Thursday, 4 February 2010

Time matters

We live in a changing world, with many interacting and complex processes delivering change across vastly different scales. There are the sudden and local changes that result from our seemingly never-ending demands for land, as new dwellings are added to an expanding urban fringe. Then there is the global concern over a climate that is warming, bringing with it the spectre of economic collapse and species extinction on a huge scale within decades. Behind these short-term changes there are things that happen on a much grander timescale, things that are so long-term that most of us find them difficult to comprehend. While an archaeologist would better comprehend the vast timescales that stretch back to the dinosaurs and beyond, even they do not grasp time in quite the same way as a geologist might.

Timescale is important when it comes to viewing our position within the landscape. In order to truly understand our landscape we need to escape from the narrow focus of our ‘three score years and ten’. It is easy, for example, to slip into some rose-tinted vision of how our countryside should look, based on some notion that the pre-war countryside was the one best suited to open country plants and animals or that our woodland should somehow return to ‘wildwood’. We have to understand that our landscape is continually changing as a result of processes that operate on lengthy timescales.

You can gain some appreciation of the process of change by looking at Norfolk’s fossil record. Even examination of a period that is short-term according to the timescale over which geologists work, you can see that Norfolk has been many different things. The presence of Woolly Mammoth, Arctic Fox and Woolly Rhinoceros in deposits associated with the Devensian Glaciation (which started some 70,000 years ago) reveal a landscape very different from today. Equally revealing are the records from the Cromerian Interglacial which contain Spotted Hyena, an extinct form of bison and a macaque monkey.

Of course, in some ways this misses the point. It is not so much that change happens but why the change comes about. Natural processes tend to take place over long periods of time and communities of animals and plants can usually respond but those changes brought about by our activities give wildlife little room for manoeuvre. Timescale can also cloud our judgement, leading us to suggest the reintroduction of a species on the grounds that it once occurred here. The thing is that lots of things once occurred here – it just depends on how far back you go. Surely it is better to look at why they ceased to occur before passing judgement on their return.

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