What can we learn about ourselves by looking at rocks?
In her latest book, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Lawrence University geology professor and frequent New Yorker contributing writer Marcia Bjornerud provides a fresh perspective on the relationship between humans and natural history.
Riffing off the current trend of mindfulness, Bjornerud’s Timefulness seeks to expand our concept of the planet’s enormous timescale by focusing our attention on rocks, what she calls “the subtle, syntactically complex language of the Earth.” Bjornerud (who is also a Wisconsin Academy Fellow) calls her book a translation of sorts—“my transcription of what rocks have to tell us”—and the story she hopes to relate is one about time.
With this book she hopes to establish in readers an awareness of the world as it is today with knowledge of its geologic past, so that we might think more clearly beyond our own brief lifetimes and begin to understand—and even predict—our future. “Geology,” she notes, “is the closest we may get to time travel.”
Spoiler alert! The earth is 4.55 billion years old. But how do we know this? Bjornerud’s lively writing brings us on the hunt for the answer, providing a true detective story that spans centuries, beginning with the work of 18th century Scottish naturalist James Hutton, the father of modern geology, through the recent development of modern radiometric dating. She takes us on a journey to gather clues, from the highest Himalayan peaks to the depths of the ocean floor, about the pace and scope of little-known earth processes.
Many parts of the book cause the reader to stop, pause, and reflect in wonder at the creative nature of scientific discovery: how the evolution of earth’s atmosphere can be traced back 700,000 years by drilling down and analyzing frozen bubbles beneath the polar ice caps, or that our vast knowledge of seismic activity exists despite a lack of direct observation of the actual tectonic plate shifting that happens during an earthquake.
While inspiring wonder, Timefulness also issues a warning. Natural geological processes that have unfolded over millions of years are now being accelerated, sometimes over mere decades, through the strip mining of coal, natural gas “fracking,” and the unfettered combustion of these and other fossil fuels. Bjornerud mentions how a shocking “1,600 years of ice has vanished in the last two decades. … The use of the word glacial to mean “imperceptibly slow” is quickly becoming an anachronism; today glaciers are among the rapidly changing entities in nature.”
Bjornerud cautions readers against thinking that geoengineering—implementing carbon capture and sequestration systems or mimicking volcanic activity with stratospheric aerosol injections—can reverse the course of global warming. “Tinkering with atmospheric chemistry is a dangerous business,” she says, as “ungovernable forces can come out of thin air.”
Designed to open our eyes to the history of the planet upon which we depend, Bjornerud’s detailed descriptions of large-scale geological processes also provide us with the sense of scale to understand the multigenerational impact of our decisions. By giving a voice to the dynamic life of rocks and the magnificent stories they have to tell, Timefulness provides a useful tool with which we might repair our estranged relationship with the natural world.