The reward of Helen Gordon’s profoundly considered and far-reaching book is that it opens up the dizzying view of geological time. Travelling widely — from Denmark to California, Naples to Finland — she meets scientists whose day-to-day work considers a thousand years, even 10,000, to be a moment. In Copenhagen, she examines ice cores from Greenland where the atmosphere from 500,000 years ago is preserved in tiny bubbles of air. She walks round London with an urban geologist who reveals 145m-year-old shells in the walls of Waterloo Station, and at Christie’s salerooms she views a meteorite 4.5bn years old. “I think about how old it is,” says the auctioneer, “and it just blows my mind.”
This rigorous externality to the world she investigates means that her manner never tips in the stream of life. She doesn’t grieve for or lust after anything. She doesn’t do transcendence and has no drum to bang. Neither fear nor excitement, nor desire, nor loathing play their part. The method is consistently and carefully prosaic; one learns things about chalk and ice, maps and plants. There is no over-precise attention to the making of sentences. It is an almost scientific description of a science.
Notes from Deep Time sidesteps the maundering and finger-wagging that comes with Anthropocene thinking, and shows us how much sheer intellectual and poetical entertainment there is to be had in the idea. And what does the Anthropocene idea do, after all, but put humans back at the centre of the world? As Gordon cannily observes, “at some level we can’t help finding that attractive – even if the price for that return is environmental disaster.”