Five Books

by Kevin Edwards


I have failed dismally in this exercise; now I know how guests on Radio 4's 'Desert island discs' must feel. The following demonstrates equivocation on a grand scale, but here we go....

Scientific discovery, when excitingly recounted, presents many marvellous lessons for the budding researcher in any discipline. Graft, craft, intellect, inspiration, co-operation and competition have all propelled many scientific ideas to fruition. What is clear is that few ideas are completely novel and that the resolutions to many problems, or present levels of understanding, have come about as a result of academic labours spanning decades or even centuries. There are many good books on the history of science, and anything by Stephen Jay Gould would suffice. I'm going to cheat and divide the spoils elsewhere! James D. Watson's The Double Helix (originally Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968; subsequently Penguin, 1970) is the personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA for which biochemist Watson and his collaborator, Francis Crick, received a share of the Nobel Prize in 1962. C.P. Snow described The Double Helix as 'Like nothing else in literature' and I'm not going to argue with that. It is a fast-moving, warts-and-all depiction of the nature of science and scientists. Alongside it, however, I am going to nominate Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery (Macmillan, 1979) by oceanographer John Imbrie and his daughter Katherine Palmer Imbrie. The development of the astronomical theory of ice ages (based especially on cyclical changes in the earth's orbit) involves religion, geology, palaeoecology, mathematics, prejudice, and international co- operation which continues to this day. Pride of place must go to James Croll, the Scottish millwright, shopkeeper, janitor, insurance salesman, and autodidact who formulated the theory, and to Milutin Milankovitch, a Serbian mathematician who provided the quantitative proof, much of it worked out while a prisoner of war of the Austro-Hungarian army.

Many students (and academics) are reluctant to acknowledge the degree to which past workers have contributed to the creation of ideas. A scholarly antidote to this egotistical blindness is provided by Clarence J. Glacken's monumental Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the end of the Eighteenth Century (University of California Press, 1967). Glacken was an American geographer who came late to formal academic life, joining Carl Sauer's influential department at Berkeley at the age of 43. Prior to that he had worked for the relief of migrant farmworkers fleeing the Dust Bowl and the post-war administration in Korea. He saw at first hand the destruction caused by poor farming practices and over-population. Traces on the Rhodian Shore examines the complexity of thinking on nature and culture and shows how contemporary issues in conservation have long histories. His treatise extends to over 700 pages and he observes (ruefully?) at its end, that 'it is a striking fact that virtually every great thinker who lived within this 2300-year period had something to say about one of the ideas, and many had something to say about all of them'.

Now for a little light relief, while continuing with a cultural-environmental theme. There are some books which are able to depict nature in a manner which shouts that the author has experienced what the prose is attempting to convey. One candidate would be poet Alasdair Maclean's Night Falls on Ardnamurchan (Gollancz, 1984; Penguin, 1986). Sub-titled The Twilight of a Crofting Community, Maclean combines his own account of the fading crofting life in the township of Sanna with that of his father and produces a powerful mix of observation and reminiscence. I would allow this book to be shaded by another that will be too florid for some, Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949; reprinted in many editions since). Leopold was a national forest manager who came to realise that the ethics of game management, often predicated on the interests of hunters, were injurious to a healthy ecosystem. He joined the University of Wisconsin in 1933, bought a small farm in the north of the state, and produced this nature diary of his land, combining science, philosophy, and the notion of the land ethic -- that we should be citizens of the land rather than its conquerors.

Landscape -- or limited, often fanciful aspects of it -- occupy the minds of a growing band of archaeologists. Trained as a geographer (as opposed to a human or physical geographer), I suppose I should applaud this attraction to the earth's surface, even if the excesses of archaeological imagination sometimes leave me suspended between states of crying, laughing, and disbelief. I had thought to select Richard Bradley's Altering the Earth: the Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe (The Rhind Lectures 1991-92, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1993) which, like all of Bradley's work, contains much to admire and stimulate and is written without the opacity which elsewhere seems to pass as scholarship ('Our perceptions are bound to be different, but we should be able to talk to one another'; ibid.: 129). My mind, however, keeps returning to another text, and I have chosen Tim Robinson's Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (Lilliput Press, 1986; Penguin, 1990). The author, ex-mathematics teacher, ex-artist, moved to the Aran Islands off Ireland's west coast. The book charts a journey around the islands' coasts and via its natural and human history, its present and future, he conveys a rich sense of place for an area which superficially is a mass of rocks.

It is a short step to the fictional evocation of landscape and any number of books could be cited (George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure combine good storytelling with the native's feel of Orkney, Aberdeenshire, or Wessex). My choice -- it could well be a different one next week -- is Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen's Barbara (1939, translated by George Johnston, Norvik Press, 1993). Set in 18th-century Faroe, and revolving around the uncomprehending innocence of the eponymous heroine, the novel manages to distil the amazing landscape and seascape of the Faroe Islands (as well as the townscape of its capital Tórshavn) in a marvellously simple and poetic prose.

Kevin J. Edwards is Professor and Head of Department, Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield. He eschews disciplinary boundaries but masquerades as a palaeoecologist with current projects in the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland, Faroe, Iceland, and in the laboratory.

Copyright © K. Edwards 1998


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