As far back as the mid-1980s, planning for the future stewardship of our nuclear waste was under way. But with language changing over time, how could warnings to ‘leave this plutonium-filled Pandora’s Box unopened’ be conveyed in such a way that would be understood in a thousand or a hundred thousand years? This is just one of the many problems aired in David Farrier’s Footprints, a book that asks what will survive of us – and the answer isn’t, as Philip Larkin put it, love.
Farrier races through the past and makes brief stops in the present before soaring into the deep future, all the while exploring our capacity as human beings to leave traces behind us. That is, if you can call the five trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans ‘traces’. Farrier’s stated goal is the hunt for the fossils of the future – this is really a book about the current state of the planet and our custody of it. It echoes many of the concerns of nature writers such as Kathleen Jamie, Katharine Norbury and Robert Macfarlane, but from a different coign of vantage. Farrier is less nature writer and more ‘smart thinker’, and in this well-intentioned, sometimes personal study he pieces together fragments of chemistry, biology, palaeoanthropology, nuclear physics, archaeology and so on.
Written with a poetic turn of phrase and an academic’s attention to detail, Footprints switches gears easily between discussions of Huttonian deep time, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ovid, uranium, Auden and jellyfish. There are moments when the accretion of facts and statistics threatens to choke the book’s argument and the