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What rocks teach us about the human condition

In Hugh Raffles' profound, genre-straddling new book, stones and minerals reveal the pain of loss and the secrets of time.

By Kathleen Jamie

An “unconformity” is a geologist’s term. It denotes “a discontinuity in the deposition of sediment”, “a material sign of a break in time”. But how can time break? Surely time goes on like an arrow, through one damn thing after the next.

Well, maybe it doesn’t. This extraordinary book will win devotees among that minority who don’t see “stories” everywhere, who resent the hegemony of narrative, and who perhaps experience time more like a spiral or, as Roberto Bolaño puts it in the epigraph, “not a river but an earthquake happening nearby”.

Each of the six main chapters circles round a kind of rock or mineral, except for one, “Blubberstone”, which is an invented composite. The book is an invented composite itself – part travelogue, part memoir, part history, part psychogeography. The author travels from New York to Scotland, Svalbard to Greenland, but the first person features rarely; it glints, like the mica he considers in the epilogue.

Hugh Raffles, a British anthropologist, has lived in Manhattan since the 1990s. There, bedrock of any kind is rare to see, being mostly buried under silt, but marble occurs. What in a more conventional book would serve as an introductory paragraph occurs on page 38, when we’re encouraged to take the subway to the northern tip of the island and Inwood Hill Park, “the closest you’ll come in Manhattan to the landscape and soundscape before the city took root”. Bedrock is visible there, a marble “soft, silent and subject to sugaring”. Being little use for building, it only features in the city as a grand arch, now crammed in behind apartments and the Brito Body Shop on Broadway at 217 Street, and some old, illegible gravestones.

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In the park are caves once used by the Native American people the Lenape, until their world broke. The beginning of the end could be dated to 1609, when Henry Hudson moored his ship at the entrance to the Spuyten Duyvil creek, having retreated from the northern ice. The sailors saw Manhattan as a pleasant land, worthy of settling, little realising it had been created thus by its occupants. And so it began.

There follows one of Raffles extraordinary sentences; many occur in the book. This one concerns the peoples now called the Lenape and the Munsee and the Delaware, the first to speak an Algonquian language. The sentence proceeds for around 700 words, contains 25 semicolons plus parentheses and several of his beloved lists. It is a cascade of clauses hymning the culture of the peoples who occupied a territory from the Catskills to Connecticut. When it eventually ends, it leaves you not breathless but wonderstruck.

Then came the horrors of settler-colonialism, the destruction and forced removal of these original Manhattanites. However, it’s not over: the “First United Lenape Nations Pow Wow and Standing Ground Symposium” was held in 2018. Discussion was dominated by tradition, renewal, resistance, which, like bedrock, breaks cover “even in everyday places easily reached by subway, bus and foot”.

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The same Captain Henry Hudson features in “Blubberstone”, which is Raffles’ name for the “residue of thousands of whales boiled in cauldrons, congealed with sand, gravel and coal”. We are now on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where lumps of it lie strewn along a particular beach. Like Trinitite, formed at the New Mexico atomic test site in 1945, and plastiglomerates, first recorded in Hawaii in 2013, blubberstone is “a geological artifact of world history”.

It was Hudson who named this archipelago “Whales Bay” and so signalled an extraction industry, with numbers which still beggar belief. Everyone piled north: Basques, Dutch, French, English, exterminating up to 200,000 bowhead whales in 240 years, as well as seals and walruses – a thousand walrus could be slaughtered in the space of seven hours. The result was inevitable. In 1911 a British ship cruised for an entire season without sighting a single bowhead; the Svalbard population was extinct. The exploiters turned to coal, until the industry collapsed, exhausted. The remnants of mining settlements litter the islands. The Soviet mining town of Pyramiden had a sports hall, theatre. library, music rooms – all now inhabited by kittiwakes. “Coal was an animal here, just as the whales and walruses were simply matter”.

The longest and most complex chapter is “Iron”, which takes us to Greenland, and the present-day township of Savissivik. For 1,000 years Arctic peoples had only one source of metal: iron from fragments of a meteorite that had slammed into the Earth many millenia ago. This meteoritic iron, which native people could chip off and fashion into tools, serves as the lodestone for the chapter as it ranges through the fate of Greenlandic peoples and the other, metaphorical meteorites that have since crashed into their cultures: contact with European sailors, abduction, smallpox, theft, enforced clearances, rampant US militarism, climate change. Even the meteorites themselves have been stolen from their landscapes; the arch self-promoter/adventurer Robert Peary carted several huge pieces back to New York.

[See also: Daisy Hildyard’s new novel reflects the ambivalence and violence of nature]

So we begin to understand what an unconformity might mean: something closer to a catastrophe. Time breaks, futures are lost, or stolen. There are fissures in understanding and knowledge. Lifeways that have developed over millennia for peoples or animals can be snapped.

Raffles describes a sense of sudden, grievous breakage entering his own life. He began collecting rocks, like anchors for the unmoored, after the sudden deaths of two of his sisters. The chapter titled “Gneiss” takes us to the Scottish island of Lewis, where his sister Franki lived near the Neolithic stone circle at Calanais, before her death in childbirth. His sister Sally took her own life four months later. What are these disasters against the great scheme of time, and geology? “Even minor horrors transform all that follows; the world’s great horrors are composed of personal loss and unresolved grief.”

The epilogue “Muscovite” is appropriately slender, and reminiscent of WG Sebald in its purling, pages-long sentences, the unspooling ribbons of facts and ricochets in time. Here again are the world’s great and minor horrors: Raffles’ great aunt Emma was transported from Berlin to the camp at Theresienstadt, (which Sebald explored in Austerlitz) and obliged to work with a razor, splitting muscovite (mica) into thin sheets. Ten hours a day, perched on a backless stool, she and other women prepared the mica, essential in aeroplanes and other wartime applications. Emma survived and kept a few samples of sheet mica for the rest of her life; they are now preserved in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Raffles travelled to Theresienstadt and immersed himself there but eventually felt he’d “lost his appetite to add to the literature of terror”, as it re-awakens all around us.

This is an astonishing book. High octane but precise (Raffles understands that poetry is not “poetic” but exact), both copious and profound, it reveals that “even the most solid, ancient, and elemental materials are as lively, capricious, willful and indifferent as time itself”.

The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time
Hugh Raffles
Verse Chorus Press, 392pp, £19.99

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Kathleen Jamie is Scotland’s national poet, or Makar

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato