Monday, April 19, 2010

Not My Geological Hero . . . Better Than That

I fully intended to respond to geologist Callen Bentley’s posting on his blog, Mountain Beltway, which called for other geobloggers (like him) and readers of geoblogs (like me) to post stories of their geological heroes. Callen raised the bar pretty high when he identified heroes as “extraordinary individuals who helped make your life, your science, and your planet better than they would otherwise have been.”

It didn’t seem so far fetched for me to have such a hero. After all, paleontology and geology are science handmaidens and I’ve touched on geology in a number of posting on this blog. I considered the question – Was there a geologist, about whom I knew enough and felt strongly enough, that I’d be willing to crown with the title of my geological hero?

After musing on the question, I did come up with a likely candidate. I took the further step of doing some more reading about his life and his scientific work, and I outlined a posting. But, as I started to write, I realized I couldn’t pull it off. Heck, who was I fooling? The fact that I’d had to think about the hero question for any length of time showed that I didn’t have a geological hero. It’s a label to confer instantly and viscerally, without thought or the building of a case to convince oneself.

With more thought, I realized that fondness had been my touchstone for geologist William Buckland, not hero worship. Over the past couple of years, I developed affection for him, a feeling having little to do with his geological endeavors (a fatal flaw in a search for a geological hero) and only a bit for his paleontological work (which was prodigious). Rather, I am attracted to him by his genial eccentricities, and I am not alone.

Let me explain.

His career was certainly illustrious. William Buckland was a prominent figure in geology and paleontology during the first half of the 19th Century, one of the worthies of early English geology, as he was characterized by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Buckland was born in 1784 and died in 1856. Educated at the University of Oxford (Corpus Christi College), he taught there, simultaneously holding appointments as Reader in Mineralogy and the university’s first Reader in Geology. He was also an ordained Anglican priest. In his early 60s, he was appointed Dean of Westminster Abbey. His final years were a sad chapter in an otherwise vigorous, productive life; he descended deeply into mental and physical illness.

Throughout his career, he was among the noteworthy scientists practicing and teaching in England. He twice served as President of the Geological Society, and was a member of the Royal Society and the British Association.

A dominant focus of his professional energy was, as he put it, to show the “consistency of geological discoveries with sacred [religious] history,” (Geology and Mineralogy Considered, p. 8) an effort reflected in the titles of some of his major works:

Vindiciae Geologiae; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion explained (1820);
Reliquiae Diluvianae; or, Observations of the Organic Remains Contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on Other Geological Phenomena, attesting the Action of an Universal Deluge (1823); and
Geology and Mineralogy Considered With Reference to Natural Theology (1836).

Arguably, these efforts reflected an astute reading of the political and religious environment at Anglican-dominated Oxford where, early in his career, upon Buckland leaving for a European tour, one Oxford “elder” reportedly observed, “Well, Buckland is gone to Italy; so, thank God, we shall hear no more of this geology.” (Life and Correspondence of William Buckland, p. 10) Buckland worked, through his books, papers, talks, and teaching, to infuse geology into the curriculum, while concurrently trying to assuage the fears of those who viewed the science as a threat to religious beliefs. One does, though, have to acknowledge that his heart was in these dense tomes.

Yet, he was not a biblical fundamentalist. He argued for an old Earth, asserted that a “day” in the Genesis story did not refer to a 24 hour day, and that the “beginning” in Genesis described a period of unknown length that preceded creation of the present inhabitants of the Earth. He acknowledged that many species had gone extinct, a position reflecting his scientific work. For instance, Buckland had excavated Kirkdale Cave, an ancient hyenas’ den abounding with fossils he concluded were from extinct animal species. In his inaugural talk as president of the Geological Society, he made the formal announcement, based on huge fossil bones recovered at Stonesfield, of an extinct reptile he named Megalosaurus. The formal paper published from that talk would be the first on animals that would later be called dinosaurs.

Even as he sought to bridge the growing chasm between religion and natural history, Buckland exhibited an admirable receptivity to new ideas and a surprising degree of intellectual flexibility. For instance, he posited initially that the geological surface of Britain reflected the impact of a “universal deluge,” which at times he associated with the Biblical flood. Later, he abandoned that position, taking a different stance, one that rings quite contemporary with its embrace of deep time and species that, the further back one goes, seem increasingly different from those extant. In Geology and Mineralogy, he wrote,

Some have attempted to ascribe the formation of all the stratified rocks to the effects of the Mosaic Deluge; an opinion which is irreconcilable with the enormous thickness and almost infinite subdivisions of these strata, with the numerous and regular successions which they contain of the remains of animals and vegetables, differing more and more widely from existing species, as the strata in which we find them are placed at greater depths. (p. 16)

These “successions” of animal and plant remains in the different strata convinced Buckland that “the strata in which they occur were deposited slowly and gradually, during long periods of time, and at widely distant intervals.”

But, lest one think he was on to evolution, Buckland concluded that one succession did not change into another, and, “[t]hese extinct animals and vegetables could therefore have formed no part of the creation with which we are immediately connected.”

Four years later, in 1840, he toured Scotland, examining its geological features under the guiding hand of the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, a good friend. To Buckland, the evidence of glaciers at work was everywhere, and he fully embraced Agassiz’s glacier theory. The action of glaciers explained so much of the landscape that he’d previously attributed to the work of floods.

I'm afraid it’s easy for me to set Buckland’s scientific efforts aside because what really attracts me to him is his humanity, and, yes, those over-the-top eccentricities. Some of his behavior was undoubtedly more shocking to early 19th Century sensibilities than it would be to ours, while other activities, perhaps meriting little more than a tolerant smile among his contemporaries, would prompt a bit of aversion today.

People liked Buckland and were drawn to his conversation, sense of humor, and generous nature. In reminiscing about him, Oxford professor Storey Makelyne, who had been one of his students, wrote, “Dr. Buckland’s wonderful conversational powers were as incommunicable as the bouquet of a bottle of champagne, but no one who remembers them as I do, can ever forget them. It was indeed at the feast of reason and the flow of social and intellectual intercourse that Buckland shone.” (Life and Correspondence, p. 35) In the account of his Oxford days, the artist and writer John Ruskin said that Buckland and his family “were all sensible and good-natured, with originality enough in the sense of them to give sap and savour to the whole college.” (Works of John Ruskin, Volume 35, p. 204)

Examples of Buckland’s humor abound. Ruskin observed, “The Doctor had too much humour ever to follow far enough the dull side of a subject.” (p. 205) Reportedly, Buckland referred to geology as “undergroundology.” Once, warned by an observer that he might be in danger as he scaled the sheer wall in a quarry, the good doctor responded, “Never mind, . . . the stones know me.” (Life and Correspondence, p. 22) (Buckland was probably wearing his black academic gowns at the time, standard garb for the academic out in the field.) Then there was his burial plot, selected personally by this geologist, which was discovered, after his death, to be atop hard Jurassic period limestone that had to be blown apart before his grave could be dug . . . a last laugh, perhaps.

In many different ways, Buckland crossed boundaries. His generous spirit led him to befriend fossil collector Mary Anning, a poor, single woman. In this friendship and in the effort he made to generate financial support for her, Buckland ignored several social and economic class barriers that were rigidly in place in 19th Century Britain.

To Buckland, gastronomical boundaries were meaningless. His appetite for new and different foods was prodigious. Writer Augustus John Cuthbert Hare wrote, “Dr. Buckland used to say that he had eaten his way straight through the whole animal creation, and that the worst thing was a mole – that was utterly horrible.” One can only imagine a grinning Buckland “afterwards [telling] Lady Lyndhurst that there was one thing even worse than a mole, and that was a blue-bottle fly.” (As quoted in a note in Works of John Ruskin, p. 205) Others clearly joined in this exotic feast enthusiastically. Ruskin claimed that he “always regretted a day of unlucky engagement on which I missed a delicate toast of mice.” (p. 205)

Ah, a natural segue. Mary Anning had been finding curious fossilized lumps in the remains of her ichthyosaurs. She theorized that these lumps, which contained bone and shell, were fossilized excrement. Buckland became quite taken with these objects which he named coprolites – from the Greek kopros for dung and lithos for stone. A useful field of study was launched. Of course, his enthusiasm got the better of him and he had a dining room table inlaid with polished coprolites.

Buckland’s teaching was dramatic and flamboyant. Physician Henry Acland’s described one lecture he attended as a student.

[Buckland] paced like a Franciscan preacher up and down behind a long showcase, . . . . He had in his hand a huge hyena's skull. He suddenly dashed down the steps — rushed, skull in hand, at the first undergraduate on the front bench — and shouted, “What rules the world?” The youth, terrified, threw himself against the next back seat and answered not a word. He rushed then on me, pointing the hyena full in my face — “What rules the world?” “Haven't an idea,” I said. “The stomach, sir,” he cried (again mounting his rostrum) “rules the world. The great ones eat the less, and the less the lesser still.” (Sir Henry Wentworth Acland . . . A Memoir, p. 35)

And, then, there were his rooms. The stuff of fiction.

Geologist Roderick Murchison described a visit to Buckland’s rooms at Corpus Christi.

I can never forget the scene which awaited me. Having, by direction of the janitor, climbed up a narrow staircase, I entered a long, corridor-like room, which was filled with rocks, shells and bones in dire confusion, and in a sort of sanctum at the end was my friend in his black gown, looking like a necromancer, sitting on one rickety chair covered with some fossils, and clearing out a fossil bone from the matrix. (as quoted in Life and Correspondence, p. 10)

In the life she wrote of her father, Elizabeth Oke Gordon quoted this description (without attribution it seems) of Buckland’s lodging while at Lyme Regis –

his breakfast-table . . . [was] loaded with beefsteaks and belemnites, tea and terebratula, muffins and madrepores, toast and trilobites, every table and chair as well as the floor occupied with fossils, whole and fragmentary, large and small, with rocks, earths, clays, and heaps of books and papers . . . . (Life and Correspondence, p. 8)

Deborah Cadbury, in Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science, noted that the Dean “was a keen naturalist and kept a number of unusual pets. There were cages full of snakes and green frogs in the dining-room, where candles were placed in Ichthyosauri’s vertebrae. Guinea-pigs roamed freely throughout his office.” (p. 60) The night Buckland had a jackal loose in his quarters, his guinea pigs suffered significant attrition.

These descriptions brought to mind one of my favorite books, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1939). Buckland was truly a Merlin, tumbling straight out of the book, and clearly he would have felt at home in Merlin’s fantastic and chaotic room.

It was the most marvelous room that the Wart [the young Arthur] had ever been in.

There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very lifelike and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were hundreds of thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped up against each other as if they had had too much spirits to drink and did not really trust themselves. . . . Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. . . . There were several boar’s tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns . . . a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, . . . a gold medal for being the best scholar at Eton, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, . . . three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, . . . . (p. 31-32)

Well, Buckland would have wanted more fossils (and perhaps a bit more to eat, please).


I’m following myriad footsteps. So many writers have been captured by Buckland, finding his personality warm and attractive, enhanced by his myriad quirks and foibles. Among the works I’ve drawn from are the following:

The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland by his daughter Mrs. Gordon (1894)– the picture of Buckland was copied from the frontispiece of this volume;

The Works of John Ruskin, Volume 35, 1908;

Learning More . . . William Buckland, Oxford University Museum of Natural History (no date);

Terrible Lizard by Deborah Cadbury (2000);

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World, by Shelley Emling (2009);

Sir Henry Wentworth Acland, bart., K.C.B., F.R.S., regius professor of medicine in the University of Oxford, A Memoir, by J.B. Atlay (1903);

Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, by William Buckland Volume 1, (1836);

Reliquiae Diluvianae, by William Buckland, second edition (1824);

The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age, by Edmund Blair Bolles (1999).

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