Category Archives: Geology

It makes my flesh weary: Jacquetta Hawkes and continental drift

Why do Earth’s continents fit together so neatly?  Were they once joined together?  If so, why did they move apart?  Are they still moving and if so, how?   The theory of plate tectonics, developed during the 1960s, elegantly answers these puzzling questions.  The continents are on plates which move thanks to convection, grind against each other and move as new rocks rise up through the ocean ridges and push the plates apart.  We now see that Earth’s geology is a dynamic, living system, with renewal centred on the sea bed.

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When Jacquetta Hawkes wrote A Land, this theory hadn’t yet taken shape.   Geological change in her worldview was overwhelmingly vertical: land rose through volcanic activity and was then worn down, endlessly.

” … the limestones and sandstones, the chalk and clay that make so great a part of the landscape of Britain. It makes my flesh weary to recall this seemingly endless levelling down. In fact it is not endless. So long as the hard skin on which we live rests on a morass of molten magma, there must come a moment when it will weaken and ruck up, and as the energy long curbed below is freed, the sedimentary rocks that have been laid so quietly on the sea floor may be thrust up ruggedly into the air.”

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Tim Radford cites this striking passage in a chapter on plate tectonics in his new Guardian short, Science that changed the world.   For him, Jacquetta’s book, along with The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, illustrates the 1950s view of the workings of Earth:

“For [Carson], and for Hawkes, the ocean floor was the basement, the foundation, the oldest part of the planet. It was pretty difficult to imagine how a continent could migrate across it. The seeming snugness of fit of the Brazilian bump and the west African concavity was just as likely to be a co-incidence: just one of those puzzling things in a perpetually puzzling world. There were, indeed, as both writers seem casually to concede, schools of thought that contended that continents could move. It was just that nobody could imagine how the continents could have moved, and then propose an empirical way of proving that they did”.

Photo credit: Globes in the National Geographic shop, Regent Street, 2008.  Ricardo’s flickr stream, CC BY 2.0.

Stone-book and word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane returns to A Land

A Land, the unique, unclassifiable book Jacquetta Hawkes was born to write, is celebrated in the latest publication from nature writer Robert Macfarlane: LANDMARKS.

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Landmarks is a word-hoard, a glossary of disappearing dialect words for British nature phenomena, a celebration of the particular and the specific (qualities to which Jacquetta was of course drawn in her own writing).  Macfarlane reflects on his own journey into nature writing and the authors who influenced him.  He describes A Land as the “stone-book” of his twenties and devotes several pages to reflections on its power and strangeness.

Macfarlane always has interesting things to say about A Land, a book he has clearly pondered over many years.  I noticed the way he discusses an interesting paradox in A Land.  Its scale is both very broad – spanning millennia, transcending ideas of nation/country/race, absurd when seen from the perspective of deepest time – and very precise.  It is recognisably a product of its particular time and place: New Elizabethan Britain: the era of the Festival of Britain, renewal after the privations of post-war austerity, the romantic modernism of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.  As Macfarlane notes, Jacquetta shaped the relationship of these disparate elements with aplomb and daring, zooming from her own garden to the Cretaceous and bringing all together with passion, deep knowledge and honesty.

From Aquabob to Zawn, Guardian article by Robert Macfarlane about the word-hoard in Landmarks & some (very positive) reviews of the book: Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Times Higher Education Supplement.

A Land: An Object

A Land (1951) is the fusion of poetry and geology that is Jacquetta Hawkes’ best-known and most quintessential publication.  The book, and later responses to it, regularly feature on this blog.  Jacquetta believed that understanding the past and nature, how civilisation developed, was essential to human well-being, even survival.  This book expresses these ideas in a stunning new way, and resonates with activists, artists and academics to this day.

The title, in its various published and unpublished forms, is this week’s Object in the 100 Objects online exhibition at the University of Bradford.

Jacquetta circa 1951

Jacquetta circa 1951

Sandstone Grottoes

Jacquetta Hawkes helped her readers see the world around them in a new way, by sharing her scientific and imaginative identification with the past and nature.  Since reading her works and becoming custodian of her amazing archive, I have had several experiences where I realise that Jacquetta has changed the way I think.  Here is the most recent.  I’ll write about some of the others in future posts.

Amazing  grottos, near Lagos on the Algarve

Amazing grottos, near Lagos on the Algarve

Visiting the Algarve, I noticed the stunning colours of the sandstone cliffs: butter yellow, ochre, sunset red, and how they sagged and slumped like old cakes, and were being eroded into fabulous grottoes.  I thought about how these rocks formed,  how they looked long ago, how they would change in future, and contrasted them with the limestone cliffs I saw elsewhere on that stunning coastline.  I don’t think I would have noticed or thought about these things before reading A Land.