Why Hugh Miller Still Matters

Synopsis of a talk given to The Friends of Hugh Miller charity AGM by Lara Reid, May 2016

(Photos to follow shortly…)

“The place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both.”

                                                                                            Ali Smith (2015)1      

This quote actually relates to an art gallery dedicated to those who explore natural sciences through the medium of visual art and sculpture. To my mind, this quote could be equally attributed to the writings, and indeed the life, of Hugh Miller. His love of the outdoors, his fascination with geology and landscape, and his passion for literature, story-telling, folklore and poetry appear to feed off each other, resulting in ‘fruitful, fertile’ prose that still speaks volumes to us today. Indeed, the place where arts, the natural world and science meet have been explored on behalf of Miller a few times in recent years – the success of the two Betsey voyages in 2014 & 2015, and the Hugh Miller Writing Competition being examples of such projects.

On a more personal note, this quote gives me a nudge to continue exploring the blurred boundary lines between the arts and sciences that I seem to have found my way into in recent years. As an English and Scottish Literature graduate and former English teacher, it may come as a surprise to some that I now work as a freelance science writer and editor. My main task in this job is summarising academic journal papers into short pieces aimed at non-specialist audiences. I write press releases, research highlights and feature articles on subjects as diverse as genetics and biomedical science to earth sciences and climate modelling.

I would never claim that there isn’t a place for academic texts; of course there is. But equally, and perhaps more importantly in the case of explaining science to the general public (whoever they might be) and the media, there needs to be a ‘fruitful, fertile’ space in between – where science and good writing meet, and where Hugh Miller walks to this day.

Miller’s writing is a fairly recent discovery for me. I would argue that he has as much to contribute towards science communication today as he did in his own lifetime. His prose contains some magical elements, carefully and deliberately chosen, to draw in an audience of all ages and from all walks of life – just as the results of the Hugh Miller Writing Competition have shown us in recent weeks.

 

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Hugh Miller’s statue, Cromarty

Walking in other worlds: Miller as explorer and citizen scientist

“…the best nature writers are those humble pilgrims who, with no particular competence to show off or prepared philosophy to air, wander – or rather saunter – into the world to see what it has to offer…”                                                                                     John Burnside (2012)2

First and foremost, Miller was an explorer. Someone who yearned to be outdoors, tramping the coastlines, “an explorer of caves and ravines… a climber among rocks,” Miller’s enthusiasm and excitement for what he could find and learn whilst out walking is palpable. He would do well to be promoted as a spokesperson in the argument for outdoor classrooms, for example, or as a figure to be admired among travel writers.

Let’s take a look at the scope of using Miller in the classroom. For a start, his work bridges subject areas – this is something I feel the current Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland at least has within its grasp, the chance to explore interdisciplinary projects should teachers find the time to do so. If teachers from Secondary school level Geography and English departments, for example, came together to create a mini-project on Miller, I can see a lot of elements in his writing that could be explored.

How about these as creative writing, or play-writing, prompts?

“The dizzy front of black basalt, dark as night… the fantastic peaks and turrets in which the rock terminates atop – the masses of broken ruins, roughened with moss and lichen, that have fallen from above and lie scattered at its base…” (Cruise of the Betsey)

“It was a delightful evening – still, breathless, clear – as we swept slowly across the broad breast of Loch Maree; and the red light of the sinking sun… lighted up into a blush the pale, stony faces of the tall pyramidal hills” (My Schools and Schoolmasters)

How about a lesson exploring his use of metaphor and similes, or his strong sense of place, and how landscape can influence the way in which people lead their lives?

How about exploring links between Miller and prominent writers in literature, such as Tennyson and James Robertson?

Perhaps as part of a secondary school science lesson, students could be asked to describe scientific specimens, fossils, flora and fauna using simple metaphorical language as Miller does. They could be given an assignment to investigate a creature or fossil and write a short piece about it for a non-specialist audience. This could teach them a great deal about how to manipulate language and consider the words and phrases used – it could tie into an investigation of how science is presented in the media, too.

Activities centred around primary school classroom nature tables or the chance to spend a school day scavenging on the beach or in the woods could be easily framed with a brief study of a passage from Miller. Or, in the case of younger children, some of his ideas could be brought into the outdoor classroom, summed up to say ‘if you learn to look carefully it’s amazing what you can discover.’

One of Hugh Miller’s strengths is in his choice of a ‘diary format’ for his geological writings – journals that document how he gradually pieced ideas together, musing the oddities and misfits that he found along the way (I’m talking about both fossils and people here!). If you like, he was a blogger for the Victorian era. Here’s an idea: why not turn excerpts from Miller’s work into a blog? One could post short, choice extracts from his explorations of Scotland; I wonder how many followers he might get? Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary is already up online in blog form, for example.

Miller actively encourages that people engage in citizen science, as he did. The idea of ‘citizen science’ has been bouncing around a lot on social media in the past 8 months or so, particularly with Sir David Attenborough calling for more people to actively study their own ‘backyards’. Those involved in science communication and engaging people in citizen science could do far worse than choose Hugh Miller as one of their pioneers of the concept. There is great value, as Miller clearly understands, in encouraging those with inclination and curiosity to explore and record their ‘local patch’.

 

A sense of perspective

From a young age, Miller appears to actively seek out different ways of looking at the world – quite literally – ‘learn to make a right use of your eyes,’ as he so keenly tells us. His sense of perspective is always changing – from the obvious – setting rocks and fossils into a wider landscape as well as poring over their intricate details and eye-catching coloration through a microscope – to the less obvious. He describes the view out from the back of a cave as looking at the world through the eyepiece of a telescope, where the scenes “formed a series of sun-gilt vignettes, framed in jet.” As the tide rises, and he and his friend realise they are trapped at the back of the cave, through his ‘cave-telescope’ the distant horizon and waves rolling inland become distinct and otherworldly, and we are there, trapped with him, wondering whether or not to be frightened.

The fact that he actively seeks out different ways of seeing the geological wonders of his world to me implies not just a natural, childlike curiosity and enthusiasm – which of course Miller has in spades – but also a deliberate attempt to reach out to as many people of all different ages and backgrounds. Miller sees, and therefore describes, the world through colour and texture, and he targets these for his metaphors with the very specific purpose of trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. He chooses two of the ‘easier’ ways of differentiating between rock types and fossils. His use of language is often very tactile, using touch and feel to describe his fossil finds, likening their markings to everyday objects.

He speaks the language of the working men and women of the time, he deliberately refers to his own childhood memories of wonder, playing at soldiers with different coloured shell armies on the beach, likening fossils found in rock to currants in a Christmas cake; he is pulling people in and helping them relate to his writing. Sometimes all it takes to help someone understand a complex concept is a carefully placed analogy, and Miller was fully aware of this in his work.

 

Miller as a champion of ‘geodiversity’

There’s something magical about geology that perhaps is forgotten in its current guise, at least maintained by the media, as being ‘just about boring old rocks’. Geology takes you off the beaten track. As you walk faultlines, dykes, ridgeways and rock lines, ancient plate boundaries and the remnants of volcanoes, you’re literally tracking deep time over the landscape. You’re bound less by well-trodden pathways and more by a kind of ‘trilobite sight’, as the writer Robert MacFarlane calls it. This, for me, is the pull of geology – the fact that, wherever I go, I will always see more than I bargain for, and I will almost never solely stick to the paths but rather wander off set routeways and roads into the wild places. These places offer new ways of seeing the world, and literally gives you different vantage points and chances to grasp something new.

In fact, to my mind it is always worth looking at the world through Miller’s eyes – or through the eyes of any Earth Scientist, perhaps. By this I mean the art of ‘extended vision’ – seeing a world in layers and folds, understanding it as a product of millions of years of formation, deformation and destruction, both on a large and a minute scale.

The fact that Miller is so good at retaining his perspective to involve the bigger picture is another element of his writing I feel we can learn from. Miller’s expressive language does not detract from the precise and accurate nature of his descriptions, but simply and effectively adds to them. His eagerness to describe not just the landscape, landforms and fossils he finds but the people that inhabit them is also really important. He would understand the more modern-day concept of ‘geodiversity’ in its true sense – namely an umbrella term that encompasses not just rocks, but landscape and landforms both past, present and ongoing into the future, and the people that live and work in these landscapes. I have been working voluntarily for the past two years with the Scottish Geodiversity Forum3 – a non-governmental organisation that provides a network through which diverse bodies involved in preserving Scotland’s landscapes and geology can communicate.

Geology is ‘not just about rocks (or dinosaurs)’, yet it appears to have this label attached to it – one which the geological community should perhaps be rallying against more firmly. Perhaps this is even more pertinent to ensure the future of geology for Scotland’s younger population, as geology as a qualification-bearing subject is no longer catered for in Scotland’s state schools. Could raising awareness of the breadth of geology as a subject through voices such as Miller’s be appropriate at this pivotal point?

 

***

I am no expert on Hugh Miller, nor would I ever claim to be, but I feel a remarkably strong affinity with him and his desire to encourage those around him to learn and understand, to question and dissect the landscapes around him. He spoke (or should I say speaks) to so many different people in so many different ways. The entries we received to the Hugh Miller Writing Competition are testament to the inspiration he still provides. The potential spin-offs and new ideas that the competition has generated are multiple.

Miller still matters as a figure to be admired in science communication – there is much to learn from his use of language and the variety of metaphors he used to describe his intricate scientific discoveries. There is much to learn from his ability to appeal across generations and to people from all different backgrounds.

Miller still matters as someone to be treasured and taught in our schools, and as a testimony of the power of self-education. His philosophy ‘to learn to make a right use of your eyes’, and to learn from practical investigation of the natural world is one we should be celebrating with our young people firmly in our sights.

Miller still matters because his voice resonates from the past into our present – even though his writing and scientific knowledge is dated in places, his attitude and aptitude as a citizen scientist is still to be admired. His writing reminds us to sit up and take notice, and take pride in, the landscapes and landforms around us.

Robert MacFarlane made the comment recently in a New Statesman article that “Powerful writing can revise our ethical relationship with the natural world, shaping our place consciousness and our place conscience.”4

Reading Hugh Miller has awoken something in me that will stay with me forever. The man himself will accompany me, in some way, shape or form, whenever I am out and about in Scotland’s stunning landscapes, and I look forward to absorbing all that I can learn from him.

All this, for me at least, is why Miller still matters.

 

References:

  1. http://onca.org.uk/patrons/, accessed February 2016
  2. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/05/art-sauntering, accessed December 2015
  3. http://www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org
  4. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/nature/2015/09/robert-macfarlane-why-we-need-nature-writing accessed September 2015

 

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