At 15 I was too foolish to take an interest in geography; if I had, I would have known that this beautiful object was “the map that changed the world”, paving the way for Darwin’s theories and revolutionising the study of geology. It was created by William Smith, a blacksmith’s son whose life was dogged by betrayal and poverty (including a spell in debtors’ prison), but who, in later life, gained something of the recognition he deserved.
I was prompted to remember Smith while reading Fiona Sampson’s lyrical and highly insightful Limestone Country, in which she describes four limestone landscapes – in England, France, Slovenia and Jerusalem – and the various ways people live with and relate to them. The book reveals how the rocks under our feet shape every aspect of human existence, from agriculture and art to our emotional and psychological weather.
Sampson concentrates not on the chemistry and physics of what she calls “the cannibal earth reconsuming her own”, but on how the geological terrain governs our imaginings and our potential – and how an engagement with limestone landscapes offers all manner of rewards, from the fine wines of the Périgord, to the spiritual revelations of the Holy Land and, most importantly, a deeper appreciation of the environment as a whole. “Really living in these landscapes means paying radical attention to how they behave,” she says.