I watched a fantastic video (linked below) where Carl Sagan quotes Herman Melville in Moby Dick: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…”
It got me to thinking about why I choose to study natural history and environmental research. I have a great deal of empathy with Melville. From an early age I have been compelled to explore the world around me. To push beyond the next hill, forever chasing an elusive horizon. At some point I discovered natural history. I sat enthralled as Attenborough narrated the ghostly pulse of deep sea creatures, or the struggle of life painted in the roasting hues of the Serengeti. Then one day, I found a shell made of stone.
On a family trip to the coast, I pulled a nodule from the black Jurassic shale and cracked it open with a rusted old claw hammer. Coiled neatly inside was an almost perfect ammonite. It seemed as though it had waited patiently through silent ages to be found, to be held and looked at. It glittered with pyrite magic in the light of a sun it had not seen in 187 million years.
I don’t have the words to describe the sense of wonder I felt then, and still do to this day whenever I find a fossil or rock or see an interesting animal or plant. There is a feeling of connection, of reaching back into an unimaginably distant past, being woven into a long unbroken thread of life. It makes me sad to think that there are children now who are so urbanised that even typical British woodland is seen as something strange and unpleasant. The human connection with the natural world seems to be slipping further away with each generation.
That feeling of ageless wonder is something I try to communicate to other people, though with varying success; I don’t think any language has adequate words to express such an emotion. The ammonite and I are as far apart as the most distant stars, yet closer than the thickness of a shadow, both biologically and temporally. But we are both notes in the same piece of music, both characters in the same story. I looked at that beautiful ammonite (Dactylioceras commune), fell into its seemingly infinite spiral and heard the call of my own white whale beginning my own endless hunt for the secrets of the antediluvian world.
Is this what Homo ergaster felt like 1.7 million years ago when they began to migrate from ancestral Africa? Was the flood of the hominin simply successive generations asking “what’s over there?” I like to think we both looked at mountains and oceans and the night sky and thought “I will cross you and know you and understand you”.
This is why I am a geologist; deep time is my great beyond, my white whale. There is always one more secret to ferret out, one more fossil to collect, and one more hill to peep over. But the world is always changing and nothing stays the same for long, which Alfred Lord Tennyson phrased beautifully in this verse from “In Memoriam”:
“There rolls the deep where stood the tree
Oh Earth, what changes have you seen
There where the long street roars
Was once the stillness of the central seas
The hills are shadows, they flow from form to form
Nothing stands, these solid lands
Like clouds they shape themselves and go”
In Moby Dick, obsession destroys Captain Ahab, his ship and all but one of his crew. The relationship with my own white whale has become something more akin to a symbiosis. I read the story written in the rocks and share it with the world. The story of life is a long and proud tale of survival against overwhelming odds. The current chapter, being written by the restless apes has become beleaguered with mistakes, but we still have time to draft a better future for ourselves and those we share the planet with. Altruism is a much better survival strategy for a social species so I have no doubt the current darkness will pass and we will prevail.
There are still too many horizons to chase.