Rocks Remember: Mountain Tops to Moonscapes x A Guide Through Hue

Geology, despite its bookish associations, has always been a fraught and controversial science. Its modern incarnation owes much to 17th century theologians keen to find empirical support for the bible by studying the rocks and strata to verify events like the great flood. Ironically many of these proto-geologists actually helped to hasten the demise of the creation theories they sought to confirm. Today, geology’s controversial nature remains tied to events of a planetary scale, in the form of industries of natural resource extraction, and their consequences for an increasingly ruined natural world.

Today, geology’s controversial nature remains tied to events of a planetary scale, in the form of industries of natural resource extraction, and their consequences for an increasingly ruined natural world.

Alan Gignoux’s Mountain Tops to Moonscapes (2021) is one of two recent and very different books to focus on a facet of this. Gignoux’s book acts as a companion or sequel to his earlier book Oil Sands, but while the latter book documented the destructive impact of crude bitumen extraction, his new work turns the focus to the consequences of the practice of ‘Mountaintop Removal Mining’ in the Appalachia region of the United States. This is an area of significance both for its long association with traditional coal mining and industrial activity, but also as an area of environmental significance, and the focus of a particular type of American mythologising, one in which photographers have played a considerable role.

The idea of ‘mountaintop removal’ might sound like hyperbole, but here it is literally accurate. The form of mining documented in Gignoux’s book involves blasting apart entire peaks in order to access the seams of coal that lie beneath, before dumping the spoil into valleys. It requires a smaller workforce than traditional mining, so for the vast mining companies involved it makes economic sense. But in the process this activity radically reshapes the environment from one of biodiverse forested mountains into bleak, rocky plains. The scale of the destruction shown in these photographs is staggering, with even huge mine vehicles reduced to yellow specks amongst an endless sea of rock and rubble. Befitting this, Gignoux’s book is itself both large and structurally complex, with numerous gatefolds and openings folding reflecting the folding of the land in on itself. A booklet contained within the final set of folds contains another impressive origami-esque structure, alongside texts which expand on the problem.

As well as wrecking the environment this form of coal removal also has dire consequences for local people. Besides the loss of economic activity as large workforces are replaced with machines and explosives, studies show wider environmental pollution and exposure to potential harmful airborne matter in areas where this form of mining takes place. But as Gignoux’s work explores, the local towns are culturally tied to a long history of mining, in a way that runs through the politics, economics and culture of these places to such an extent that it is exceptionally hard for people to say no these companies and their practices. As Jane Branham, one of the local people interviewed in book explains, this creates a bind where communities remain loyal to the idea of mining, even as its actual economic benefit for them dwindles, and its long-term consequences grow. They are caught, offered a form of short-term economic survival in return for which they must trade their environment and health.

… communities remain loyal to the idea of mining, even as its actual economic benefit for them dwindles, and its long-term consequences grow. They are caught, offered a form of short-term economic survival in return for which they must trade their environment and health.

While Sibylle Eimermacher’s A Guide Through Hue (2021) is also about rocks, her work views them through a radically different time scale. Gignoux’s book deals with a very human time frame and the extreme damage that we manage to wreak in our short lives, but Eimermacher’s focus is turned to deep geologic time of rocks. Just as a plant viewed in a time lapse video is shown not to be static, even the rocks and mountains viewed over a long enough time curve are revealed to be constantly changing, morphing, growing, receding as new rock presses up from deep underground, and processes like the weather and glacial forces move and erode what is exposed on the surface. This idea of the rocks as almost a living thing runs through the 400 pages of the book, a length which might seem excessive, but starts to make a lot of sense as one is absorbed into the vast processes being explored.

The starting point for the work was the realisation that a particular type of rock evident in Eimermacher’s adopted home of the Netherlands had begun its existence much further north, in Scandinavia, before being moved south 150,000 years ago by vast glaciers. Her book is an attempt to retrace the improbable journey of these errant stones, tracing their trail from central Sweden and Finland to the flat farm fields of the Netherlands. Along the way she also examines the ways that these rocks became hugely important to the inhabitants of the many varied places where they were deposited, providing the materials for stone age dolmens, medieval churches and early modern flood defences, as an essay at the end of the book by geologist Harry Huisman explains.

We are a short-termist species, living brief and remote lives, and we often struggle to see beyond the horizons of our vantage point on the world. Perhaps if we were able to return to more of a pre-modern perspective, and once again see animals, plants and even inert rocks as things pulsating with life and movement, our readiness to destroy them in the pursuit of very fleeting advantage might not be so great.

The first few pages of the book give one a sense of a somewhat scientific presentation, in part because of the rather document-like design, and the holes punched in the inner margins, which together suggest a museum reference work. This led me to anticipate pages of non-visual information in this weighty tome. But it is in fact a book almost entirely of photographs of rocks, something which itself might seem like a bit of an unappealing idea to the non-geologically inclined, but the photographs for all their simplicity are attractive and printed with care, and as one passes through them there is an undulation in their colours, forms and uses which is strangely absorbing. It’s only about page 350 that more in depth information appears, in a different section printed in black and white, mixing texts with museum photographs of rock samples and objects constructed from them.

What Eimermacher and Gignoux’s books seem to share, is the question of our ability to perceive and judge things beyond our very immediate temporal and geographic circumstances. We are a short-termist species, living brief and remote lives, and we often struggle to see beyond the horizons of our vantage point on the world. Perhaps if we were able to return to more of a pre-modern perspective, and once again see animals, plants and even inert rocks as things pulsating with life and movement, our readiness to destroy them in the pursuit of very fleeting advantage might not be so great. This ability to show us something beyond our horizons, and in doing so reimagine something we believe we understand, is perhaps one of the things that photographic works like these two books can do best.

Sibylle EimermacherThe Eriskay Connection, 2021
Alan Gignoux – self-published, 2021



All Rights Reserved: Text ©Lewis Bush
Images ©Sibylle Eimermacher/The Eriskay Connection; Alan Gignoux


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