His in-the-moment descriptions are precise and vital, but he renders them uniquely evocative and haunting by paralleling current dilemmas with ancient myths, Greek tragedies, literature, and art. Farrier further guides us to new and wrenching environmental perceptions by tracking the long lives of a plastic bottle and nuclear waste, increasing jellyfish blooms, and the toxic markings of mines, drugs, roads, and the carbon-burning servers powering our consuming digital lives. Farrier sees Earth as a vast library, and encourages us to recognize and think deeply about the indelible stories of destruction and catastrophic loss we’re adding to the planet’s archive.
David Farrier’s Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils attempts to harmonize poetic and geological time — and does so at a moment when the uncannily rapid pace of climate change has forced us to renegotiate our relationship to the natural and political future. We think in hours and days, not in centuries or millennia, but Farrier sets out to help us overcome this limitation through vivid evocations of what our distant ancestors might uncover thousands and even millions of years down the line ... Using the tools of the poet, Farrier wants us to think more like scientists, to look at our relative insignificance and fragility straight on ... Farrier teaches literature at the University of Edinburgh, nearby the Salisbury Crags, and for him future fossils are really signs that, woven together in a geological stratum, tell stories. Every human deed is an act of communication to someone, someplace; every footprint sends a message ... Farrier speaks the wondering language of close observation that has defined nature writing at least since Thoreau, and arguably since his early modern predecessor, Sir Thomas Browne. He shows us a world rich with sense, everywhere encoded by natural and human activity ... But for all of its literary embroidery, Footprints doesn’t try to enchant the world, or, like conservationist writing, make us love what it is our inaction is destroying. The book is neither clarion call nor elegy. Rather, Footprints is what comes after elegy: a bracing but ultimately therapeutic meditation on the truth that, in the grand scheme of things, nature will always overwhelm us.
Farrier’s background is in literature, not science, and the more literary elements of his work tend to be the most effective. But even his science is clear and well-written. That said, Footprints would have been even more powerful if it focused a bit more on uncovering not merely the facts of how we are irrevocably changing the planet, but also excavating what those facts tell about us—the hidden story revealed in the future fossil record—and how we might use that revelation to change ... This is, all told, a powerful and fascinating approach to the great crisis of our time. And it gets to the heart of why climate change such a vexing and all-encompassing challenge. While each future fossil has a unique story, collectively they represent a radical transformation of the physical composition of the planet.