Review of Timefulness: How Thinking like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

Timefulness: How Thinking like a Geologist Can Help Save the World
by Marcia Bjornerud

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2018
224 pp., illus. 12 b/w. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-18120-2.

Reviewed by
Jennifer Ferng
February 2019

Time is the one of most elusive entities that scientists throughout history have tried to quantify, and yet, despite these efforts, remains difficult to capture in words, permeating most of our everyday lives as a unit of measure, the longevity of a species, or as the face of eternity. Marcia Bjornerud confronts the subject of time — its duration, its cycles, and its multifaceted character — in relation to the natural environment as part of her second book Timefulness, which offers an optimistic perspective on the dire circumstances related to global climate change. She positions geology as a field of study ready to tackle the larger philosophical questions being posed by climate change experts. She insists that academics worldwide need to take better responsibility for the strains of “time denial” found in the hard sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Bjornerud is cautious to avoid the term timelessness in contrast to her preferred concept of timefulness. She contends that timelessness falsely invokes a sense of permanency and sterile aspiration, which is misleading. In fact, many of the book’s themes are enough to intimidate any lay reader, but Bjornerud uses a smart range of visual images to describe the key processes of geology throughout each chapter. Midocean ridges are compared to fresh soufflés, and volumes of sediment accumulate are like “snippets of hair on a barbershop floor” (p. 77). The concentric layers of the Earth could be conceived as “parts of a peach” with the iron core being the fruit’s pit; the planet’s atmosphere is “proportionally as thick as the exterior fuzz” (p. 96).

Bjornerud says of herself that she speaks in the language of “eras and eons” (p. 6). She argues that our sense of temporal proportion is out of balance (if not, out of whack) – we have very little understanding of the “durations of the great chapters in Earth’s history,” “the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental stability,” and the “intrinsic timescales of ‘natural capital” (p. 7). For many geologists like Bjornerud, rocks are to be used as “verbs,” not as “nouns” (p. 8).

The practices of close reading and spatial visualization in geology lend themselves to public understanding since in one part, Bjornerud views rocks as a “vivid record of vanished landscapes” (p. 24). In this sense, rocks provide tangible, material records that have documented many of the planetary changes that human beings have not been able to witness or experience. Such powers of visualization are inherent to geology. The author engages in some minor casting of stones (metaphorically), for example, by calling out fellow geochemists or paleontologists for changing their profession to “astrobiologists” (p.14) or climate engineers. When in all likelihood, they should have remained loyal to the field of geology. But these disciplinary skirmishes are part of Bjornerud’s greater argument and her desire to have geologists recognized for their contributions to the health of our planet. If anything, “fathoming deep time” is “geology’s greatest single contribution to humanity” (p.16).

Somewhere between chronophobia and chronophilia, geologists, for Bjornenud, hold the key to the Earth’s future. She postulates that we must, in fact, cultivate greater feelings of timefulness – that of feelings for long distances and proximities in the geography of deep time (p.17). Throughout the book, Bjornerud guides readers to feel out the proportions of deep time through its particular dimensions and objects. The second chapter tells of mapping the ocean using fossils then through natural radioactivity. While the third chapter moves onto the solid earth and its geologic processes, the fourth chapter tracks the quality of air in the atmosphere and how changes in its composition have fluctuated with environmental upheavals and mass extinctions throughout time. The fifth chapter begins with the Ice Age (Pleistocene) as a starting point for modern explanations around climate change. The final chapter, as a concluding summary touching upon contemporary projects that deal with deep time, tries to demonstrate how time is present in varied contexts: photographic portraits of living organisms, paintings each bearing a singular date, an organ composition by John Cage, a 10,000 year-old clock, and the seed vault of Svalbard. This last chapter is, by far, probably the weakest in the grouping, only because it tries to encapsulate a large number of themes and to wrap up everything in quick succession. The chapters almost work better as a standalone episodes, but in each chapter, the author packs in a lot of scientific information that contribute to a larger picture of Earth’s history.

Quirks of geologic practice stand out in this book: Bjornerud, for instance, describes the primary divisions of the geologic timescale as by given by British geologists, but the “finer subdivisions – epochs and ages” (p. 40) reveal a more international side of time-mapping: “Jiangshanian and Guzhangian of the Cambrian; the Eifelian and Pragian of the Devonian; the Moscovian and Bashkirian in the Carboniferous” (p. 40). Zircons, and not diamonds, in fact, are the unheralded materials of eternity. With their high melting temperature, zircons can “come through metamorphism without losing [their] memory,” making them last (almost) forever (p. 59).

The fourth chapter on air positions rocks and ancient air into dialogue with each other. The Isua supracrystals in southwestern Greenland, Dresser Formation in the Warrawoona group in Australia, and iron formations all provide salient evidence to demonstrate the presence of constituent elements that comprise the Earth’s atmosphere. The author establishes how the presence of free oxygen helped to establish the ozone layer in the stratosphere. Oxygen sensitive trace elements in modern rocks finally began to rise, allowing organisms to use them to extract energy from the environment. This particular chapter drew clearer lines to scholarly reports on climate and climate change, pointing out how “tinkering with atmospheric chemistry” can be damaging (p.125).

Developing a poly-temporal worldview of time is one of Bjornerud’s objectives. Her previous book Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth (2008) employed similar methods of broad ranging discussions, and she repeats a similar tact in this volume, using anthropic metaphors to describe a rock’s memory, for example. Both Timefulness and Reading the Rocks share this attitude towards pop geology, written in an expansive tone. John McPhee’s magisterial Annals of the Former World (1998), on the prehistorical, prearchaeological past of North American geology, uses the all-American road trip to serve up fabulist lessons about the Earth. The journey, very much like the one Bjornerud tries to articulate, constitutes what McPhee has called “masochistic, mind-fracturing, self-enslaved labor.” [1] That being said, the expedition to learn about the planet’s geological history remains worthwhile, but it does require a great deal of patience on the behalf of the reader. Time’s Greek roots — chronos, as something that marches on, and kairos, something defined within a narrative — provide a window onto its slippery nature; rather than embracing a fearful condemnation of endless time, advocates for geology and geo-literacy, like Bjornerud, encourage the public to think more deeply about Earth’s multiple past and future iterations [2].

Notes:

[1] https://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Tales-the-Rocks-Tell-John-McPhee-s-geologic-3000924.php.

[2] Interview with the author, Princeton University Press, https://blog.press.princeton.edu/2018/09/11/marcia-bjornerud-on-timefulness/.