I have only ever seen Greenland once while flying over it on my way to a conference in Alaska. But geologist William E. Glassley has spent several field seasons together with two fellow geologists working in this rugged landscape, uncovering its geological secrets. This slim volume describes their work, but more prominently, it is a rhapsodic tribute to Earth’s wild places and the transformative experience of finding yourself far away from civilisation. I had not heard of Bellevue Literary Press before, but they aim to publish books at the intersection of art and science, and I would argue this book fits the bill well.
A Wilder Time documents Glassley’s work tracing down some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Plate tectonics has become an accepted idea by now (see for example The Tectonic Plates are Moving! for an introduction), although it has been an uphill struggle (see for example Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth). There is, however, continued debate how far back in time this process started, and also how it started. We have reliable evidence of plate tectonics for the last 900 million years (see also Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet), but the older evidence for plate tectonics is equivocal. Greenland has some of the oldest rocks on the planet that are still easily accessible (as in: not somewhere being munched up or melted down in the planet’s interior) and some of the rock samples that Glassley has collected from Greenland are some 3400 million years old. Glassley and his colleagues have collected evidence of ancient mountain building episodes going back some 1900 million years, which would push back the dates for active plate tectonics by a large measure.
However, this story of geological discovery takes a backseat to Glassley’s reflections on his fieldwork in Greenland. Studying the rocks in-situ and collecting samples requires week-long expeditions into the unspoiled wilderness of the Greenland coastline, well above the Arctic Circle. Dropped off by helicopter, Glassley and co. set up camp in a grandiose landscape of fjords, calving glaciers, and moss-studded rocks that, by and large, has never experienced human presence.
Glassley turns out to be an inspirational guide, his time spent there heeding an inner call to connect with the wilderness in a way not possible in our everyday lives. Though a cynic like myself would normally be quick to dismiss this as soppy hippie sentiments, roll my eyes, and mutter something under my breath about my dislike for New Age movements, I am not. In my own way, I am no stranger to feeling part of something indescribably larger and older than myself that spending time outdoors can bring about. And, regrettably, I don’t do it as much or as often as would be good for me. Thank goodness Glassley is here to transport me to the vast vistas offered by Greenland.
“Thank goodness Glassley is here to transport me to the vast vistas offered by Greenland”
Whether coming eye to eye with a speeding falcon, being overwhelmed by the thin layer of scents spread by tundra vegetation when lying down trying to spot ptarmigans, or observing a river of fish slowly moving through a fjord, Glassley’s prose has a poetic quality to it at times. But the landscape is not always hospitable. Ice caves can collapse, the tides in the narrow fjords rise and fall precipitously on a daily basis, fresh meltwater creates unseen currents, and gales can suddenly pick up.
With a scientist’s sense of humility and eye for detail, Glassley documents the awe-inspiring experience of spending weeks in this kind of landscape. When he describes some of the amazing geological formations, I wish photos would have been included. The writing can get technical here in places, with a glossary at the end of the book explaining only selected terms. Even so, he successfully conveys both their importance and their beauty.
A Wilder Time is an exceptionally captivating book, its brevity and small size working in its favour. Spend an afternoon with this book, I doubt you will regret it.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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