Deep Time on the Misty Isle

What follows is a case for landscapes.

Where Loch Curuisk and Loch Scavaig are cradled beneath the towering Cuillins we can witness a view unique in Britain, rhapsodized by Scott, recaptured by Turner's brush.
- J.B. Whittow [1]
KYlie White,  Black Cuillin,    Loch Coruisk,   2017.   Image Courtesy of the Artist

KYlie White, Black Cuillin, Loch Coruisk, 2017. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Kylie White,  Glacial Erratic , Loch Coruisk, 2017.  Image Courtesy of the Artist

Kylie White, Glacial Erratic, Loch Coruisk, 2017.Image Courtesy of the Artist

There are many ways in which the artist and the geologist are similar. We are both interested in the material phenomena of this planet. We both depend on relative measurement, and the relationship of one form to another. Beyond that, it is in finally understanding deep time, a geologist’s concept, that an artist can legitimately comprehend scale, our most fundamental tool. To solicit an unconformity, to seek the thing that is not there for its insights into what is there, is befitting the faculties of artists and geologists alike.

It is rare to find land which contains all the layers of time, from the Precambrian[2] up to the Holocene[3] ; for events such as faulting, erosion, uplift, and thrust not only disrupt, but erase hundreds of millions of years of information. The Isle of Skye,[4] contains all of these events—the extremes of land construction and destruction on Earth. Here on the Misty Isle, 4.55 billion years of material have been added by volcanic activity and sedimentary deposits. In some places, 3/4 of that has been removed by glaciers, down to the Precambrian rocks, the oldest of which are over 3 billion-years-old; this erasure results in a total break in the geologic record. At the Moine Thrust zone, which runs through north-west Scotland and the southern portion of Skye, the timeline was turned upside down when, as described by J.B. Whittow, “The waves of Caledonian[5] folding broke against the stable foreland of north-west Scotland, made up largely of Lewisian and Torridonian.[6] So fierce was the tectonic pressure from the east-south-east, however, that parts of the foreland surface itself were sheared off and carried bodily forwards along these planes of low-angle dislocation.” Or more simply put, 3 billion-year-old rock was thrust on top of newer rock. This phenomenon was recognized by Scottish geologist Archibald Geikie in 1883, almost 100 years before plate tectonics was added to textbooks.

Kylie white,  Folded Lewisian Gneiss (up to 3 billion years old), near Moine Thrust Zone , Glen Elg - Arnisdale, 2017.  Image Courtesy of the Artist

Kylie white, Folded Lewisian Gneiss (up to 3 billion years old), near Moine Thrust Zone, Glen Elg - Arnisdale, 2017.  Image Courtesy of the Artist

The Scottish have a longer history of studying geology than any other people, and in fact, the concept of deep time was developed there. This is attributed to Scotsman James Hutton, the father of modern geology. It was he, in the 18th century, who claimed that the earth could not possibly be 10,000 years old, as described in the Bible. It was also Hutton who discovered the first unconformity—a gap in the stratigraphy where certain rock formations are no longer present. It is this missing information which gives the most insight into what occurred geologically. It was also Hutton who realized that not all rock was sedimentary, built up from sand and mud, but that much of rock was igneous, from a molten inferno within the earth - and what a beautiful thought that is. It takes a unique vision, both philosophical and spatial, to identify such a vaporous concept as deep time.

Besides its position within the history of modern science, one is drawn to this place for its unusual forms and the beauty of the mountains begging to be captured. The calderas and cliffs of the Trotternish range, of Tertiary[7] age, have been carved by Pleistocene[8] glacial erosion, and left behind are igneous rocks which are tilted up and down, frowning and smiling, cloaked in moor, like ball gowns made of stone. Addition and subtraction of form such as this are romantic fodder for an artist.

Kylie white,  The Quirang , 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Kylie white, The Quirang, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Kylie white,  The Quirang , 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Kylie white, The Quirang, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Geologists view the world in section, not unlike the the view in an architect’s detail drawing, whose cross-section of nuts and bolts give insight into the object in question. In knowing the material which makes up this planet, we clarify our understanding of its forms, the forces that shape them, and the details of its construction. The geologist digs a hole which reveals layers of knowns and unknowns. The “knowns” are fossils, organisms that we know to have lived and died during a given epoch. These deposits may take shape as fossil fuels; the defined, black line of a coal seam[9] is sometimes the only numerical data to be mined from the nebulous territory that is the geology. While physicists may have answered all of life's mysteries in the atom, geologists still deduce the things they are looking at by the relationships of the formations around them.

It is impossible to draw fog; to draw clouds;to draw wind, with any certainty. You can only see and draw their effects. These are the things that cannot be explained by map or stratigraphy, in plan or in section, that the camera cannot see and the caliper cannot touch - the invisible, physical forces which give form to material. Who is to say there isn’t something there that is a fact yet to be discovered, maybe even by an artist? This landscape must be scaled and contemplated, with time to stop to draw its peaks and valleys and run your hand over the topography. Just because you cannot yet see it , does not mean you do not know it. Fog obscures distance such that foreground, middleground, and background are all the same surface; there can be no vanishing points if all the points have vanished. In an instant, the wind can push it all out to sea, dragging the grass over sideways with it. The basalt is black, the sky is blue, until it is all white fog, again. You are inside a lightbox, due to the slow-moving Northern sun which offers 20 hours of daylight in Summer. Presumably, this would be beneficial to drawing, if not for the wind, which moves the clouds so fast across the sky that it revises cast shadows by the minute.

Kylie white,  The Quirang , 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Kylie white, The Quirang, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Kylie white,  The Quirang , 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Kylie white, The Quirang, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Given the accuracy of digital mapping and radioactive dating, digging holes in the ground and collecting samples seems outmoded. For these reasons, it is artists who always have and always will draw the natural world; the study of form being the dorsum of natural science. As said by Niki Logis, “Only in a drawing can you capture that the top of the sky is 60 miles from the surface of the earth; You can get there in an hour by car!”

Stone from the quarries, iron from the mine, the anaerobic decomposition of ancient organisms — this is the stock of the landscape on which artists and builders depend. It is, therefore, monumental that we make ourselves aware of these materials and their forms, the processes of their crystallization - to be sure and clear in our intentions. It is hard in the late Holocene to resist the urge to inject meaning into works of art, but when form comes first, inherent meaning will follow if it is there. So here on this place, Skye, one arrives at the only solution, which is to draw the landscape, and instead of explaining the “why” with words as smoky as the fog, it can be clearly answered with “why not?”

kylie white, F lodigarry, from Staffin Bay,  2017.    Image courtesy of the artist

kylie white, Flodigarry, from Staffin Bay, 2017.  Image courtesy of the artist

  1. J.B. Whittow, Geology and Scenery in Scotland, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1977  ↩

  2. 600 million years old or older.  ↩

  3. 12,000 years to the present.  ↩

  4. Skye, from the Gaelic word “sgiath” for “wing”, like the wind; also known as the Misty Isle.  ↩

  5. From the Caledonian Orogeny, formation of granites; period of much faulting and thrusting.  ↩

  6. Oldest sandstone in Scotland, up to 1.7 billion years old.  ↩

  7. Pliocene-Pleistocene, 7-65 million years ago.  ↩

  8. The Ice Age, 65 million years ago.  ↩

  9. A bed of coal usually thick enough to be profitably mined.  ↩

Kylie White, b 1989, is an internationally exhibited artist, trained at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. She recently moved to the Bay Area to to pursue a new body of work: a series of public sculptures which mechanize the invisible, geologic forces that generate our landscape.