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Expressions of hope: an interview with Thomas Halliday

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Dr Thomas Halliday is the author of Otherlands, an exploration of deep time and life on Earth. Each chapter reaches further into the past, from the mammoths of Pleistocene, to the aftermath of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, to the earliest life on our planet. Otherlands was a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller, Foyle’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year, a Best Book of the Year in the New Yorker, and highly commended in the Wainwright Prize. Dr Halliday spoke with our editor, James Appleby.

Each of the chapters of Otherlands begins with a quotation from world literature. What does international writing mean to you?

Otherlands is a human response to past worlds. These are worlds where humans did not exist, but the way we interpret them – the way we reconstruct them – has ramifications on the world of our own. And it was very important that my epigraphs didn’t all come from European men. I clocked it, reading other books. Like, ‘Oh no, here’s another one from Shakespeare or John Lennon...’

I wanted to make sure that every continent had a representation – and that’s also true of the sites that I’ve chosen for each chapter. This is a global story: it shouldn’t be tied to one place or culture. Inevitably, I suppose, the book will be my response – I can’t escape that this is my own reaction. But I wanted to bring in other perspectives which I

thought reflected the tone or spirit of a chapter.

Does this come back to your work in decolonising palaeontology?

It’s certainly related. Much more than the lab-based subjects, palaeontology has a colonial legacy. It’s a subject where scientists go out into the field, extract something, then take it back to study. Often this occurred under the guise of geological surveys, where extraction of mineral wealth was the aim and the collection of fossils a benefit on the side.

It’s a benefit that comes back to the Natural History Museum in London, depriving the people in the original countries of the chance to study without significant expense. It prevents local knowledge from building up and concentrates the resources of knowledge of our own history – of the Earth – in the hands of very few.

My particular project has to do with the etymology of species names – with dinosaurs, for example, whose names have a lot of public currency. There are dinosaurs named after ethnic slurs or in honour of horrific genocidal maniacs. And the only time you have to follow grammar correctly is if it’s Latin. Even if the author’s intentions are good, names from local languages are often translated badly, such that they aren’t understandable. This complicates engagement with the communities where these animals are found. So there’s a lot of work to be done.

Talk to me a little about the writing of Otherlands. It’s so vivid in so many places – the aftermath of the asteroid of the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event, for example. What’s the most challenging aspect of imagining deep time?

Part of it is in working out the story I want to tell for each place. Many have analogues that are around today – the ecosystems aren’t quite the same, but the way that a grassland functions hasn’t changed too much in the tens of millions of years that grasslands have existed. And so, when trying to describe the landscape – the sense of being in a landscape – you can draw on your own experience in similar 30 places. The biggest challenge wasn’t the place itself, but the choice of place: trying to find a diverse enough selection of landscapes that told the stories I wanted to tell.

And some of these places aren’t very well-preserved. If I always took the best preserved place, you’d have shallow lagoon after shallow lagoon. Oxygen-less bottom-water: it’d just get so samey!

Another challenge: you don’t have any human characters. What’s it like to work without them? How do you tell stories from a perspective so different from our own?

I think the best way is to show behaviour. A gorgonopsia – a tiger-sized predator – is wandering through a dried-out lakebed as a sandstorm is approaching. It’s not very well.

There’s a hint that by the end of the scene it’s about to die. Its broken leg might mostly have healed, but it’s still limping, and it has a tumour of the jaw.

Now, both of those elements are based on real specimens. We have a gorgonopsia with a healed fracture of the limb – healed in such a way that shows us that it was warm-blooded. And we have another specimen with a tooth cancer – 250 million years old, the earliest example of vertebrate cancer in the fossil record. They’re not the same

individual in reality, but they’ve been combined for literary purposes. It’s information getting in by stealth.

Reading our submissions, my feeling is that there’s quite a limited number of animals that poets write about. What are some of the animals from deep time that they should be turning their attention to?

Oh, well! [Laughs.] I would say most evocative will be when behaviour is directly preserved. There’s a famous specimen of trilobite where you can see its trackway – it was walking along, then it was covered over, and then it died. You’ve got a real sense of an event there. Then there are turtles of the Cretaceous of Brazil that are preserved in the act of mating. I’m sure poets could have a lot of fun with that kind of thing.

Tell me about what you feel are the pitfalls of nature writing. What do authors generally get right? What can they get wrong?

There are so many ways of getting nature writing right. As long as it’s an honest account of a landscape, a place, or a species, I don’t think it can be done badly. But one of the

major pitfalls is that it tends to be so misanthropic. There’s that sense of... I’ve gone to this place because there are no people there. The good thing about the wild is that everyone else is out of the picture!

But no landscape is unaffected by people. Most of Western Scotland would be a temperate rainforest – it’s not, because of the actions of humans. And yet you get so many wonderful pieces of writing about exploring the barren heather hills – and they’re only there because we’re burning them for the grouse!

What role does nature writing have to play, in your opinion, in the climate crisis?

Nature writing is crucial as a contrary voice to the very well-funded doomists. Fossil fuel companies, despite having known about the issue for decades, first spread misinformation that climate change was not happening, then that it was happening but wasn’t their fault, and then, ok, that it was their fault, but it was too late to do anything. That’s the stage we’re at now: it’s not worth doing anything, it’s going to be too expensive, our lives will be immeasurably worse economically.

And it isn’t true! Nature writing is about encouraging a love and respect for the world and the environments we’re in – and it’s an expression of hope! One fantastic local example might be the spread of temperate rainforest in Scotland, where I grew up. Anything that helps people to recognise what is around them is a good thing. Once you recognise what is around you, and you learn about it, then it becomes relevant. It becomes a source of joy.

One last question. What about the links between deep time and myth? Do you give any credence to the idea that fossil elephants, with the hole at the centre of their skulls, are the root of the cyclops legend? Or that the dinosaurs of China

inspired depictions of dragons?

It’s impossible to prove – but it’s plausible. People have been finding fossils for tens of thousands of years. There are trilobite pendants found in Europe which are 15,000 years

old. Barrows in the south of England, filled with ammonites – collected and assembled as something of interest, even if they don’t know what they are. That curiosity has been there for millennia. There’s something intrinsically amazing about thinking of things that used to live here – but don’t anymore.


You can find out more about Dr Thomas Halliday on his website or by following him on Twitter @TJDHalliday

Otherlands is published in the UK by Penguin Books and in the USA by Penguin Random House.

Photo credit: Desiree Adams


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