A Wilder Time: Notes From a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice
By William E. Glassley. Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. 222 pages. $17.99 paper.
While science and art share a quest for understanding and meaning, it’s not often that a data-collecting scientist also has the soul of a poet. In “A Wilder Time,” author William Glassley, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, crafts language to express the joy he finds in his work and the “rugged frailty” of his workplace at the edge of ice.
The work focuses on a summer’s expedition with two Danish geologists to the west coast of Greenland, with some reflections on five additional journeys to the same area. The expedition goal was to survey more of the area and to collect rock samples to elaborate on the story not just of Greenland’s origins but of the Earth’s oldest rocks and how land masses in general formed, moved and collided over millions of years. As the Greenland ice cap recedes and more polished, very old bedrock at its edge is exposed, the opportunity is an extraordinary one.
Largely, “A Wilder Time” is about the process of science — how it is to have a theory and proceed to test it, how science is always questioning, always re-evaluating and revising what we know about life. Glassley clearly communicates the passion and commitment that scientists — at least these three, working in a remote and largely inhospitable part of the world — bring to their work.
While non-scientists might find much of the detailed geology hard to follow (and perhaps not as fascinating as the author obviously finds it), Glassley lightens his narrative with lyrical passages about the land, wildlife and adventures he and his companions share.
A mystery lies at the heart of the story. Can the men substantiate their earlier theory, one that has been challenged by others, or will the evidence point elsewhere? What they’re searching for is “a consistent tale that encompasses nearly the entire history of the nonhuman Earth.”
It won’t give too much away to say that the men soon find rock-hard evidence of shear zones that support their theory about how volcanic activity and plate tectonics formed and transformed the Earth’s surface. They discover what they agree is “the actual suture that locked together continents that had collided 1,800 million years ago.”
Back in the laboratory, using microscopes and sophisticated instruments, the men later learn that some of their rocks were formed in an ocean basin more than three billion years ago. The story becomes clearer: a history of molten rock injected into sea sediments, then deeply buried, heated, compressed, folded and refolded, and deformed and intruded during mountain building. Glassley writes, “Eventually, sometime in the last few ten millions of years, they [the rocks] had made it back to the surface, shoreline to a new ocean, supporting our boots while waiting for another transformation.”
Meanwhile, in between the rock science, Glassley exults in Greenland’s wildness, often wandering off on his own for quiet moments of contemplation. On the first day after being dropped by boat at their study site, he clambers up a ridge to see from horizon to horizon. He’s elated by the view of fjord, sky, rock, and ice, but he also feels an unease he tries to give voice to. “That feeling was not a sadness per se; rather, it was a quiet longing for things humanity has no words for, but with which wilderness settings overflow. There was a sense of missed opportunities, of an inability to connect with something profound, as though what I was immersed in shimmered incomprehensively at the edge of sight.”
His senses are always on alert. Once, pounding apart a particularly hard rock and then studying a piece closely with his hand lens, he’s overtaken by a smell “like that of singed hair, hot metal, and desert dust.” He realizes that his hammering had broken chemical bonds, releasing carbon, calcium, and magnesium atoms that had been trapped since the start of life on Earth. “Everything that made that rock, and which would normally be released to the oceans through excruciatingly slow erosion, had suddenly been thrown to the wind.”
Elsewhere, he eats lichen, “trying to get a feel for the world of flavors that encase rock,” and ice shards, that bring him a feeling of cleanliness and great calm. He studies the distortions of mirages, handles the “velvety green texture” of moss, watches the flight of a peregrine falcon. He listens to the cries of far-off gulls that in the dense air make a wailing he compares to the mythical Sirens. He stares into the “swirling abstractions” of the seafloor through layers of fresh and salt water, drifts in a small boat among sculpted ice at the front of the ice sheet, and tries to climb onto a floating iceberg before noting how easily it might tip.
Throughout, Glassley builds a case for the necessity of wild places, both as respite from the noise and clutter of modern life and for their inherent values. Although he had little contact with native Greenlanders, Glassley also speaks up for respecting their deep knowledge of the place and their rights to sustain themselves from the land and sea. In the end, he notes changes that have come to that north — diminishing cod catches, fewer whales, more polar bears on land instead of on the receding ice — and laments the “moral bankruptcy” of an economic system that is destroying both wild places and the people who depend on them.