Geography, geology and icebergs

Sometimes a picture can tell you more in an instant than a piece of writing. With a background in geology and an interest in literature, anything combining the two is bound to catch my eye. The title of this piece by Nirwan Dewanto was enough. This Indonesian poet wrote about geography being a metaphor for the cultural space we move in, while geology is the underlying meanings connecting apparently separate things. Geography we see and live through, moving horizontally, while geology requires vertical movement, down through the layers of identity and up to surface outcrops hinting at something hidden at depth. Outcrops are the elements of culture, a poem, a novel, a piece of art.

It’s an interesting idea, though the geologist in me is distracted by the idea of geomorphology. Geomorphology is the study of the physical features of the Earth and their relation to the underlying geology. Geology and geography are interlinked and similar geographical processes working in different geological settings can lead to different features. So weathering of granite may produce rounded, curved outcrops of rock, while weathering of limestone may produce limestone pavement and cave systems. In the sense of the metaphor, the outcrops are not random but shaped by a multitude of processes including the culture they exist in. It would be nice to think that great art can flourish anywhere, in any circumstances, but it cannot.

Here we meet another concept used in geography and geology, the paradigm shift. If an idea is ahead of its time, it may wither until the dominant approaches and assumptions catch up to it. The typical example is continental drift written about by Alfred Wegener in 1912, though only accepted as plate tectonics from the 1960’s onward. His idea was sound, his evidence for the time was good, but he had no mechanism and was dismissed. How many times has it happened in art and literature that the value of a piece was not understood until many years later?

But more than that, how many artists and writers have been strangled by their circumstances, turning away from their creativity. The typical example is the many actresses caught up in the #MeToo scandals who were blacklisted for not wishing to be mauled or assaulted by powerful people. But there are many more who never even got that far, who were discouraged by their environment and culture. In short, they got entangled in the lower part of this iceberg and never manifested any of the more visible aspects of culture.