The Hidden Landscape by Richard Fortey
|The Hidden Landscape by Richard Fortey
|Category: Popular Science
|Reviewer: George Care
|Summary: A guide and introduction to the rocks, landscape and fossils of mainland Britain.
|Date: February 2010
|Publisher: Bodley Head
The purpose of this book is to explore the connection between the landscape and the geology underlying it, which in one of his many vivid similes Fortey compares the surface personality with the workings of the unconscious mind beneath. He starts by describing a journey he once made from Paddington Station to Haverford West, a market town in Pembrokeshire and with it a passage back into the plutonic depths of geological aeons, indicated by the large 60cm monster trilobites that have been found in the Cambrian rocks near St David's. Fortey describes the magnificence of the Cathedral constructed from the local purple sandstone and mottled with moisture-loving lichens. He contrasts this with the anonymous character of a nearby brightly-coloured service station, anonymous and synthetic, an invader cheaply built and out of context.
Fortey's tour begins with the ancient Lewisian Gneiss of the North-West Highlands and the formation in their complex metamorphic variety. He explains how these were penetrated by dark dykes of igneous Scourie, the action of glaciers and how in places the Gneiss has been overlaid by the local mountains which are masses of sediment. These latter layers are called Torridonian. They are some 1000 million years old and contain single-celled algae. Whilst describing the full complexity of this ancient scene, Fortey provides a useful glossary of key definitions which reassure the reader wanting to understand this full detail. He proceeds to explain the fundamental divide of the Iapetus Ocean. (Illustrated also in the accompanying photographs.) This once separated northern from southern Britain some 500 million years ago, the closure of which created the magnificent Caledonian mountains.
The reader is swiftly conveyed through the Caledonian landscape which is economically characterised; This is where population density plummets, and where the Gaelic language lingers in patches. This is the country where metamorphism rules. Crossing the Midland Valley, he is brought to the Southern Uplands - a tract of land which sweeps across through the Irish Sea to Down and Armagh. Here the rocks are dark sedimentary shales, paler grits and green mudstones. What makes the account engaging to the reader is the digression into the fascinating history of geology where Fortey takes us back to the discontinuities in the rock, specifically at Siccar Point, which led to the discoveries of Hutton in the mid-Eighteenth Century of the processes of folding and overlaying with later Devonian sediments. We are shown with clarity how the early discoveries were made and the modern comprehension of geology as a subject derived. Fortey writes about the fascinating early episodes of making geology with the same skill as Roger Osborne in his excellent book, The Floating Egg.
In the softer rocks and slates of Wales, the fossil trilobites are altered in shape in a manner which gives evidence of the deformations to which the rock has been subjected. In brief and characteristically diverting remarks, the connection between the geology of Avalonia (Newfoundland), Canada and the Appalachians are mentioned. Additionally, Fortey notes that Cambria-Roman Wales, the Ordivicians, the tribes whom the Romans conquered and the barbarian Silures have all given their names to the internationally recognised geological divisions of the Lower Paleozoic. Fortey writes with poetic feeling for that land which also inspired Dylan Thomas to write:
The heavenly music over the sand
Sounds with the grains as they hurry
Hiding the golden mountains and mansions
Of the grave, gay seaside land.
The Hidden Landscape conducts the reader on an extensive tour that joins the primeval geology with the soil and the lie of the land as it exists today. The flora, fauna, the occupations and lifestyle of recent generations are explored in detail. So in a later chapter the reader is introduced to the gentler morphology of the Weald. Even the taste of the waters in Spa towns like Tunbridge Wells depends upon the sensitivity of human taste to very small amounts of iron salts. Water from ferruginous beds and the ions it contains gives it a medicinal taste - the reason the wells were established there in 1606. In Kent there are cretaceous chalks, sands and the blue Weald clay that forms the vale to the west of Romney Marsh.
This intriguing book finishes with a chapter encouraging respect for the visible landscape. 'Texture is bequeathed by time', Fortey urges attention to the local building materials that contribute to the individuality of vernacular architecture. He praises the use of these resources by traditional craftsmen. This beguiling book finishes with praises for the campaigns of Natural England, for protection of Sites of Scientific Interest and congratulates the hard working volunteers of Regionally Important Geological Sites in their endeavours to preserve the variety nature has produced in the countryside over aeons. Well written and pleasingly presented this is a grand introduction to a popular subject.
I'd like to thank the Bodley Head for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Supercontinent by Ted Nield and Darwin: A Life in Science by John Gribbin and Michael White.
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