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All hail the microbeLavinia Greenlaw
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Vol. 42 No. 12 · 18 June 2020

All hail the microbe

Lavinia Greenlaw

2135 words
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils 
by David Farrier.
Fourth Estate, 307 pp., £16.99, March, 978 0 00 828634 7
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InFootprints: In Search of Future Fossils, David Farrier reaches into the past in order to envisage the deep future. This can only ever be an extrapolation of the present – our knowledge, experience, language and ideas – but Farrier is relaxed about this. His focus is on the way life has been recorded in the substance of the world, the ways we can trace human impact and the ways we, in turn, might be traced in time to come. He wrote this book before the pandemic struck, when past, present and future were relatively sturdy propositions. Now, the past has been uncoupled from a present that refuses to form. It’s not so pleasing to think of a mountain as a ripple in geological time when we feel like a ripple ourselves.

In looking to the deep future, Farrier considers ‘how we will appear to the people who may live in that world’. I wonder if the concept of fossils will mean anything to them. If they find marks in the mud that don’t make sense, will they try to explain them? The book starts in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, a place that is being violently reclaimed by the sea. In 2013, a storm revealed ‘laminated silt flecked with dozens of lozenge-shaped hollows’ which turned out to be ‘the oldest traces of human passage outside Africa’ – footprints made more than 800,000 years ago. If you look them up, you’ll see something like a series of small puddles. They were identified and dated after 3D images were hurriedly made. Two weeks later, the prints were washed away. Farrier asserts the importance of metaphor, but thankfully he doesn’t push this one. Instead, he draws the eye past the human drama to the geological one, the still waters and incidental organisation required for these layers to settle and then be sealed so that they could hold those shapes for so long.

There is a way of writing about the natural world in which intensity of description stands in for perception. Everything has the same gleam and tang, as if glazed in aspic. The confidence of that vision, its permission to be somewhere and look everywhere, flattens the view. The more radical and vital writing comes from those who can more easily imagine their own diminishment. Farrier is n0t of the school of aspic. He’s good at pulling books off the shelf as a connection arises, confident with facts and technical detail, video installations and folklore. He leaves us to form our own questions while loosely gathering together material that addresses the scale, extent and lasting impact of what we do to the world. As a concept, ‘future fossils’ seems a bit reductive, too slickly oppositional, when put to work in such open terrain. What we’re really talking about is stuff. From plastic teaspoons to skyscrapers, the book points to our endless stuff.

In his account of crossing the new Forth Road Bridge before it opened to traffic, Farrier explains that laying its foundations involved the ‘longest ever continuous underwater pour of concrete: nearly 17,000 cubic metres, tipped night and day for 15 days into the rock beneath the river’. The walk is no less exhilarating for the knowledge of this underground suffocation, traces of which will remain long after the bridge has gone. Roads seal the earth’s surface and their construction is responsible for a massive displacement of natural resources. We now move more sediment each year than all the world’s rivers combined and the demand for sand is only exceeded by that for water. Jan Zalasiewicz of the Anthropocene Working Group describes these concentrations of concrete, metal, cables and tunnels as the ‘urban stratum’. It is our extensive use of such materials, together with the scale of our infrastructure, that will leave a lasting impression on the earth, one Farrier describes as ‘a rich layer of human traces and secret affinities compressed in the rock’. Zalasiewicz believes this could still be discernible in a hundred million years’ time, although, as Farrier puts it, what survives will be ‘squeezed and distorted beyond recognition’. ‘In exceptional cases,’ he explains, ‘whole rooms might be preserved, pockets filled with three-dimensional impressions of chairs, spectacle frames and mannequins … but for the large part what remains of our cities will be decipherable by the chemical signatures and distinctive colours printed in the sediment.’ Shanghai, New Orleans and Bangkok are already sinking under their own weight, and this chapter sinks a little too, under the heft of Ruskin, Calvino, Ballard and Benjamin. At points in the book there’s such a crowd of facts and statistics that they begin to cancel one another out.

But this is also the way things pile up: the implications, the endless connections, the long life of our destructive tendencies. There is the impulse to claim and build, to drill and extract, to take up more space. There is also the desire to see, grasp, know, understand, to go where no one else has been, higher and deeper and to the heart of the matter. It’s difficult to ignore the parallels between the two as Farrier visits researchers who drill for the oldest, deepest core of ice or coral and then for the core of that core. One coral sample is more than 125,000 years old and cost around 12 million Australian dollars to extract. Farrier wants to hold an ice core – who wouldn’t? He wants his children to visit the Great Barrier Reef and ‘to see a future fossil in the making’. His account of their bleak tourist trip on an overcrowded boat under a sky busy with helicopters rubs up against his description of the scale, beauty, vulnerability and ecological importance of ‘the only living thing that can be seen from space’.

The book is freighted with superlatives – the oldest footprints, the tallest tower, the longest road, the largest city, the deepest bore-hole, the most ancient ice. These make good stories but they are not the fixed points we might take them for. In a chapter on the plastic bottle, Farrier invokes Ursula Le Guin, whose ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ adapts a concept from the American anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher: that the first real ‘cultural device’ was not a weapon or a tool but a container. As Le Guin puts it: ‘We’ve all heard all about the sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.’ Farrier says that, for Le Guin, ‘this shift was the prelude to the development of culture,’ which was actually Fisher’s department. What Le Guin did was to apply this theory to the evolution of narrative. She’s talking about a lack of attention paid to what doesn’t make a good story – killing a mammoth, for example, is more entertaining than gathering oats.

Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.

For Le Guin, a novel is ‘a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us’. It is a bag (more of a sack) and ‘the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.’ This could be what Farrier is reaching for. Fewer spears, heroes, pedestals and superlatives would certainly be a good thing.

Farrier pursues the importance of the container by launching a plastic bottle on a dextrous 11-page voyage, which takes in the formation of its raw materials and the way it becomes part of a vast and perpetual movement of waste, killing, clogging and poisoning. He is at his best when he lets himself be carried away. Diving into the sea is a ‘white-noise smash, followed by a sudden, astonishing emergence in a silent blue world’. Contemplating the rock through which Victorian engineers ‘punched their way’, he writes: ‘Free as I was to stand and stare, the exposed stone seemed to catch me up out of the present and draw me in, and through, and down into the memory of a younger earth.’

A chapter on nuclear waste moves from an open-cast uranium mine on the edge of sacred land in Australia to the Tomb, a crater formed during the Pacific bomb tests which has been filled with radioactive waste and given a concrete cap. This leads Farrier to two nuclear waste storage sites and the question of how to convey the dangers that they contain to future generations. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico subscribes to ‘nuclear semiotics’ and has an ‘atomic priesthood’ charged with establishing superstitions and rituals to be passed down the generations. They are ‘engineering the landscape to convey a warning’ – barriers, spikes and pictograms based on Munch’s Scream.

The opposite approach is being taken at Onkalo in Finland, which will soon become ‘the world’s first deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel’. The site is intended to disappear under forest, with the waste safe in bedrock that is both stable and plastic enough to withstand stress. In five hundred years’ time, the waste should be no more dangerous than natural background radiation. Then why, Farrier asks, do they have a safety plan that extends for ten thousand years? ‘To feel safe,’ he is told. Are the Americans taking the short long view and Finns the long long view – or vice versa?

Other forms of waste have accumulated in the world’s oceans to an extent that we are only beginning to realise. The Baltic Sea, which Munch found so restorative, is ‘a sump for agricultural-chemical runoff, untreated sewage, discarded plastic, industrial toxins and heavy metals, dumped chemical weapons such as mustard gas, and radionuclides from Chernobyl’. There’s the stuff we make and use and there’s the stuff we don’t know what to do with and they become the same thing.

This is perhaps not the time to say all hail the microbe, but that is where Farrier’s pursuit of future life leads him. In a book crammed with statistics, this is the one I most enjoyed: there are 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bacteria on earth at any one time. It’s not clear how that figure was reached but it puts humans in proportion. Farrier recounts how the artist Sarah Craske found a 275-year-old copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a junk shop and worked with a microbiologist, Simon Park, to assay the bacteria it contained. One was instrumental in the discovery of penicillin; another, ‘living in the margins of the stories of Actaeon and Narcissus’, was first discovered in 2006 in air sampled 41 kilometres above the earth. Such bacteria are called extremophiles, because they thrive in conditions hostile to human life (a concept that still places the human at the centre of things).

Perhaps radical acts of imagination, those which decentre and unanchor the human, will let us see most clearly what might be to come. The Australian microbiologist Michael Gillings, with his students, devised an exhibition of ‘evidence’ of a ‘technological species at the Anthropocene boundary layer’ as if discovered in fifty million years’ time by evolved bees. Other scientists are rather nerdishly making human persistence the whole point, encoding song lyrics into the genomes of bacteria.

The past leads us to the future by reminding us that our perceptual framework is ours alone and will not sustain. A curator shows Farrier a ceremonial jadeite axehead. ‘This is the green treasure from the magic mountain,’ she explains, pointing out that the beautiful blade had been deliberately chipped when it was no longer to be used by its owner. It was chipped to allow its power to return to the mountain, rather than have the axe fall into someone else’s hands. Farrier writes of another trip he made in Australia, to see some 40,000-year-old rock paintings. When he asked how the painter reached a high rock, the guide told him that either there was a tree or the artist was a shaman and ‘used magic to fly up. Or maybe he pulled the rocks down to him!’ We, too, can fly and move the landscape around and look where it’s got us. We are all extremophiles now.

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