Get your rocks off

A word of introduction is probably a good idea; I’m the Northumberland Wildlife Trust trustee who’s a geologist. I mention that because us geologists tend to see the world differently to most normal people.

For one thing, we have a weird perception of time. 4.5 billion years, the age of the Earth, is a long time. 330 million years, which happens to be the middle of the Carboniferous period when most of the rocks in Northumberland originated, is a reasonable amount of time. 15,000 years ago, when the last ice age was contemplating leaving this area, is like yesterday to us rock men.

We also look at nature, and the way it changes, through a different lens. 

Go for a walk with a geologist and you will see to your surprise (or maybe another emotion?) that s/he interprets the landscape and its habitats in terms of what’s under it, not what’s on it. Years of training and indoctrination mean that to me the most fundamental thing about any landscape is its rocky bones. I do see, acknowledge, and am deeply interested in the wildlife and the influence of man, ancient and modern, but the impact of the latter is cosmetic beauty, which as they say, is only skin deep. It’s the rocks and sediments, their shape and composition that provide the three-dimensional canvas for the painting that wildlife crafts; and we humans are but latecomers.

Wildlife, and plants in particular, are very much appreciated and cherished by rock men. Though they are not the main act, they do come in handy for giving us evidence of what the geology is underneath. Thyme and sheep’s-fescue have an affinity for limestone, heather for the acid soils over sandstone, rushes and reeds with clay and shale. We are indebted to plants which like metals because we use them as indicators to guide us to ore bodies underground, or to identify areas where toxic elements are concentrated. For instance, the calaminarian plants of the Tyne floodplain, evidence past lead mining in the North Pennines.

This different philosophy I have about time, landscapes and their biology extends into a very topical and contentious subject, climate change. Dare to mention climate change to a geologist and they will tell you it’s not new. In the Carboniferous we were a sub-tropical hot and humid swamp, though admittedly plate tectonics has moved us a few degrees north since then. But only 15,000 years ago we Northumbrians had a kilometre of ice above us and temperatures were way below zero for a long time. Then the Earth started to warm up - naturally - until the industrial revolution that is when our species, unwittingly at the time, decided to give the planet a helping hand.

There’s a lot of things geologists have to say about climate change, but I’ll leave it at two for now.

First, society has to think of its impacts today; climate change is here and now and not somewhere else tomorrow.

Second, those doing the climate modelling are coming to terms with the fact that their measurements and data will only take them back so far. They are going to have to look more closely at the geological past to get a handle on the extremes of climate and the way our landscapes and life on Earth adapted…. or didn’t. 

I’ll leave it on that positive note. Be assured, I would never relegate nature and wildlife to a supporting role, I just happen to see rocks as an integral part of that natural system and as a Cinderella who needs a champion.

Care for a walk with a geologist anyone?