Tim Flannery writes about it with some awe. His book must have been in press at the time a mass shooting of starving grazers in the reserve caused widespread horror, even though it was necessary to bring the overpopulated marshes back to what the ecosystem could sustainably support. It seems that the “European Serengeti” is still little more than a dream of a richer time, one that has been banished from the world as humans have prospered and proliferated.
Along with all this natural science, Flannery is a great lover of human story. As he sifts the fossil records to describe Europe’s evolving biological patterns, he inserts lovely digressive sketches on the more colourful of his scientific forebears...Another great delight of the book is its author’s gift for surprising the reader with the sheer strangeness of our continent’s past inhabitants. Take, for example, an animal known as a chalicothere, a beast with a head somewhat like that of its relative the horse, but with a gorilla-like body and long sharp claws.
Little gems litter this book like fossils on a Dorset beach. Chalk, for instance, is formed from the skeletons of prehistoric sea creatures “eaten and excreted by some as-yet-unidentified predator”. The Matterhorn’s summit is made of rock that was geologically shoved all the way from Africa. Falcons and robins are more closely related than falcons and hawks. (The similarity in form is the result of convergent evolution, not family resemblance.) And prehistoric cave art? Probably the work of naughty teenage boys.
Flannery begins his natural history of Europe three billion years ago, when life consisted of single-cell organisms and there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Europe was just rocks, slowly shifting fragments of land. He then races his time machine forwards to about 80 million years ago, visiting an island called Hateg. “The air is tropic-warm, and the fine white sand of a bright beach crunches beneath our feet.”
He drills down through nameless, numberless layers, to expose a chthonic continent – when tectonics turned, seas dried and refilled, and centillions of alien life forms moved urgently across an indifferent Earth “without form, and void”, where “darkness was upon the face of the deep”. The world’s first coral reefs may have formed here, the first moles sifted soil, and hills were made by snails, while the earliest hominids came out of Europe before humans came out of Africa. He expertly conjures up successive exotic ur-Europes out of rare petrifactions and the cultures of the human centuries.