Footprints, writes David Farrier, is a study of how we “will be remembered by the very deep future.” In his search for “future fossils,” Farrier identifies sites and objects that might be expected to outlast humanity, and thereby become memorials.
This quest sends him to meet designers of a nuclear waste depository in Finland, paleo-climatologists studying ice cores in Tasmania and marine biologists surveying the bleaching coral of the Great Barrier Reef. But though the book is steeped in science, Farrier draws on his academic expertise in literature to interweave a strand of cultural criticism, taking in everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Robinson Crusoe, and even the art of Paul Klee.
This is a rangy, ambitious book, which runs the risk of amorphousness—notably in the first chapter on roads, over which cultural trivia lies scattered. But Farrier quickly hits his stride, offering elegantly constructed discussions plaiting Ursula Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag” theory of fiction (in which she argues stories should be capacious enough to hold smaller stories within them) together with the durability of plastic. The final chapter on the enchanting world of microbes—in which a poet writes sonnets into the DNA of bacteria and an old edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is repurposed as an archive of microbial life—is a tour de force.
Footprints is heaving with fascinating tidbits—a human mouth contains 1,000 times more bacteria than there are humans alive today; all iron will eventually turn to fool’s gold. But the most captivating sections are those that study the handing of knowledge from man to man: Aboriginal folk memory of land claimed millennia earlier by rising sea waters; the “nuclear priesthood” proposed in the US to pass knowledge of radioactive waste down through generations; a 500-year study of bacterial longevity. It represents, as Farrier remarks, a “curious intimacy” binding us with distant generations.
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier (Fourth Estate, £16.99)