For her series on The Clearing, Nicola Chester asked writers to contribute pieces responding to the themes of place, protest and belonging that run through her memoir, On Gallows Down. Provenance is by the award-winning earth scientist Dr. Anjana Khatwa.
Time is an elastic concept for an Earth Scientist such as myself. As the kettle boils water for a cup of tea, I will impatiently watch the minutes with irritation as they slowly tick by. In complete contrast, I can happily and mentally languish over the hundreds of millions of years it takes to form a rock. As I turn a chunk of Cornish granite over in my hand, flecks of silvery white crystals sparkle like chinks of sunlight breaking through a grey cloud. But this innocuous and inanimate rock hides a brutal history. About 300 million years ago, a plume of hot molten fluid violently intruded a part of the Earth’s crust that would later become Cornwall. You would need to wait for a kettle to come to the boil over two billion continuous times before this colossal mass of igneous rock began to cool down. This vast expanse of time allowed the minerals in this superheated mass to transform into wondrous, crystalline structures. Quartz, feldspar and mica slowly grew inside the rock like flowers blooming in the first sunshine of Spring. Whether we live in a city or in a rural landscape, the beauty of rocks is that they are all around us. They speak of transformation and change over unfathomable timescales and have the ability to transport us to magical realms that now only exist in our imagination. For much of my life, I have felt the need to exist and belong in landscapes that connect me with deep time and the history of our Earth. Time is what brought me to Dorset eighteen years ago and it is the reason why I have stayed.
The sombre, grey cliffs that stretch between Charmouth and Lyme Regis exude a mysterious and elusive air. Stacked rocky layers of an ancient Jurassic world tower above the bowed heads of hopeful visitors who scan the beach in hope of finding treasure. But it’s not the promise of a hoard of gold coins that draws millions of people to the Jurassic Coast. For centuries, people have combed these beaches in search of fossils; rocky remains of extinct life dating back to almost 200 million years ago. Like an upturned treasure chest spilling its valuable booty, the cliffs along this part of the Jurassic Coast are famous for relinquishing tantalising mementoes of Earth’s history onto the beaches. Some lucky visitors will feel their heart skip a beat as their fingers brush through the sand and close over a perfectly coiled, gold ammonite. Even after decades of fossil hunting, I am still awestruck that mine are the first human eyes to gaze upon this fragment of a lost world that has lain hidden for aeons.
When you gaze up at the cliffs, the charcoal coloured rock layers sit on top of each other like a pile of books waiting to be returned to the library. The most overdue book rests at the bottom of the pile, weighed beneath those above it that are more recent withdrawals. Each layer of rock forms a collective yet individual story of life during the Jurassic Period dating back 200 million years. This was a watery world populated by a community of strange and terrifying creatures ranging from spiral shelled ammonites, armoured fish to marine reptiles like Ichthyosaurs. Although the remains of these creatures provide a fascinating insight into Jurassic marine life, I am perhaps more intrigued by the fossils that do not belong in the rocks where they are found. They mirror my own story of existing in a place where I am considered to be a space invader.
I once held a piece of fossilised wood that was so perfectly preserved, I could still see the grain on its light brown surface. Heavy in my hand, it would have surely broken the teeth of any dog if it was thrown away for a game of catch. As my fingers stroked the gnarled surface of this ancient branch, I heard its secret whisper. It too had travelled on a long journey and had come to rest in surroundings that did not reflect its origins. From a dense forest where sunlight would warm it’s bark, this little branch broke off and was washed far out to sea. Sinking into the murky water, it would nestle in the mud amongst the decaying bodies of other sea creatures. Buried under layers of mud that were deposited over millions of years, it would eventually turn into stone. This fragment of the land would always be different to its surroundings, yet it would become assimilated into the greater story of the rock.
In my heart and mind, I can feel the weight of its loneliness but also its resilience. As a South Asian woman living in Dorset, I have often been the only brown face in a sea of white. Breaking away from the roots of my family, I would be swept along by the force of my ambition to pursue a career in the Earth Sciences. The undulating green hills of Dorset would become my resting place, providing me with the connection to nature I deeply needed. Over the years, the oppressive weight of isolation and loneliness bore down upon me like accumulating layers of rock. I felt my difference everyday; from the obvious stares or comments in the street to the curiosity about my name and identity. Relentlessly I carried on, but inside I could feel myself metamorphosing under the pressure and strain to adapt to the environment. A series of cataclysmic events intended to break me instead helped me to evolve. By claiming back my entitlement to belong, I knitted my rich diversity into the fabric of the landscape around me.
The rocks in the stark, grey cliffs remain as impassive as ever. Like poker faces, they hide a multitude of secrets and dare you to risk your time looking for a clue that will reveal their hand. I will gladly spend a lifetime looking for these secrets.
Dr. Anjana Khatwa is an award-winning Earth Scientist, presenter and an advocate for diversity in natural heritage spaces. She lives in Dorset, close to the Jurassic Coast, in a house filled with rocks and fossils. She was longlisted for the Nan Shepherd Prize for The Rock Whisperer and won the National Diversity Award 2020 Positive Role Model Award for Race/Faith/Religion. Read more about her on her website or follow Anjana on Twitter.
The photograph at the head of this piece is by Rob Coombe.