Monday, 30 August 2010

Adventures In The Present, Travels in Deep Time

Geologists claim to understand Deep Time; I don't believe them. Deep Time is the early period of the Earth's life and were talking billions of years ago here. Is the human brain is truly capable of comprehending 5 million years, never mind 500 million or 4 billion? I think not. This months trip to France has offered a glimpse into the fathomless age of the earth, a hint of the almost unimaginable time required to build and then tear down mountains, and I find it quite fascinating and deeply beautiful.

"This morning we were in limestone country, and it's stimulated my mind. I'm not a geologist but I have a strong interest in the subject as it's the controlling force in the landscapes that I love and was the sculptor who created the place where I climb, paddle, and ride.

The river is lined with a series of spectacular limestone cliffs towering up to fifty meters above the water. The river has sculpted caves, pinnacles, and prows curves polished smooth by the flow. The cliffs are topped with trees, and climbing plants, long drapes of vines hang down the faces and the nooks and ledges provide a home for birds, and insects.

Seeing the cliffs tower over me it's hard to imagine that they were formed under an ancient sea from billions of dead coral plants which were slowly converted into limestone. Then plate tectonics carried the young rock across the surface of the planet and lifted them up to face the sun and atmosphere which will slowly devour it. The time taken to go from living coral into dead rock over millions of years is difficult to comprehend never mind the time for that ocean floor to be uplifted high above the waves and then carved out by the river.

So the life of ages past from some far distant shore now provides the ledges and cracks in which the life of today flourishes. Indeed I think most limestone is less than 300 million years old which hardly qualifies as Deep time!

When not cliffs the riverbank is a steep embankment of cobbles and pebbles which the water has cut through to a depth of three meters in places. Time again; every single pebble and cobble has been carried into this valley from a some distant mountain range by the river that I'm now paddling by countless floods and storms as the river changed its course over the valley floor for thousands of years. The river then will have moved on only to return centuries later to cut through the deposits of a previous Milena. To Deep Time however the life of a river is nothing, little more than transient tears on the face of the planet, superficial and gone in a blink of an eye.

Once you start thinking of Deep Time it is easier to comprehend the "Gia" theory of the planet as one giant living organism of infinitely beautiful depth and complexity where all life depends on and nurtures all other. An almost eternal organism with plate tectonics and mantle convection the giant circulatory system driven by the heartbeat of the core. I find these ideas deeply moving and beautiful (beauty in science is an idea that interests me and I may Blog about later).

Thin layers of limestone marking distinct depositional events separated by thin weaker layers

All these thoughts are drifting through my brain as we drift slowly down the river. But there are other as well of a slightly less epic nature! With so much rock about Dom and I get very excited about the potential for climbing. The walls are all steep to overhanging and look hard, probably 7a and above and quite fingery in style. None of the cliffs show any sign of development. The French are really lucky to have such a wealth of rock, so much that they leave huge sweeps of it undeveloped. In Britain and especially England we have such a limited amount that nearly everything is developed and the only chance at new routing at grades mortals can climb in in some grotty abandoned quarry. Here there is new routing to last a lifetime.

Having come all this way we have to touch rock. Unfortunately we don't find anywhere that is suitable for proper deep water soloing as the river is just too shallow. But there are plenty of easy long traverses just above river level.

Rafted up together we drift slowly along with the current, this break has been one of the most relaxing times I can ever remember. All I need to do is sit and think; be it about the last billion years or where the next beer is going to come from.

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