Excerpt from Earth by Richard Fortey, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Earth

An Intimate History

by Richard Fortey

Earth
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2004, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2005, 448 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


Near the tip of the southern peninsula, Sorrento commands a wonderful prospect of Mount Vesuvius across the entire Bay of Naples. From this steep-sided town, Vesuvius looks almost the perfect, gentle-sided cone. It could be a domestic version of Mount Fuji, the revered volcanic mountain in Japan. It can appear blue, or grey, or occasionally stand revealed in its true brown colours. On clear days Vesuvius is starkly outlined against a bright sky: a dark, heavy, almost oppressive presence. Or on a misty morning its conical summit can rise above a mere sketch or impression of the lower slopes, which are obscured in vapour, as if it were cut off from the world to make a house for the gods alone. At night, ranks of lights along Neapolitan roads twinkle incessantly. Vesuvius is often no more than a dark shape against a paler, but still Prussian blue sky. The lights might persuade you that the mountain was still in the process of eruption, with points of white illumination tracking lava flows running down the hillsides. From Sorrento, you can make of Vesuvius what you will, for within a day it will have remade itself.

The Bay of Naples is where the science of geology started. The description of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in a.d. 79 by Pliny the Younger is probably the first clear and objective description of a geological phenomenon. No dragons were invoked, no clashes between the Titans and the gods. Pliny provided observation, not speculation.

Not quite two millennia later, in 1830, Charles Lyell was to use an illustration of columns from the so-called Temple of Serapis at Pozzuoli, north of Naples, as the frontispiece to volume 1 of the most seminal work in geology—his Principles of Geology. This book influenced the young Charles Darwin more than any other source in his formulation of evolutionary theory: so you could say that the Bay of Naples had its part to play, too, in the most important biological revolution. Everybody who was anybody in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries visited the bay, and marvelled at its natural and archaeological phenomena. For geology—a latecomer to the pantheon of sciences—the area is the nearest thing to holy ground that there is. If you were going to choose anywhere to retrace the growth in our understanding about how the earth is constructed, what better place to begin? Where else more appropriate to explain first principles? The long intellectual journey that eventually led to plate tectonics started in this bite out of the western shin of Italy's boot-shaped profile. A voyage around this particular bay is a pilgrimage to the foundations of comprehension about our planet.

Everything about Sorrento is rooted in the geology. The town itself is in a broad valley surrounded by limestone ranges, which flash white bluffs on the hillsides and reach the sea in nearly vertical cliffs—an incitement to dizziness for those brave enough to look straight down from the top. Seen from a distance, the roads that wind up the sides of the hills look like folded tagliatelle. Stacked blocks of the same limestone are used in the walls that underpin the terraces supporting the olive groves. In special places there are springs that spurt out fresh, cool water from underground caverns. These sources are often flanked by niches containing the statue of a saint, or of the Virgin: water is not taken for granted in these parts. There are deep ravines through the limestone hills, probably marking where caves have collapsed. The country backing the Bay of Naples is known as Campania, and the same name, Campanian, is applied to a subdivision of geological time belonging to the Cretaceous period. If you look carefully on some of the weathered surfaces of the limestones, you will see the remains of seashells that were alive in the age of the dinosaurs. I saw some obvious clams and sea urchins, belonging to extinct species, emerging from the cliffs as if they were on a bas-relief. A palaeontologist can identify the individual fossil species, and use them to calibrate the age of the rocks, since the succession of species is a measure of geological time. The implication is clear enough: in Cretaceous times all these hilly regions were beneath a shallow, warm sea. Limy muds accumulated there as sediments, and entombed the remains of the animals living on the sea floor. Time and burial hardened the muds into the tough limestones we see today. They are sedimentary rocks, subsequently uplifted to become land; earth movements then tilted them—but this is to anticipate. What one can say is that the character of the limestone hills is a product of an ancient sea.

Excerpted from Earth by Richard Fortey Copyright © 2005 by Richard Fortey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free Membership

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Here I Am
    Here I Am
    by Jonathan Safran Foer
    With almost all the accoutrements of upper middle-class suburban life, Julia and Jacob Bloch fit the...
  • Book Jacket: Harmony
    Harmony
    by Carolyn Parkhurst
    In previous novels such as The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, Carolyn Parkhurst has shown herself...
  • Book Jacket: Commonwealth
    Commonwealth
    by Ann Patchett
    Opening Ann Patchett's novel Commonwealth about two semi-functional mid-late 20th Century ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Darling Days
    by iO Tillett Wright

    A devastatingly powerful memoir of one young woman's extraordinary coming of age.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Tea Planter's Wife
    by Dinah Jefferies

    An utterly engrossing, compulsive page-turner set in 1920s Ceylon.

    Read Member Reviews

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Circling the Sun
by Paula McLain

An intoxicatingly vivid portrait of colonial Kenya and its privileged inhabitants.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win Blood at the Root

Blood at the Root

"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

D C Y C Before T A H

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
X

Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!



Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.