Richard Fortey

Earth: an intimate history

Physical geography and geology are often thought to be dull subjects, not the sort of thing you would read about for pleasure. Richard Fortey's new book is an attempt to change this. By writing about what he has found on his own travels he adds interest to the subject. Fortey is a Paleontologist by profession rather than a geologist, and writing about something different from his own field helps to prevent the book from seeming like a textbook - it gives it more of the flavour of travel writing.

Mount Vesuvius

The book starts at the Bay of Naples in Italy, with Mount Vesuvius looming. Here we are introduced to the style of the book - as well as describing the geology of the region, Fortey describes his experiences there, as well as those of people who have studied the area in the past. Indeed the work and publications of geologists such as Arthur Holmes and Eduard Suess features strongly in this book. Fortey also describes some of the history of the people who live in the region, showing how the eruptions of the volcano has influenced the lives of the inhabitants , as well as the geology of the region. There are more volcanoes in the second chapter, this time those of the Hawaiian islands. Fortey shows how the appearance and growth of the each island depends on events happening deep below the surface of the earth.

Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics is central to the subject, and is discussed in many parts of the book. Going backwards through time, we see how 250 million years ago the continents were all joined together in one supercontinent called Pangea. However Fortey takes us further back to the time of the Iapetus Ocean, which can be considered a previous version of the Atlantic, but with some places, such as much of Scotland, on the opposite side. I found this the most interesting part of the book, and I do feel an opportunity has been missed - the book would be better if this were made the central thread.

A journey round the Earth

At the start of the book there is a map of the world with a line, suggesting that this is the path that the author is going to follow in the book, but this is not the case. Again an opportunity to give the book a thread seems to have been missed. In fact the line is followed in the last chapter - a quick tour of the world , which acts as a summary of the rest of the book. I must say I didn't really see the point of this chapter - the book is fairly long to start with and this just adds to its wordiness. I found it more interesting to read the detailed accounts of Fortey's travels, such as the journey down into the Grand Canyon on the back of a mule, seeing time going backwards in the layers of rock (when he dared to open his eyes).


I thought that as well as requiring something to give a central thread to the book, there needed to be more pictures and diagrams. In a sense Fortey deals with this by substituting descriptions of places for pictures, but I never really like such 'poetic' passages in such a book. However, if you are happy with 'word pictures' like this then you will find this book an interesting as well as educational read.