This Unconformity. A strange name to find on the map. A root not old English or Norse, unmarbled by time or eroded by myriad palates. Stark and craggy in its juxtaposition of Germanic and Latinate elements, twitchingly polysyllabic and early Modern in its precise oppositions (from the lexicon of antidisestablishmentarianism, to be sure) and parked there on the map next to venerable Siccar Point
Doesn’t the word imply a certain flintiness, an unwillingness to yield to specious solutions, a challenge to received wisdoms?
(Of course, it is also a description of the mismatch of patterns in two adjoining rock strata – but would there not have been a less challenging way to describe that ? Hutton’s Discontinuity, or Irregularity,, or Anomaly – something implying less challenge and resistance)
What it all means of course is another thing.
Hutton he liked to demonstrate. Dragging his mates up Salisbury Crags from the New Town, or across the Borders on horseback, here bobbing out into the North Sea, he took The Debate out of the salons into the world, and by doing so he gave it the authority of the Rocks. Observation was to be the basis of theory.
But it is a matter of interpretation how far we take this . Now, the official signage is reluctant to make large claims – ‘The Founder of Geology’ is enough perhaps. It looks good. It has a limited, discrete field to apply to – safe, confident. We can place him therefore on the pantheon of Great Berwickshire Luminaries between Jim Clark and erm.. ( can we count Alec Douglas Home?)
My interpretation is slightly different.
First Hutton didn’t work alone . His theories developed collegiately ( the value of his amanuensis John Clark and biographer James Playfair are often ignored). And he was schooled in the Enlightenment and agricultural improvement (Edinburgh, Leiden, Paris and Norfolk). Rock and soil the latter brought, but the Idea came from the former – the Idea of change as a repetition of small, observable processes over time . A phenomenal – and at that point unconscionable – amount of time.
That idea brings with it the right to discourse . Free thought. The Enlightenment tiptoes around the Church – which one generation earlier was hanging students for blasphemy.
What does Unconformity mean now? At the Point we joked about how we could apply for the re-education franchise for returning Jihadists that the Tories had been touting. We bring them here, show them the line in the rocks, give them the explanation and God disappears in a puff of smoke.
However the post-Jihadists would have to want Him/Her to . For us finding atheism, the arrogance of Being Ourselves Enough, is Freedom. For others it is Vulnerability, Fear, Chaos. And some of those have turned to Terror. In ISIS states the Uncomformity would be blasted away like the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the ruins of Palmyra. As the threat of a (good) Example. And from the other side of the Atlantic the anti-evolutionists close down the Iapetus Ocean of free thought. Perhaps all this is temporary, as Hutton’s pals might have believed. Reason will overcome. But perhaps reason itself is only a fad – it seems a perilous time to be rationalist only..
Id like to be part of something called the Unconformity Project . I have no wish to conform.
It seems to me what Hutton discovered is Deep Time. The sense that Rocks are Slow Life ( as the song goes**). But more than that, that time – or at least Deep Time- does not move in a steady way, but is subject to jumps, twitches, sudden cataclysmic events where things change spectacularly . These things – volcanics, earthquakes, floods , glaciations, landslides – may be explicable but they are not predictable, at least in timing. The point of this is that even when things look certain and eternal they are in a twofold process of change – both accretional and sporadic. As Hutton says
‘ There is not vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’.
The appearance of rocks carries evidence of their origin and their history -what they are and where they’ve been . The Unconformity Project would recover the spirit of resistance of previous creativity that gets lost under some kind of sediment. It plays fast and loose with geological metaphor (as you may have spotted)but no more so than all those Eternal Enduring Rock metaphors.
The point is to question received truths and to hold them up to scrutiny..
Yet, we are at a time when Hutton’s observations and comparisons and the natural science they led to have located Knowledge and Truth as the sphere of another caste. The question is whether human existence is served by this any more. And if not is an existential, phenomenological approach a reasonable alternative as a way to live beyond alienation or already prone to any abstruseness which makes it elitist..
The level which I can test this is basic and embodied. I go for a walk. I perceive things. I feel and think stuff . I point it out to others. ( Hopefully) they respond . And we are drawn together towards the thing. The thing stands out of its background. It acquires greater significance – may become cherished or totemic. This is the task of profane illumination – I see it as an ecological imperative. It might or could be science . But it ain’t necessarily so..