EDINBURGH: THE CITY THAT DISCOVERED TIME
55.9531° N, 3.1889° W
Dùn Èideann (Gaelic: Hill of the Ivy)
The story goes that it was a geologic irregularity at the southern tip of the crag which inspired Hutton to upend the metaphysical and cosmological foundations of European culture. Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1788, revolutionized geoscience, presenting evidence for a history of the earth that stretched back for millions of years. Prior to Hutton’s discovery, it was a theologian who interpreted biblical scripture to arrive at the precise day and time of God’s creation of the earth-6 p.m., Sunday, October 23rd, 4004 BCE, to be exact. (McIntyre, 2012)
The 18th century ascendancy of natural science and its empirical methods of understanding the world would prove an important link between shifting notions of nature, belonging, and alienation. Peter Coates contends that "aesthetic concepts of nature, focusing on the external beauty of natural forms, cannot be divorced from metaphysical concepts of nature- the universe known to philosophy and science" (Coates, 1988). In this way, metaphysical understandings of nature likewise inform a culture’s sense of belonging or alienation in that nature, as new mythologies overtake the old, and perceptions of particular environments undergo paradigm shifts. For example, perceptions pertaining to rugged mountain landscapes underwent tremendous shifts in Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries. As Nicolson remarks:
"We comfortably agree, believing that the emotions we feel - or are supposed to feel - in the presence of grand Nature are universal and have been shared by men at all times. But high mountains were not ‘a feeling’ to Virgil or Horace, to Dante, to Shakespeare or Milton… We assume that our feelings are the perennial ones of human beings." (Nicolson, 2009)
Thomas Burnett’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684) gives an insight into the perception of mountain landscapes and their meaning within a pre-scientific cosmology, where mountains represented a physical manifestation of the wickedness of humanity. Burnett and his contemporaries believed that the earth’s surface was once "smooth and regular as an egg," before it became ugly and disorderly in the flood that God unleashed upon Noah and his fellow humans in an act of retribution and renewal. The energy unleashed by the biblical flood “‘destroyed earth's original perfection" and left the earth’s surface scarred and disfigured, throwing up rubble and debris in the form of mountain ranges; a physical embodiment of disorder and chaos that paralleled the fallen state of humankind (Coates, 1998).
Coates highlights such responses to mountain landscapes when he relates that in the Pre-Romantic era, travelers in the Alps and Pennines would draw ‘the curtains across their carriage windows to protect themselves’ from the mountain vistas. When travellers were not altogether ignoring such landscapes, they were disparaging them as "boils, warts and blisters that disfigured the fair face of Nature, expressing mighty relief upon descending into friendly lowland" (ibid). The reading of landscape in Europe through the flood narrative came to be challenged by the new theories of natural science, and on that rugged crag overlooking Edinburgh, James Hutton saw in the rock patterns what he came to understand as a revolutionary vision of the earth and our place in it. Rather than relying on scripture or divine revelation, he was part of a generation for whom Nature itself could be made to reveal the mysteries of existence, and those mysteries could be investigated by anyone with some hiking boots, a rucksack, and some free time.
As a site of significant scientific importance, Hutton’s outcropping is the earliest known example of geological conservation in the world, with Hutton personally requesting that this geological feature be saved from quarrying. Such notions of conservation pre-date modern conservation movements, where nature itself first comes to be recognized as a worthy object of protection and care through a natural-scientific process of secular sanctification.
Another foundational myth in Christian cosmology, that of The Fall, is attributed in large part to the 5th century theological writings of St. Augustine. Augustine’s writings were germinal to medieval Christian cosmology, which conceived of the human race existing in a state of having fallen from grace. Augustine’s theological interpretations of Old Testament scripture constructed a fissure in humanity’s dwelling time upon the earth that saw two distinct spatio-temporal realms emerge; an Edenic, and a post-Edenic world.
This first primal state of existence - Eden (‘delight’ in ancient Hebrew) - was paradise itself; a timeless, idyllic garden where all needs were met, where death’s cold hand did not trouble the land or the sea, and where humanity lived in a state of deep communion with all the other creatures of God’s creation. Most important of all, humanity lived in deep communion with God himself, without fear or alienation or shame. Seeing as how God provided for all needs and sustenance, the first inhabitants of earth were free to spend their time in leisure and pleasure, frolicking about and giving names to all the creatures on behalf of God. In this act of naming and categorizing, Adam represented not only the beginnings of man, but also the beginnings of man as producer of knowledge. In being subsequently banished from Eden, not only did humanity become alienated from this garden paradise, from the animals that inhabited it, and from God himself, but humanity also lost all the knowledge that had been its birthright as God’s emissary in Eden. The Fall had thrown humanity into an abysmal state of ignorance. (Harrison, 2009)
In The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2009) Peter Harrison provides a history of early modern science and its obsession with overturning this ontological and epistemological condemnation; an ambitious project that had deep significance for what has come to be known as the secular, modern scientific worldview. The passionate aspiration of recovering Adam’s original knowledge (Adamic knowledge) was at the heart of Francis Bacon’s understanding of what he and his heirs in The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge saw themselves undertaking; nothing less than an epic, pan-national, multi-generational systematic recovery of all the knowledge that had been lost in The Fall:
"If...the Fall were understood as having resulted in the triumph of the passions over reason, the restoration of Adamic knowledge would be accomplished through re-establishing control of the passions, thus enabling reason once again to discharge its proper function. If the Fall had dulled Adam’s senses, this deficiency might be overcome through the use of artificial instruments capable of restoring to weakened human senses some of their original acuity. If the Fall had altered nature itself, rendering its operations less obvious and less intelligible, intrusive investigative techniques would be required to make manifest what had once been plain." (Harrison, 2007: 6)
Coates, Peter. Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times. London: Polity Press, 1998.
Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
McIntyre, D. B., and A. McKirdy. James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology. 2nd edition edition. Edinburgh: NMSE - Publishing Ltd, 2012.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite. New edition edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.