The rocks under our feet shape every aspect of human existence

From agriculture and art to our emotional and psychological weather.

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The only image that remains in my mind from school is a map on my geography teacher’s wall showing, as its title elegantly proclaimed: “A delineation of the strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland; exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names.”

I loved this map, though only as an object of beauty and of some strange knowledge that I knew I would never possess.

At 15 I was too foolish to take an interest in geography; if I had, I would have known that this beautiful object was “the map that changed the world”, paving the way for Darwin’s theories and revolutionising the study of geology. It was created by William Smith, a blacksmith’s son whose life was dogged by betrayal and poverty (including a spell in debtors’ prison), but who, in later life, gained something of the recognition he deserved.

I was prompted to remember Smith while reading Fiona Sampson’s lyrical and highly insightful Limestone Country, in which she describes four limestone landscapes – in England, France, Slovenia and Jerusalem – and the various ways people live with and relate to them. The book reveals how the rocks under our feet shape every aspect of human existence, from agriculture and art to our emotional and psychological weather.

Sampson concentrates not on the chemistry and physics of what she calls “the cannibal earth reconsuming her own”, but on how the geological terrain governs our imaginings and our potential – and how an engagement with limestone landscapes offers all manner of rewards, from the fine wines of the Périgord, to the spiritual revelations of the Holy Land and, most importantly, a deeper appreciation of the environment as a whole. “Really living in these landscapes means paying radical attention to how they behave,” she says.

It means knowing their wildlife as well as ways of farming, observing how water and vegetation respond to the mineral facts of rock and soil as much as how humans live in and with them… Such attention is patient and detailed. It’s a kind of ‘slow knowledge’ that is the opposite of generalisation.

Limestone Country does not avoid the painful and tragic aspects of the landscape; indeed, it ends in one of the world’s most troubled places, where the earth is “the colour of rust, of fire, of blood. Apt coincidence that here, in Jerusalem, the limestone ground rock should produce terra rossa or red earth.” Eerily, the land seems to echo human activity everywhere Sampson turns, but the slow knowledge and wisdom of her Périgord neighbours, and the gorgeous passages, set in Oxfordshire, where she celebrates what American poet Randall Jarrell calls “the dailiness of life”, offer a healing alternative to that red earth, a sign that, when we are humble and attentive enough to learn from the earth how to live, we may begin, as Auden suggests at the close of his great poem “In Praise of Limestone” to “imagine a faultless love”.

I wish now that I had paid more attention in geography lessons at school; I might have learnt how to appreciate the land around me better, to understand how utterly we depend on rocks and stones and trees and to know, where that land is most threatened, how I might best help to defend it.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem