she sometimes lives, and where she takes pictures of lava in which she sees the representations of strange creatures and beings. Hawaiians who look at her work say to her: "So, you can see them too." In fact, no great surprise there. Humans have always been sensitive to interpreting rocks in other ways. There is something about the wild and ragged character of rocks that asks to be interpreted, and hence another major aspect of the influence of geology: on the imagination.

We talked about the tsunami tragedy and how the human instinct is to seek to blame something. I mentioned this feeling only recently in the blog about my friend who fell into The Loire river. In Sumatra, according to this poet's experiences, religion asks for people to accept it as the will of Allah. On the other hand, there is also a widespread sentiment that seeks to demonise those who died as 'bad' people who deserved what was coming to them and perhaps this relates to what I wrote in my blog about the Loire, that at some level we have to blame the victims themselves, simply out of a psychological need to settle blame and find peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was looking for a description of what geological exploration entails, for a museum I am designing, and I came across your inspiring "Geology as Metaphor". We are developing a model of a coastline that shows how vegetation on the surface, human intervention and deep geological forces build the environment as we know it. It is fascinating. Thank you for describing simply the instantaneous difference between 3D and 4D. What a wonder to be able to compact space and time. Read John McPhee about a year ago - Assembling California, where I first came across your idea of static observation and dynamic interpretation. Thanks!