The Poetry of Future Fossils

David Farrier, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils

4th Estate, 307pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780008286347

reviewed by Nora Castle

‘Language is fossil poetry.’ In his book Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane points to this claim by Ralph Waldo Emerson, explaining that ‘Emerson, as an essayist, sought to reverse this petrifiction and restore the ‘poetic origin’ of words, thereby revealing the originary role of ‘nature’ in language.’ The poet, according to Emerson, ‘re-attaches things to nature and the Whole’ by naming them in their poetry. By illuminating and reinvigorating the origins of words, the poet re-establishes a connection to nature that is missing from modern life.

By contrast, David Farrier, in his book Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, brings a poetic sensibility to bear not on the illumination of lost etymologies, but rather on what may become the hieroglyphs of the future. He re-attaches ‘nature’ to things, pointing to the ecological, material consequences of human culture and society; the language of Footprints, rather than fossil poetry, is the poetry of (future) fossils.

A professor of literature and the environment at the University of Edinburgh, Farrier has written a wide-ranging narrative, spanning continents and incorporating topics from the microbial to the cosmic. Footprints, which often reads like literary fiction – the British Isles, through isostatic uplift, are ‘rebounding into shape like a pillow relieved of the weight of a sleeper’s head’ and the deck of the Queensferry Crossing ‘rises and dips like the harmonic curve in the neck of a harp’ – is Farrier’s ‘attempt to discover how we will be remembered by the very deep future.’ It is also an exercise in the poetics of the Anthropocene; in fact, his previous book, a more academic volume that shares some thematic and analytical overlap with this one, is entitled Anthropocene Poetics. Unlike Anthropocene Poetics, however, Footprints is not focused on poetry as a literary category. Rather, it is a reckoning with the composition and structure of the current social and geological epoch and its future legacy, as it will be seen through the fossil record. Poetry does make an occasional appearance, along with references to novels, works of art, and photography, as Farrier weaves his humanities background into this work of imaginative science writing.

The chapters in Footprints proceed thematically, exploring roads, cities, plastic, ice cores, coral reefs, nuclear waste, jellyfish blooms and oceanic dead zones, and microbes. Each chapter is self-contained, though the chapter titles sometimes do not give enough away to guide a reader looking for a specific topic. This is perhaps purposeful, as the looser thematic structure allows Farrier, for example, to frame a chapter that orbits around acidifying oceans and mass extinctions with Virginia Woolf’s viewing of a solar eclipse. The book, which invokes the spectre of the ‘carbon footprint’ in its negotiation of temporality (‘Our carbon footprint is a mark of how much we care (or don’t) about the consequences of our actions. [. . .] But the suggestion that a footprint is ephemeral, a temporary impression soon wiped clear by wind or rain, masks the reality that our marks will endure for a very long time indeed’), begins and ends with literal footprints. It opens with the Happisburgh footprints, a set of fossilized prints made around 850,000 years ago by early humans called Homo antecessor. These prints give us a glimpse into the ancient past, ‘telling stories about how ancient lives were lived.’ It ends with a field trip Farrier takes with his students to a beach in Dunbar, where, the concluding lines of the book note, their ‘steps left no prints on the pebble beach.’ Footprints’ implicit engagement with deep time is interspersed with more ephemeral phenomena (e.g. artistic works or personal reflections), just as the fossilized footprints are contrasted with the ebbing tide on the footprint-less pebble beach. The play between the lasting and the fleeting, the literal and the metaphorical, is a hallmark of the book, which intermixes genres and academic fields in a way that epitomises the idea that everything is interconnected, what Timothy Morton calls ‘the ecological thought.’

Despite its literary bent, there is no dearth of scientific fact in this book, which features engagement and encounters with a large number of scientists. In addition to citing the work of these experts, Farrier also visits institutions across the world, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Battery Point, Australia, to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, to Stockholm University’s Baltic Research Station, all the while recounting his journeys through a mixture of travel narrative, close reading, and scientific exposition. While most of these locations are situated in the Global North, Farrier also visits Shanghai, and incorporates works such as The Famished Road by Nigerian novelist Ben Okri as well as Gungganyji and Yidindji (Aboriginal Australian) stories and place names. His unique viewpoint allows for the vivacity of chapters like ‘The Moment Under the Moment.’ The chapter begins with Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. It weaves its way through a visit (to the outside of) Ranger Uranium Mine in what Farrier explains is known as ‘Sickness Country,’ stopping along the way to recount Jawoyn (Aboriginal Australian) origin stories, an anecdote about Mirrar Gudjeihmi cave paintings, and a scientific explanation of uranium decay and its effect on the human body. The chapter then transitions to discussing atomic bombs, including the detonation of ‘Bravo’ over Bikini Atoll in 1954 and its nightmarish effect on the nearby population of Rongelap. Each narrative step forward is enfolded in a swirl of historic and scientific fact (years of future uninhabitability, numbers of cancer cases, etc.) and cultural references. A discussion of Chernobyl is accompanied by nods to Joseph Masco’s ‘nuclear uncanny’ and Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, Chernobyl Prayer. Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner makes an appearance right before a discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In this way, Farrier’s writing reflects an important and political choice to uplift lesser-known authors and artists and place them on level with the writers of canonical texts.

All this is before we’ve even gotten to the meat of the chapter, Farrier’s visits to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and Finland’s Onkalo, a spent nuclear fuel repository. Alongside descriptions of how exactly these institutions plan to store and safeguard the nuclear waste they are charged with securing, he includes a fascinating discussion of ‘nuclear semiotics’ and the problem of communicating to future generations who will undoubtedly speak a different (literal and figurative) language than we do. While the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is working on ‘making the entire site a kind of full-body communication system, engaging both the mind and all the senses in an experience of dread’ through the development of a mythology around the site, including environment engineering and written messages, Onkalo has opted for an unmarked site that is ‘meant to be forgotten.’ These disparate approaches broach the question, central to the book more broadly, of how we want to be remembered by future generations, and of the responsibilities with which we must entrust those generations.

Occasionally, Farrier’s literary sensibility detracts from his overarching narrative, such as the vignette of the plastic bottle’s journey at the end of ‘The Bottle as Hero.’ This section drifts too far from the anchor of historic and geological fact that gives the interweave of the literary and scientific its grounding. Another issue is the formatting of the bibliography, organised by chapter into a jellyfish-bloom-like blob, with a continuous paragraph style rather than line-breaks after each entry. Referencing is always a thorny issue for these types of creative nonfiction books, but the impossibility of effectively cross-referencing sources and claims is problematic.

These, however, are minor quibbles; Footprints is a veritable cornucopia of scientific, literary, and anthropologic information written for an intellectually curious but non-expert audience. Farrier’s engaging, anecdotal style makes it a pleasurable read, even as the book is packed with information. His book is an exhortation to ‘examine our present, and ourselves, by the eerie light cast by the onrushing future.’ Through his examination of future fossils, Farrier illuminates truths about the present, demonstrating the material and geological consequences of human civilisation and society in the shadow of (anthropogenic) climate change. And with his assumption that there will be future generations to discover our fossil record, he casts an ‘eerie light’ of hope on what could otherwise be a dark and depressing text. Adhering to the tradition of ecocriticism, albeit pitched to a less academic audience, Footprints stands as an exercise in what the humanities can bring to studies of climate change. As Farrier explains, ‘It’s an account of what will survive of us, and for that we need poets as much as we need palaeontologists. With stories we can see the world as it is and as it might be; art can help us imagine how close we are to the extraordinarily distant future.’
Nora Castle is a New Yorker now living in Coventry, UK. She is currently writing a PhD on food futures and environmental crisis in contemporary speculative fiction at the University of Warwick.