Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sun, Sea, Sand and Good Exposure - Guide Books and Geology

Summer is well on its way; with days getting longer and coursework deadlines shorter it’s time to plan something to do with what small sliver of my student loan and overdraft remains. Which, along with the beautiful smell of summer starting to appear in the air set me thinking about guidebooks; so I ventured into the loft, dodging many a childhood toy to find a sizeable collection of books to see what they, if anything, say about the geology of the region they are describing.
Guide books could be great transmitters of geological knowledge, they are read at leisure, when people have time to both learn and see, often interesting geology corresponds with pretty places – a match made in heaven?

The books I have chosen for this rather un-scientific survey  are all for regions in Europe, (mainly France, Germany and Italy) from a variety of publishers; Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, The Green Guide and DK Guides – all very popular well stocked guidebooks both here in the UK and further afield.

Lonely Planets Option 
So, looking to my favourite holiday destination; Germany – also a country with interesting geology (foothills of Alps, Messel, Rhine etc) . The Lonely Planet makes no mention of any real geology;  ‘The Environment’ section, with all manner of information on animals and plants in Germany (some of which extinct)  and discussion of animals most visitors probably won’t see (Sea Eagles) – only the Eifel Region of volcanoes gets two lines; otherwise Germany is rock free.
DK, although much better noted for publishing really good children’s books have also dabbled in travel, producing rich books with lots of lovely diagrams of castles and two pages devoted to German authors, who, although great really do not appear in many holiday snaps. Even Eifel is ignored – but two pages on an obscure art gallery prevail – the book has ample opportunity to slide in geology – but would rather deal with paintings.

The Green Guide; published by Michelin (of tyre fame) fair much better, they have a whole ‘Landscapes’ page – which gives a quick overview of the Geology of Germany and then looks into more detail – with individual complexes named and how they relate to the geology of the region (i.e. Coal in the Rhin/Rhur valley) . It’s not perfect though, the book refers to the proterozoic as the ‘Primary’ era, which although easier on the non geologically trained, is wrong.  Still, it is a much better effort than DK or lonely Planet.
Beautiful Diagrams and Drawings,
but no geoscience

Looking to the South; into the beautiful, majestic and mountainous Switzerland, Rough Guide have published a nice friendly, concise and very full guidebook to the little country; well noted for it’s geology, from Suess’s insights into Plate tectonics to the country as a natural lab for glacial and tectonic processes. Rough Guide although discussing the beauty of the country – shamefully ignores the geology.  Instead, it finds plenty of time for old monarchs, leaders and anecdotes’. The guide is so good in other respects, offering complete knowledge of the regions history, culture and attractions – but what people are walking on, what has made that landscape and sculpted the history and culture is ignored.
And on to Italy; geologically fascinating and culturally rich. The Lonely Planet has a pleasant guide to the region – which unlike the German guide features an insight into the countries geology.  It gives an overview of the countries geology in simple pleasant language. Although, that is to be expected, the country hosts many geologically themed tourist hotspots (Etna, Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei nr Naples) so since background information is provided into the countries monarchs and monasteries it seems right that the rocks are given a look in too.

DK guides also make an effort to redeem themselves too –their Italian effort features the Dolomites, beautiful mountains and they even mention the rocks – not in much detail, but at least to place a bit of geology in admirer’s heads – the volcanism gets a look in. Nevertheless, the book has rich diagrams of monasteries and castles that run over double pages – why not a brief diagram of Italy’s geology? Explaining the landscapes and volcanoes in a way that clearly works with the public could be exceedingly valuable – nothing special, but something informative.

Rough Guides have also published a guide on the Greek Islands – fascinating geologically, not that Rough Guide has taken any notice. Even Santorini – home of one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in history has it’s geological past only presented via the word ‘Caldera’ – hardly a worthy inclusion for such an incredible event.
A better effort from Michelin 

At present I’ve looked at guidebooks for a whole country (or large region), where perhaps ignoring the rocks could be acceptable – they have plenty of information to pack in – what about local guides? Unfortunately, I only have one type of guide to compare – the Green Guides by Michelin;

The Green Guides do not disappoint – I had expected good things having read the German one, but their guide to ‘Burgundy and Jura’ (regions in eastern France) was really very good, featuring a map of France and during the Mesozoic (which is a bit broad brush but useful). Although geological names are not used – instead ‘Secondary Era’ is used - but it is a start, given my affection for maps it is nice to see. The guide also runs through the regions geology (and resources) in a chronological session. The guide also provides a cross section – with individual discussions of the regions geology allowing tourists – the public to (hopefully) be able to make tangible links between the rocks below them and the landscape above them. The regions famed caves also have a geological interpretation – caves are rather tourist hotspots so relating their geology to tourists is always valuable.
Similar stories are present in the other two ‘Green Guide’ books that I have (Provence – with lavender on the cover and the Dordone. Looking back across to the UK the ‘South Downs Way’ guidebook, by Jim Manthorpe gives a decent description of the downs geology (to be fair – it is just chalk) and its structure - in fact in many ways its better than the description given by the area's local authority. Given that, people who read this sort of text are likely to be‘outdoorsy’ it seems sensible that a discussion on what makes the outdoors would be present. However looking through the book it’s not entirely fair to the geosciences, more space (and words) are handed over to Underground Power lines (important – but how many walkers’ questions will be about them?). Plus the discussion on geology barely touches the Weald – which is observable across much of the path; leaving many a walker (including my parents!) at a mystery to the landscapes formation.

So, guide books and geology?

Well, they are not designed to transmit geological information – but they are designed to give visitors to a region a taste of the areas attractions; which geoscience can be an important part of – the landscape is always there, why not then, give a nod to its creation? It seems very narrow minded of guide books (excluding those of ‘The Green Guide’) to exclude geology. After all, they give detailed discussion into the human history of an area; why not the (often more impressive) natural history?

Of course, the sample I have used here is limited, so I popped down to my local, previously slated bookshops to see what they had on offer. The patterns I have noticed with this small group of books is applicable to most other guides – even those of Cyprus, where the geology is fascinating, seem to be much more eager to discuss dancing and small villages than the story of the island.

There are a fair few, specific geological guidebooks, the GSA has published a fair few but these are not really suitable for the public, nor cover the sort of regions that guide books cover, plus the GSA is going for an already interested audience. About Geology has a bit on the geology of San Francisco, which if picked up by a tourist would be really cool (nice photo’s too) – but this is hardly readable from a delayed plane.

Guide books (from experience) appear to be read at times of relaxation; while waiting for a plane, train or automobile – what better time to give a reader geological information, impart knowledge and interest in a practical sense, while they have time, so often neglected in daily life to explore a region’s landscape and geology. I’m not envisaging entries like ‘the Cafe on the square serves an exquisite coffee, also provides brilliant views of the Triassic limestone over the town’, but a nod akin to those in the Green Guides would be good: the books after all are there to inform the public, communicate facts and knowledge – maybe they could communicate geoscience too. 

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