Our lives, our histories and our prehistories are defined less by the seamless accumulation of everyday events than by jarring dislocations that seem to come out of nowhere. Cataclysms—think 9/11, or Covid-19—rupture time, leaving permanent scars that may be deeply personal or felt across entire communities.
A quarter-century ago, the life of anthropologist and author Hugh Raffles was dislocated by the unexpected deaths of his two sisters: Franki, during a childbirth of twins, and Sally, by suicide three months later. Stunned by grief, he began “reaching for rocks, stones, and other seemingly solid objects as anchors in a world unmoored, ways to make sense of these events through stories far larger than my own.”
Following “Insectopedia,” his exploration of the intersection of the human and insect worlds, and “In Amazonia,” a portrait of the South American rainforest, “The Book of Unconformities” is the author’s almost metaphysical account of his search for solace among the stones. Counterintuitively, his closure came not from the stones themselves but from the gaps between them, hence his subtitle, “Speculations on Lost Time.” Geologists call these gaps “unconformities” because the rocks below do not conform in time to those above them. Mathematics has its famous incompleteness theorems, written by Kurt Gödel in 1931. Geology finds its counterpart in unconformities, where incompleteness rules the rock record.
In a high-voltage jolt of insight, Mr. Raffles converts what might seem a dry scientific concept into a potent literary metaphor to help anyone whose sense of time has been fractured by loss. “Life is filled with unconformities,” he writes, “revealing holes in time that are also fissures in feeling, knowledge, and understanding; holes that relentlessly draw in human investigation and imagination yet refuse to conform, heal, or submit to explanation.” “Unconformities” is so rich in erudition and prose-poetry that I read it like a glutton, tearing off big bites of lost time until I was sated.
One gap pulled out of the past: June 1788 at Siccar Point near Edinburgh, Scotland. Three men in a boat look shoreward to scrutinize a wave-gnashed bedrock cliff. Their leader, James Hutton, points out to his companions, John Playfair and James Hall, the irregular surface between tilted gray strata below and flatter beds of red sandstone above. This surface—the first unconformity ever properly documented—was the missing clue Hutton needed to understand how staggeringly deep time really was and how the Earth behaved like a colossal recycling machine: eroded gaps in uplifted places provide the sediment needed to fill growing voids in subsided places. Like our lives, the Earth is a composite of losses and gains.