Wednesday 18 October 2023

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "Otherlands: A World In The Making" by Thomas Halliday

Thomas Halliday’s book is a biography of the Earth, told backwards. He starts 20,000 years ago, at the beginning of the decisive thawing of the mammoth steppe, which rings the top of the world and is home to horses, bison and the now-extinct cave lion. 

The book then travels the Earth, landing at different times and places. So there are abundant giant penguins 41 million years ago; a gorgon 253 million years ago with a painful mouth tumour and a leg which has never been the same since she fractured it hunting Bunostegos (a creature looking like a stumpy, tall crocodile); and rock-eating bacteria in the Devonian, 407 million years ago, which make the surface of the water in which they live, intolerably hot to every other lifeform, shimmer with bubbles. The climate and geological processes are given as much space as plants and animals. 

The book ends in the pre-Cambrian 550 million years ago, with no life on land, a 22-hour day before friction slows the Earth’s rotation, and the closer moon shining 15% brighter.

How does Halliday add drama and interest to processes that happen over huge timescales, mostly with no humans involved?

Firstly, he picks varied moments — differently configured landmasses and oceans, with different climates and ecosystems, for example before or after mass extinctions. Secondly, he focuses on movement. Movement of wind, waves and water and therefore of land; communities of animals migrating; individual creatures on the move. Thirdly, he mixes together disparate information — so as well as watching a short-faced bear rummaging in a mammoth carcass, we learn about Korean, Russian and European bear mythologies.

Lastly, he embraces human-centred ways of description. Literary quotations head each chapter (including Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ — ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge forever be’). He chooses anthropomorphic language such as ‘cyanobacteria discovered the magic of photosynthesis,’ and is happy to translate from the academic to the literary; so the academic term ‘index fossils’ (fossils which are so abundant they can be used to date the rocks they are in) becomes ‘fossil timepieces’ later in the same paragraph. The book ends with a plea to work together to stop climate change. 

This book tells us the world will never stop being in the making, or in the unmaking.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds is an English language teacher and editor. She has just finished a Research Masters at Liverpool University looking at differences between reading, speaking and listening to poetry. She published her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Words and Objects from Britain’s Museums in 2017. Website here. X: @rebrey. 

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