2007 - 2021

Geology, Geopolitics and the Future of Planet Earth

Earth Lines: Geopoetry and Geopoetics, edited by Patrick Corbett, Norman Bissell, Philip Ringrose, Sarah Tremlett and Brian Whalley, Edinburgh Geological Society, £15

My first sentient experience of geology was an unanticipated earth tremor on the Uganda-Congo border in a small tent on my first honeymoon night under very large shaking mahogany trees which was not what either myself or my wife thought had envisaged.  

The compulsory one-year study of geology at university did not endear me to the subject, but my first appointment to the Nature Conservancy in the north of England required me to get to grips with one aspect of the subject: the increasing commercial removal of natural water-worn limestone in the Yorkshire Dales for decorative purposes, which ended with legislation banning this activity several years later. (Some of this fascination with the grikes and clints of indigenous limestone is captured by Patrick Corbett in his piece on the writing of Auden on this subject – notably In Praise of limestone – perhaps less well known than his many other works. It was a very challenging introduction to geological conservation through the system of Sites of Special Scientific Interest.)

At that time there was no suggestion that geology might be related to a much wider understanding of landscape and visual experience, let alone the stimulus for art and literature, so comprehensively laid out by Norman Bissell in his contribution on ‘Geopoetry and Geopoetics’ –  a seismic shift in appreciation of the subject and the ground under our feet, taking an holistic view of both topics, which otherwise might be considered too ‘left field’ for the average reader.

This is brought into clear focus in the article by R. M. Francis on ‘Ancestral Genius Loci : Geopoetics and Place Identity’ which reminded me of the work of Nan Shepherd and  her life-long attachment to the Cairngorms, especially when Francis refers to ‘being a mountain…to be a river’, and my favourite (obviously!) ‘a man of the woods.’ From my own experience, I much appreciated the emphasis by Francis when he states: ‘To travel is not to visit, but to inhabit the earth’ which has been my mantra over many years of wandering, starting as a 10-year old walking into my first pinewood in spring, a formative epiphany, so lyrically captured by Neil Gunn in his Atom of Delight meeting himself on a rock overlooking a Highland river. 

What is exciting in this volume is the sheer range of topics covered and the often highly personal perspectives on a subject which at first glance might appear to be entirely technical – even unstimulating. Many of the contributions reverse that notion, notably in  ‘The Standing Stones of Stenness’ by Claire Rinterknecht which brings together natural rocks and the amazing work of our early forbears in ‘Now I dream of the day I became a sandstone of sand grain memories, dappled with white and grey….’

I am reminded of landing on a beach in Nova Scotia to recognise the unique characteristics of Lewisian gneiss, reaching back several billion years, so long before the descendants of those who erected the standing stones of Stenness contemplated journeying across the Atlantic to find a new home in ‘New Scotland’. So much fell into place.

It is interesting that so many of the contributors have been associated with the petroleum industry, which is now at the forefront of the demand for a cessation of energy from this fossil fuel, alongside coal extraction. The fact of the matter is that this industry is probably the most important employer of geologists, most of whom saw their futures as investigative scientists from the outset. Their skills will still be needed in the years ahead to help to source other products, especially water and significantly, flood control. 

At the time of writing and the ongoings of COP26, the contribution which registered with me most clearly, was not a poem, but a stimulating prose offering by John Bolland entitled ‘Poetics of Climate Change: Jumping the Rails’, (employed for over 30 years in the offshore oil industry) in which he advocates a paradigm shift – in his words: ‘We must stop thinking in terms of Man and Nature, we must stop writing about the weather, indigenous fauna and flora or the economy as givens’ – powerful thoughts. Bravely, he tells of his experience of climate change denial, ignoring and awakening in personal poetry writing, but goes on helpfully to identify effective climate  change communication, including evoking positive emotions, ending with the clarion call: ‘Poetry, public and personal, is an effective form of activism’, while eschewing sentimentalism, and the importance of rigorous thinking .

The portents were clear: in the late 1950s I led an inter-racial group of youngsters based on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro where the outward-bound centre was based to climb that mountain the hard way, without guides and all the paraphernalia of modern adventure tourism. I had in my mind the early photographs of the snow–capped mountain. 

Yes, the view of the heights and the surrounding plains was spectacular at dawn, and my collections of high-altitude plants were appreciated by Kew.  But even then, there were clear signs of loss of snow and ice, even if the African teenagers with me were ecstatic about still being alive on the descent.

We have a problem with non-geologists: while fur and feathers appeal, and perhaps to a lesser extent, colourful flowering plants, the average hill walker is largely ignorant of (and perhaps uninterested in?) what is under his feet. That is until he encounters one of my favourite early tramping grounds in Glenisla, the great thundering waterfall at the Reekie Linn, demarcating the Highland Boundary fault across Scotland which ends in the mountains of Arran before it descends into the Atlantic.

What immediately strikes me about the varied contributions in this volume is that so many relate to experience to my homeland of Scotland and I am proud that so many young people have found their inspiration (notwithstanding the frequent reference to midges and rain!) in this country and its incomparable vistas.

I have only realised somewhat late in the day what contributions have been made by determined Scots (and others!) to understanding the extraordinary story of our one world.  The introduction to this volume encapsulates its purpose in saying ‘poets and geologists have a common cause: a search for words to help us to understand what we do.’ I feel blessed in having lived in Edinburgh for many years, I am surrounded by the proximal and dramatic evidence of aeons of geological activity reflected in its surrounding hills and crags, even if it took a Swiss scientist, Louis Agassis, to convince sceptical British geologists in the 1840s that Scotland’s landscape was the result of extensive glaciation and in the process helping to overturn the accepted Biblical notion of the age of the earth. 


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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    How lovely to read this James! I am no scientist, just an economist, but my earlier uni study of geomorhopology intensified my interest, as did my later mountaineering, all over Scotland. So I was delighted when my daughter decided she wished to study geology and chemistry at uni.

    How lovely to read of a professional who understands and values Nan Shepherd!

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Here’s an old article I wrote about Nan Shepherd a couple of years ago:


      Nan Shepherd was just an adolescent when she discovered her dual calling to writing and climbing. She roamed the Highlands as zealously as she copied passages of the books she was devouring — novels, poetry, philosophy — into her notebooks. By her twenties, she had appropriated enough reading to begin remixing it in original works of her own.

      Nan experienced a wild burst of creativity in her later thirties. Over six years, she published four books: three novels and an immensely beautiful collection of poetry. Like the contemporary German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, she considered poetry to be above all other arts, as concentrating most intensely ‘the very heart of all experience’. The collection is entitled The Cairngorms. Seek it out.

      And then… silence. It would be another forty-three years until Nan published her next, final, and greatest book.


      Nan began composing The Living Mountain in the final years of WWII, drawing on her lifelong love and intimate knowledge in a masterpiece of phenomenological writing, which is both precise and spacious.

      However, something stopped her from publishing it. Instead, she put it away in a drawer, where it remained for more than four decades, until it finally entered the world in the final years of her life as The Living Mountain, an unusual braiding of memoir, field notebook, and philosophical inquiry, irradiated by the what the German structural geologist, Hans Cloos, celebrated as ‘the rare art of hearing Earth’s music’. Coincidentally, perhaps, Cloos and Heidegger were close contemporaries at the University of Freiburg in the years preceding the Great War.

      In The Living Mountain, Nan explores an entire world previously mapped only by men and mostly through the lens of conquest rather than contemplation. She brings to her subject a naturalist’s rigour and a spiritualist’s reverence, moving between the recording of facts and a larger meditation on meaning.

      With an eye to the Cairngorms, the locus of her most intimate knowledge of the poetics of the mountain, Nan celebrates the spirit of the place beyond its statistics. She describes their physiognomy as ‘a pallid simulacrum of their reality’, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a product of the relationship in which subject and object are both taken up and from which they each are born.

      Reflecting on the exhilarating feyness that overtakes her every time she ascends the mountain and surrenders to its elements, both geologic and living, Nan observes adds: ‘Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered.’


      In a phenomenology reminiscent of Heidegger, though one which is written far better than anything Heidegger ever fashioned, Nan illustrates this reality-deeper-than-fact through her revelatory encounter with a narrow mountain loch that had never been sounded:

      “The clear water was at our knees, then at our thighs. How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal. To look through it was to discover its own properties. What we saw under water had a sharper clarity than what we saw through air. We waded on into the brightness, and the width of the water increased, as it always does when one is on or in it, so that the loch no longer seemed narrow, but the far side was a long way off. Then I looked down; and at my feet there opened a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped. We were standing on the edge of a shelf that ran some yards into the loch before plunging down to the pit that is the true bottom. And through that inordinate clearness we saw to the depth of the pit. So limpid was it that every stone was clear.

      “I motioned to my companion, who was a step behind, and she came, and glanced as I had down the submerged precipice. Then we looked into each other’s eyes, and again into the pit. I waded slowly back into shallower water. There was nothing that seemed worth saying. My spirit was as naked as my body. It was one of the most defenceless moments of my life.”

      In a prescient recognition of wildness as absolute human absence and not just human loneliness in a landscape, Nan goes on to lament:

      “The inaccessibility of this loch is part of its power. Silence belongs to it. If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness.”


      Nan does not want wildness; she wants rather to indulge her loneliness in a landscape and to humanise that landscape with her loneliness, to make of it (as Heidegger would have it) a ‘site’ of her loneliness. Her ecology is not the deep ecology of human absence nor the managed ecology of economic, political and commercial exploitation, but the privileged ecology of the artist in which she can realise both herself as subject and the landscape as her object in the self-same act of creation. This is lyricism, the classic modernist appropriation of ‘the wild’.

      Nan lyrics the intricate ecosystem of the mountain which situates her loneliness as its, the mountain’s, meaning:

      “I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird — all are one. Eagle and alpine veronica are part of the mountain’s wholeness. Saxifrage — the “rock-breaker” — in some of its loveliest forms, Stellaris, that stars with its single blossoms the high rocky corrie burns, and Azoides, that clusters like soft sunshine in their lower reaches, cannot live apart from the mountain…

      “The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin — that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension… My imagination boggles at this. I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower — that is harder. It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done.”


      Out of this deepening of the mystery arises an enlargement of both her mind and her senses, of her very self, beyond her body and yet intensely of her body. Again, in a passage loudly reminiscent of Heidegger’s phenomenology in one of its final emanations in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”, she writes:

      “Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.”

      Phenomenology – the ‘task’ of thinking – is to suspend or deconstruct ‘any mode of apprehension but their [our senses’] own’; it is to surrender our previous thinking about a matter, mediated by our metaphysical preconceptions and presuppositions, to the determination of that matter as it is ‘given’ immediately in experience; it is creating room in any occurrence for consciousness and its object to appropriate one another rather than for consciousness to capture that object as its object in its conceptual nets. In Heidegger, this active and reciprocal appropriation is the Being of beings; it’s what it is for something – anything – to exist.


      “So there I lie on the plateau,” writes Nan, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in. If I had other senses, there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation. The many details — a stroke here, a stroke there — come for a moment into perfect focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the beginning.”

      In a passage that reminds me of the assertion of another ‘feminine’ philosopher, Simone Weil, that ‘attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’, as well as the interest Heidegger took in Buddhism late on in his life, Nan considers how an attentive and benevolent curiosity about this living mountain — about anything beyond oneself, indeed — effects a generous enlargement of both self and other:

      “Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing. I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”

      If anyone were to ask me, “What did Heidegger say?”, I now would tell them to read The Living Mountain.

      1. Alistair Taylor says:


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