Tuesday, November 01, 2016
theatlantic | Late one summer night in 1949, the British archeologist Jacquetta Hawkes went out into her small back garden in north London, and lay down. She sensed the bedrock covered by its thin layer of soil, and felt the hard ground pressing her flesh against her bones. Shimmering through the leaves and out beyond the black lines of her neighbors’ chimney pots were the stars, beacons “whose light left them long before there were eyes on this planet to receive it,” as she put it in A Land (1951), her classic book of imaginative nature writing.
We are accustomed to the idea of geology and astronomy speaking the secrets of ‘deep time,’ the immense arc of non-human history that shaped the world as we perceive it. Hawkes’s lyrical meditation mingles the intimate and the eternal, the biological and the inanimate, the domestic with a sense of deep time that is very much of its time. The state of the topsoil was a matter of genuine concern in a country wearied by wartime rationing, while land itself rises into focus just as Britain is rethinking its place in the world. But in lying down in her garden, Hawkes also lies on the far side of a fundamental boundary. A Land was written at the cusp of the Holocene; we, on the other hand, read it in the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene, or era of the human, denotes how industrial civilization has changed the Earth in ways that are comparable with deep-time processes. The planet’s carbon and nitrogen cycles, ocean chemistry and biodiversity—each one the product of millions of years of slow evolution—have been radically and permanently disrupted by human activity. The development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, and the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century, have both been proposed as start dates for the Anthropocene. But a consensus has gathered around the Great Acceleration—the sudden and dramatic jump in consumption that began around 1950, followed by a huge rise in global population, an explosion in the use of plastics, and the collapse of agricultural diversity.