This book is simply a magnificent account of the Earth's structure and how it "works". Taking as his framework a series of visits to key sites - including Hawaii, Vesuvius, the Alps, Newfoundland and the North West coast of Scotland - Fortey explains not only the structure of the Earth and how it came to be as it is, but also how our understanding of that structure has grown and developed over the past 2000 years. He also finds space to fit in (relevant) musings on the nature of progress in science, ecology and the effect of humans on the environment, and much more. A recurring theme is the effect of the underlying geology on the visible land and the way it is used. (In passing, I think this book would make excellent television.)
The book concludes with a virtual tour of the globe, swooping down to comment on this feature or that aspect, unifying the earlier, more particular studies in a spectacular fashion.
Fortey's writing is beautiful and well worth reading for its own sake, and his explanations are excellent. There are relatively few illustrations and diagrams, and more of these might have helped, but this is a very slight flaw in a wonderful book.
In answer to a time-related statement from another, such as "I turn 57 next month", have you ever answered, "Rocks don't live that long"? In EARTH, British paleontologist-author Richard Fortey reminds the reader that the globe is theorized to be 4.5 billion years young, and the oldest rock datable by current technology, a zircon crystal from Australia, registers at 4.4 billion years. Is your mother-in-law that old?
I've always been fascinated, when flying over or driving through the deserts of the western U.S., by the myriad of different rock formations unclothed by vegetation and naked for all to see. I've wished that I had a geologist by my side to explain how they came to be. Fortey may be the next best thing. In EARTH, the theme is "plate tectonics", and it's a tribute to the author's writing talent that he can make so esoteric a subject supremely interesting. The book is, at times, hard to put down.
To illustrate the observable effects of past movements of the Earth's crust - movement that will continue long past the habitation of the Earth by the human species, Fortey has selected several spots on our world as exhibits: Pompei, Hawaii, the Swiss Alps, Newfoundland, Scotland, India, Kenya, California, and the Grand Canyon. The narrative is, of course, about the evolution of tectonic plate theory, but also about proto-continents, lost oceans, volcanoes, mountain ranges, upthrusts, downthrusts, subduction zones, deep ocean trenches, mid-ocean ranges, lava, basalt, granite, gneisses, fossils, fault lines, schists, nappes, magnetic fields, limestone, ice sheets, diamonds, gold, coral reefs, green sand, "hot spots", tin mines, magma, marble, polar wandering, rubies, tors, and a mule named "Buttercup". Fortey's gift is to make the mix wonderfully engaging for the average reader, though strict adherents to Creationism will likely see their beliefs threatened. Did you know, for example, that the Appalachians were once one end of a mountain chain that stretched across an ancient continent, and the remains of which, after continental drift, are now in such widely separated locales as Newfoundland, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the length of western Scandinavia? Or that mid-European miners have long recognized the panicked streaming of cockroaches, which are extremely sensitive to changes in rock pressure, as the harbinger of impending rockfalls?
The author occasionally waxes philosophic. After noting that a 1.5 billion-year old granite slab serves as the counter of a bar in London's Paddington Station, he muses:
"If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay."
I did, however, spot one egregious error in the narrative that is otherwise erudite and above reproach. On page 278, while recalling a trip through Nevada, he writes:
"Carson City used to be the state capital. Now it is an endearingly ramshackle collection of wooden houses scattered over the hillside."
Now, 'ang on a minute, guv. Carson City has been - and remains - the Nevada state capital. Moreover, it's situated in a broad valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, not spread over hills. Perhaps Fortey was thinking of Virginia City, made famous in the TV series "Bonanza", which is located a few miles away, is ramshackle, and is spread over hillsides. But Virginia City was never the state capital.
Perhaps the most endearing chapter is the one in which Richard describes his ride on the back of a mule from the Grand Canyon's South Rim all the way to the bottom while, of course, gawking at the various strata of rock on the way down. Buttercup comes across as the stolid hero of the adventure.
The EARTH paperback includes four sections of color photographs, plus other B&W snaps, maps, and drawings scattered throughout the text. It's a very user-friendly volume like Fortey's other book that I've read, LIFE. This book is an eminently readable work of popular science that should be required reading in high school geology. And I now have a deeper appreciation for the waivey-grained, black, white and grey boulders of granite - up to three tons in weight - that line our koi pond.
on 2 January 2012
I've just finished Fortey's The Earth, the first book I've ever read on the subject (out of choice!). I simply can't recommend this book enough to anyone with even the remotest curiosity about what our planet really is, and how it behaves. This book will change forever the way you think about landscapes, the oceans, and continents.. not to mention a thousand other aspects of the earth. To know, for example, that our planet is 4.6 billion years old is one thing, but to have an idea of how it has spent all that time, and indeed how that has shaped all life, is one of Fortey's gifts to the reader.
It took me a while to read, and many times I had to put it down simply to absorb the enormity of the information, but it is a book that I'm sure I will return to one day. Richard Fortey is a gifted teacher, and draws his portrait of the Earth with a mixture of almost poetic description, and hard, scientific fact.
Studying geology can be fun. Trips around the world, meeting new people, sharing insights and resolving mysteries of Earth's processes. There is, inevitably, the downside. Lava flows that shred boots, impossibly complex rock formations and bays that imply disappear during a seven-year interval between visits. If you have a writing gift, as Richard Fortey does, you can impart all these aspects of the science to a wide audience. This book does that admirably - and Fortey's not even a geologist!
Fortey's study of fossil trilobites has led him far afield. Since those bizarre creatures persisted for over three hundred million years, their remains are well distributed in both time and space. In studying them, Fortey has made the entire planet his backyard. That intimacy and his wide vision combine to produce this matchless work. From the opening pages he combines human history and the Earth's antics in an evocative theme. Vesuvius, that town killer, becomes a symbol of the dynamics of the world beneath our feet. Volcanoes also produce rich soils, luring humans up their slopes to plant crops. That juxtaposition typifies how geology has driven human society.
Geology, Fortey reminds us, is a young science, as active as the world it studies. He traces the thoughts of investigators over the past centuries. Through that time, two aspects of the Earth's dynamics eluded them. How fast was the planet cooling and what caused the bizarre formations they studied? It took physics, not geology, to solve the first - radioactive elements kept the interior hot. The second, plate tectonics, resolved most of the second. The notion that the crust "floats" on a sea of magma led to better understanding of deep processes. Plate tectonics, in Fortey's view, is the key to unlock nearly all geology's basic question. It explains "suspect terrain" and anomalous mountain formation. It also demonstrates why some areas are earthquake and volcano prone. Charles Lyell's "uniformitarianism", Fortey stresses, is basically correct. We can't observe directly many of the forces shaping the world.
What shapes the world, Fortey, continues, shapes our lives as well. How much of our history is due to Africa's pushing northward into Europe? What forced the ancient peoples of the Western Hemisphere to create their unique societies? Is the landscape of Southern Asia a foundation for the famous Silk Road? Tilting landscapes give us our rivers and the communities established on their banks. How many times has the Mississippi drowned towns, or abandoned them to isolation? Fortey keeps us aware of how our existence is shaped by the rocks beneath us.
With sets of stunning colour photographs and drawings to enhance the finely crafted text, this book's worthy of your attention. Fortey is always a compelling read, and this book stands among his best. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]