I’ve just returned from holidays. It feels like mistake to ever have been. I’m exhausted. I can’t settle back mentally into work. The PhD feels like drudge work. How on earth am I going to get though the next 12 months of slog?
I was in Pompei. Nothing prepares you for the reality. I kept saying to myself, this is not a stage set. The cart ruts, worn over hundreds of years into the paving. Hand rubs on the fountains and wells. The city stood for thousands of years before it became smothered in pumice and ash. Also went up Vesuvius. The faint smell of sulphur handing in the air. The layers of the crater, like a school geography textbook. The vegetation growing in the hollow, an indication of how long since the interior shifted. Not that long then.
Yesterday’s seminar in the Department, by Professor Ian Montgomery, was on the Pretannia Isles, an ancient Greek or Roman name for ‘these islands’. It was a whistle-stop tour of the last 15,000 years. Again, it was all about the changes in the earth’s tegument. Ice sheets advancing and retiring. Seas flooding and retreating. The tsunami that finished off Doggerland, allowing the North Sea its current reign. The great European rivers, the Elbe, the Rhine, that flowed on through Doggerland, into England, uniting with the Thames. The ambiguities of history, the story in the DNA saying one thing or another depending on whether it’s autosomal, mitochondrial or Y-chromosomal. What archaeology or palaeontology supports of these stories, and what it doesn’t. There were some shockers. The red squirrel may not be native after all, may, in fact, like that North American menace, the grey, have been introduced by humans. Ditto the pine marten, for its fur apparently. And hedgehogs could be an invasive species also.
Where does that leave any current certainty? What categorisations, classifications, can be relied upon? The earth keeps changing, keeps defying our definitions. I always have qualms about these kind of discussions, worrying, that like the climate-change deniers, the complexity of the story will be used to promote a laissez-faire attitude that will ensure that the current sixth wave of extinctions we’re living through will go uncontested. Yet, there is nevertheless an underlying reassurance also. The earth has its own ways, its own inevitable transitions, that our current hegemony can only stir a little. Like Vesuvius, the earth has its own shifts and processes, that do not keep to our timetables, are so outside of our control that we have simply no idea what grace it is to be here at all.