Joel Simpson has brought together a staggeringly beautiful collection of his photographs of rocks in this book. Each one a gem. Wonderful, yes. But what’s it matter? What’s it all about, beyond pure aesthetic pleasure?
The truth is that it matters because Joel cares, because he wants us to revel in the Earth’s geological treasures. It is no accident that he has linked his collection to the protest at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline. That brave and inspirational protest has attracted worldwide attention as a symbol of a conflict over the environment which could determine the future of the Earth.
There is a tendency to see environmental protest in local terms, as the battle to protect a special place, or a rare species of animal. But there is an assault on the Earth by the forces of global business and consumption that is truly global in scope, and the rocks that Joel photographs are as much victims of this attacks as cute animals and virgin forest.
Rocks can seem indestructible, a solid background to our own seeming permanence on Earth. Yet each of the myriad forms Joel captures in this book came into being through processes acting over time—the slow accretion of staggeringly beautiful mineral crystals, the gradual accumulation of layer upon layer of strata like the pages of a book, millennia of distortion. The Bakken shale oil deposits that yield the oil which the DAP is to transport were formed slowly over more than 300,000 years.
Yet we have the illusion that these features are somehow indelible, that we can scour the Earth’s rocks and extract its treasures without cost, that they will be with us forever. However, those who live close to rocks and the natural landscape, including many indigenous people around the world, know that this is a delusion.
Take something as mundane as sand – so apparently limitless in supply that Archimedes used sand grains as a metaphor for infinity. But around the world we use 40 billion tons of sand each year. To feed the insatiable demand for sand, countless beaches and riverbeds are being stripped bare.
But the assault on rocks is just part of a wholesale assault on the natural environment, all built on the false premise that our efforts do little harm in the long run. How wrong this is.
Take the ocean. A detailed global map of human impacts made in 2008 showed that just 4 per cent of the world’s oceans are now entirely undamaged by human activity. And in 2013, a report by IPSO discovered that impacts are not just virtually global, but acting together synergistically to accelerate the decline of ocean ecosystems at a frightening rate.
As I write this, it has just been reported we’ve pushed carbon dioxide levels in the world’s atmosphere to over 400 ppm, which means that global warming is likely to be irreversible for a long time to come.
And meanwhile, it seems we are witnessing what may be one of the greatest waves of extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs, as more and more species fall victim to rampaging human activity. Some experts predict that more than a third of all species will be lost in the next 40 years.
The phrase “tipping point” has been overused recently. But it seems apt. These global assaults on nature have reached such a pitch that it seems entirely possible that we are reaching a point of no return, a concatenation of events which will destroy Nature as we know it.
The confrontation at Standing Rock is a potent focus of events. If after such a heroic resistance and such worldwide attention the Water Protectors are swept aside entirely, the future looks bleak for all of us. The rape of nature will go on. In the great hunt of nature, Nature will be the quarry, pursued relentlessly then torn apart by the jaws of global big business. But the Tribe’s fight here has resonated with many people far from Standing Rock, and even the smallest victory could act as an inspiration all round the world to those who wish to protect the environment from wanton destruction.
Books about rocks are often collector’s guides, handbooks to help you squirrel away your own piece of nature, geared to provide a grounding for those who need to get to know rocks in order to uproot them from the ground and keep them as souvenirs.
But in these photographs, Joel interacts with rocks as an artist, not as a hunter or even a collector. His pictures draw attention not to characteristic features which help you identify and “own” rocks but to the aesthetics of the particular configuration that he has found, whether in the subtle patination of minerals, or the grand sweep of certain erosional forms. He gets up close and personal. And personal matters.
It is my, and I believe Joel’s, hope that this magnificent collection of photos will inspire its viewers to cherish the myriad forms of the mineral world, especially if we are out of frequent touch with the natural world or have not traveled in pursuit these visual rewards—and that the Water Protectors stand as living reminders of this richness. The asthetic connection that Joel nourishes in these images reminds us that our sense of beauty ties us to the physical world, on both a grandiose and a minute scale.
There is environmental bad news on every front. And taken together, the picture is genuinely terrifying, and it seems the future of life on Earth hangs in the balance. Political and economic pressure seem increasingly powerless to halt the deadly juggernaut of global business.
But maybe together artists like Joel can help change the mindset that does not see enough problem with the juggernaut to call “Halt!” Maybe together artists can help reshape our priorities, so that we see protecting our home planet and its life for the future, not raping it for short-term gain, as the only way forward. Maybe together, artists can help us find our common humanity, and our common nature. Joel’s stunning book must surely contribute.
JOHN FARNDON is the British author of over 900 non-fiction books, including Do You Think You’re Clever and the award-winning Do No Open (a New York Times and Washington Post best-seller), and he has been shortlisted five times for the Young People’s Science Book prize. He has a special interest nature and the environment, shown in The Atlas of Oceans, The Wildlife Atlas, The Complete Guide to Rocks and Minerals, How the Earth Works and many other books. He also writes plays, librettos, poetry and songs and translates literary works—his translation of the great Kazakh novel The Dead Wander in the Desert about the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea will be published in May 2019 by Amazon Crossing. He is a Royal Literary Fellow and a judge for the Offwestend Theatre Awards for New Plays, Playwrights and Performance Pieces. http://www.johnfarndon.com