Sunday, October 18, 2009


The layering of history in England is neither more nor less than the layering of history anywhere in the world, I know. But in England, I'm more acutely aware of it.

By layering, I mean the way one can sense the years and centuries underlying the surface of life: the way the road very occasionally gives up its manic curves and straightens out for a few miles, and you realize that it's following one of the roads cut efficiently and uncaringly across the landscape by the ancient Romans.

Or, going even deeper, the way the crags here in the Peak district show those long-past sedimentations, heaved up in the incline from southwest to northeast in geological time; that happens all over the US, too, but here an extra layering brings them to consciousness, for they are the evidence by which Lyell and the other 19th-century geologists propelled the world from biblical theo-history to geological evolution theory.

(I hope soon to read Tracy Chevalier's new book about the English fossil hunter Mary Anning -- not yet released in the US, I think).

I walked in Dovedale yesterday. It's a famous place in England, a Yosemite on a tiny scale, only 3 miles long. I came  because I love walking with my cousin Elizabeth and her husband John, and because I wanted to see a place where the geology tells so much about the layering, and where poets and artists that I'm trying to know more about have come in the past.

Here was Wordsworth, a kid walking (yes, walking) home from his freshman year at college, stopping by to see the valley. He wrote a little "blog" entry about it, too, storing up his impressions for some future use.

Here was Joseph Wright, the painter of Derby, who loved light so much. He must have walked this valley late at night, and he painted this beautiful picture that now hangs in Oberlin's museum and that I take my students to see.

Here was Miss La Roche, in the 18th century, who picnicked by the river Dove, and then climbed on a horse with the elderly Dean (cathedral Dean, not academic) to climb out of the valley. Near the top, the path became too steep, the horse slipped, the Dean fell to his death, and the young lady survived to write to her mother about the event.

And here was I, at one moment in time, a fold in the strata of history, gratefully balancing on the stepping stones planted two hundred years ago across a river that still flows today.