Fossils

Open Country, BBC Radio 4 – ‘Reflections and Connections’

Thursday 30th December, 3pm

Repeated New Year’s Day, 6.07am

And HERE on BBC Sounds

A wildlife cameraman, a sea swimmer, a poet and a professional tree climber reflect on their relationship with their local landscape – sea, loch, rocky shore and woodland.

Producer: Sarah Blunt

The Carboniferous rocks on the Northumberland coast where I live were laid down in layers more than 300 million years ago. They record warmer and cooler periods, cyclical sea level rises interspersed with Ice Ages, and the gradual movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, as they drifted North from the Equator over aeons. Everywhere you look, these rocks are full of fossils: shells, and particularly crinoids, which sometimes resemble zips or teeth, and which were formed from the remains of an animal related to a starfish. Fossil crinoids break up into segments known locally as ‘St Cuthbert’s beads’.

Just down the coast, at Howick, a recent cliff-fall has revealed a much bigger fossil: that of a giant millipede, around 325 million years old, thought to have been as long as a car, and to have weighed about 50 kg.

Thirty years ago, after another cliff fall at Howick, the footprints of a large, lizard-like creature were revealed in the soft rock. Those footprints quickly disappeared, but gave valuable information about one of the first creatures to migrate from sea to land. This creature also lived more than 300 million years ago, much too long ago to be classified as a ‘dinosaur’, but the press at the time mistakenly referred to these as ‘dinosaur footprints’. I wrote this poem in response to a visit to those rocks:

About 20 miles to the north, at Cocklawburn, near Berwick, the exposed rock strata are older still. In 2007 the fossil of a ‘sarcopterygian’ (flesh-finned) fish, the rhizodont, was discovered there and dated to around 350m years ago. It was three metres long, lived in fresh water and had tusks and huge teeth which give it its name. A geologist friend tells me that all tetrapods, including humans, are descended from this group of fish. I wrote the poem #rhizodont, which I read on ‘Open Country’, in response to this discovery. The hashtag represents the latest step in our own technological evolution:

That evolution is going through a stage so rapid, it might be better described as a revolution. Computers were not part of domestic life in my youth. The digitisation of almost every element of human life over the past few decades may be one of the most profound, and certainly the quickest, transformations our species has ever undergone. Like many revolutions, it has enormous potential for better or for worse, or perhaps for both simultaneously. I’m fascinated by this – not least, by the parallels between the latest human technological revolution and the evolution of complex systems in the biological world. Our culture is, after all, part of nature. I’ve written about this recently in a long poem, Ingenious, which was commissioned for the ‘Inventive’ podcast series led by Professor Trevor Cox at the University of Salford. You can listen to it HERE.

Written in the months running up to COP26, Ingenious explores the idea that the very survival of our species depends especially on engineers. It’s inspired by an interview with young engineer Jack Haworth about his work on robotics at Sellafield nuclear site, especially his use of remotely operated vehicles. These allow for the exploration and mapping of contaminated areas of ‘legacy waste’ hazardous to humans, with a view to their eventual decommissioning. Series producer Adam Fowler and I edited Jack’s description of his work, weaving my poem around his words. Then Adam created the podcast’s fabulous, eerie sound design, derived from audio signals from a robot servo. The effect is haunting.

My poem explores remote sensing techniques already familiar to me from my work ‘Under the Ice’. It focuses on robotics in extreme environments on Earth, then in space; in particular on Mars, and in plans for industrial exploration of the Moon. It then explores the possibilities of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems – some of which are terrifying – and advocates for collaboration between the human and the machine; between logic and reason on the one hand, and physical senses and sympathetic imagination on the other.

Anthropogenic activities are balanced at a point where we may be engineering our own extinction, or our escape from it. Perhaps that could involve a cultural evolution of human-machine hybrids. We have important choices to make while we still can. The Salford team and I hope that Ingenious and the ‘Inventive’ podcast series will inspire young people to explore this subject and discover more.

Thanks to such scientific curiosity, technological innovation, engineering and computing power, we know far more now about the Earth’s processes and the planet’s place in the universe than we did when I was a child. It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Human life is so miraculous, so fragile, and its impact so enormous. Population growth, industrialisation, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, plastic pollution, climate change, sea level rise – these anxieties are real, and endless. I’m very fortunate to live in a place which invites reflection on these things. In the familiar Carboniferous rocks and sea shore landscape, I find comfort – not escapism, but perspective. The geological timescale reminds me that life on this planet is more diverse than we can ever imagine, that it existed for hundreds of millions of years before our species evolved, and that it will continue to exist after we are gone.

Our short-lived human species must do everything it can, through engineering, technology, politics and culture, to mitigate our impact on the planet. For me, that starts with appreciating everyday life immediately around me, human and non-human – not just in ‘beautiful’ places, but wherever I can get outside into nature. Grasping the joy of the present moment, and experiencing the natural world – not electronically, but through the physical senses – helps us to find meaning and connection with others in and through our connection to place. Listening, accepting the slower rhythms of nature, allowing place to speak to us – these habits, which lie at the heart of poetry, may also be small seeds, from which eventually may grow a less damaging, more stable, relation with our environment.

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