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Earth’s mantle acts as a metaphor for the planet’s unknowns, for its beauty, and for its fragility

The Mantle of the Earth: Genealogies of a Geographical Metaphor

Veronica della Dora
University of Chicago Press
416 pp.
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In her new book, The Mantle of the Earth, geographer Veronica della Dora explains how Earth’s mantle has provided a capacious metaphor for the terrain that sustains human life and the manner in which it is imagined and investigated. This is a metaphor that thrives on the lifting of veils and the piercing of interiors, as well as the “warp and weft” of a web of life and the weaving together of social and physical phenomena into narratives that convey the rich texture of this environment.

In its ambitious scope and humanistic approach, the book is an excellent example of the erudite scholarship that traces the emergence and mutability of an earthly imagination manifest in changing cartographic practices over time. These practices animate the wedding of Zeus with Chthonia, the formless Earth, and the placement of a woven mantle across the subterranean depths, transforming Chthonia into Ge, or Gaia, the visible, life-sustaining Mother Earth. They also underlie the nodes and links of Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, which “nets” people and things together, and the digital layers of geocoded content that make up platforms such as Google Earth. The ways in which these innovative technologies compose and map content and the ways in which people engage with that content make clear their place in a history of Western environmental thinking about Earth’s mantle.

The book is at its best when it sets up movements and countermovements in how Earth’s mantle is imagined and investigated. There is, for example, a brilliant exposé of how, in Renaissance Europe, the dissection of the mantle by mapmakers echoed the contemporaneous slicing open and pinning back of the tissues of the human body in anatomical science. As della Dora writes, “Cartographers dissected the earth in continents and regions, and, thanks to Ptolemy’s projections, they flattened it on atlas tables. Likewise, anatomists cut up the human body in pieces on the surface of the dissection table and flattened them on the tables of the anatomical atlas.” This anatomical approach to Earth was well in evidence in G. K. Gilbert’s explanation of geomorphology four centuries later, when he wrote of erosion as “a dissection which lays bare the very anatomy of the rocks” (1).

As della Dora makes clear, however, clinical interrogations of Earth’s mantle were counterpointed by a Romantic, poetic appreciation of the communion between mind and nature, self and cosmos, that expressed the enchanting truth of what it meant simply to “be” amid the shimmering mantle. “Lying on the grass in direct contact with the primordial earthly matter while gazing at the heavenly vault,” she writes, “the Romantic hero links the low to the high, the beautiful to the sublime.”

The book tracks the cut and thrust of scientific investigation forward into the 20th century, framing the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58—which della Dora calls a “scientific Olympics of sorts”—as a pivotal one for mantle explorations. Rocket and space programs, ocean drilling projects, and seismic soundings beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets were propelled by “[d]reams of control over and large-scale modifications of the ancient earth’s mantle” as well as “the dream of piercing beyond it into the unknown—of lifting Isis’s veil.” Such efforts, however, contrasted with a growing environmental consciousness in the West, precipitated by nuclear fallout and accumulating toxins, that focused public attention on the fragility of Earth’s “green mantle.”

The book refers to “the Western eye” and historically and culturally specific ways of seeing the world. At times, however, there is scope for critically unpacking claims of a universal human way of knowing—such as when della Dora references anthropologist Edmund Leach’s speculation that a division into two sexes and a sense of mind–body separation prompt binary-driven mythologies (2). Beyond parochializing such claims, an interrogation of how the mantle as metaphor “unveils a plurality of worlds” could have been furthered by noting how seeing and knowing have historically been framed, including by liberal humanism itself.

As an account of ideas and artifacts the book provides a sweeping backdrop to current-day scientific technologies and practices. The conceptual underpinnings to this process, however, tend to be folded away from view.

References and Notes:
1. G. K. Gilbert, “Report on the Geology of the Henry Mountains,” Department of the Interior, U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, Washington, D.C., 5 March 1877.
2. E. Leach, Genesis as Myth and Other Essays (Jonathan Cape, 1969).

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.