The numb of numbers: trace fossils of archaic humans, with outlines of individual children’s toes from almost a million years ago, were found in Britain, on a beach near Happisburgh, in 2013. Humans, nearly 8 billion of us now, consume 60 billion chickens a year and throw away 1 trillion single-use plastic bags. Million, billion, trillion — that fog of rhyming “illion” words, a blur of zeroes — suggests the scale of David Farrier’s concerns in Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils.
The implications of such numbers sent me reeling once in a high school physics class. It was October 1957, a few days after the Soviets shocked the world with Sputnik. Father Adrian had chalked a long row of zeroes on the board, indicating the age and size of the universe as we knew it then. But he went further, hinting at an infinite universe and drawing that sideways 8 symbol next to the zeroes. Frightening stuff for a devout minor seminary boy focused on Eternity. I cornered Father Adrian after class.
“How could that be, Father? I thought only God is infinite. How can there be a second infinity? Or are God and the universe the same thing?” I was not arguing; I was scared. I’d heard about pantheism and felt the chill breath of heresy. I needed answers.
I remember only the tone of Father Adrian’s response — benign, vague words designed to comfort my obvious distress with well-meaning Capuchin pieties. Seminary life was tightly regimented, managed by loud, insistent electric bells. The two-abreast queue for our walk to refectory was already forming outside our classroom. I thanked Father Adrian and took my assigned place, grateful for the silence as we filed downstairs for the noon meal. I would have been happy if Father Prefect had withheld “Deo gratias,” the words giving permission to speak. I wanted more quiet; I had nothing to say to classmates who’d overheard my troubling questions. I’d revealed embarrassing, public doubt about religious mysteries no one else seemed to share.
Footprints aches with every wound of our environmental and human-induced climate change issues, but neither scolds nor plans. It reflects on what is, a profound, scientifically informed meditation on the evidence of our having entered the Anthropocene Epoch, the term scientists increasingly use to describe the era in which human activities shape the natural world more than other forces. Such activity has so altered the Earth that this planet will bear the marks of our having been here into geologic epochs that, as yet, remain un-nameable — and may never be named.
Farrier’s head-spinning numbers far exceed what Father Adrian could have known that October day more than half a century ago. Half of the 500 billion-plus tons of concrete with which we have layered the earth, for example, has only been poured in the last 20 years. Fossil remains of global engineering on a “pharaonic” scale, “the world as one perpetual city,” will persist long after humanity is gone, an ever-deepening underlayer of ruin. “Our cities may leave a trace 100 million years from now,” Farrier writes, “evidence of non-natural processes.”
But numbers are not the main point of Farrier’s imagining of Earth’s far-distant future. He calls his research travels “field trips” (he is professor of literature and the environment at the University of Edinburgh), though he seems to me more a scientifically-informed pilgrim. Footprints frequently speaks with the language of poetry and the sacred.
Visiting the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies’ (IMAS) “world-class ice core laboratory,” he writes, “Ice is the planet’s seat of memory.” A doctor at a research station enters a drilling tent and walks down “a set of ice-cut steps into a blue grotto, arched like a cathedral. A hush surrounded the core itself . . . as if it were a ‘holy of holies.’” The scientists’ work spaces are “wrapped in a monastic quiet.” Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Library of Babel,” provides the title for Farrier’s ice-core chapter. Like Borges’ fictional library, at least some of our planet’s ice library will endure, he says, quoting Borges: “Illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes . . . incorruptible, secret.” The work of IMAS scientists, like Borges’ story, might be thought of as a kind of contemplative prayer through Farrier’s lens.
Farrier’s pilgrimage to Onkalo, Finland’s “deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel” — the world’s first — evokes similar language. Walking “through millennia” as he descends, “the only word I could think of to describe the tunnel was holy,” he writes, “a sanctuary set aside for the deep future.” Similar language creeps into the discussion of how to communicate the dangers of nuclear radiation thousands of generations forward. Should they devise some permanent universal, aboveground symbology of warning or seek to conceal it for all time? One nuclear semiotician has called for the creation of “an atomic priesthood,” putting “his faith in continuity and the power of myth. Superstitions should be allowed to accumulate” around such sites, the thinking goes.
Again, a major literary work infuses Farrier’s meditations. This time it’s the story of Oedipus, “the ultimate contaminated entity, placed beyond purification by the twin blemishes of patricide and incest.” He quotes that ruined king’s words to Theseus as he confronts his own entombment: “But these are great mysteries . . ./words must never rouse them from their depths.
When you reach the end of your own life,
reveal them only to your eldest, dearest son,
and then let him reveal them to his heir
and so through the generations, on forever.
I no longer shrink from imagined heresies or seek to hide my thoughts about profound mysteries. I belong to no priesthood, scientific or religious. The fossil toeprints and footprints of those early humans whose discovery gave rise to Farrier’s title, walking “out of the deep past and into the present” — washed away two weeks later. A spring storm had destroyed a postwar flood wall to expose them. Now they were gone for good.
I share Farrier’s abiding distress about human desecration of our planetary home. One last big number: 5 trillion pieces of plastic waste now in our oceans (the estimated figure has surely increased since Farrier published his book one year ago). Would that number have been zero as recently as that eye-blink ago when Father Adrian taught me physics in 1957?
What I take most from Footprints is a greater desire to hold in front of me the deep time of both past and future while attending to the present — what it may reveal. The glimpse we had of those prints at Happisburgh was infinitesimally brief. Two weeks. In a coda, Farrier summons Italo Calvino’s observation that new worlds open to us every day, but “we fail to notice them. In the rush of everyday life we miss the subtle shift; through habit, we see the present by past life. The challenge is to learn instead to examine our present, and ourselves, by the eerie light cast by the onrushing future.”
Amen to that.
James McKenzie, professor emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota, lives and writes in St. Paul, Minnesota. His occasional essays for Notre Dame Magazine include “The Redeeming Grace of Manual Labor.”