I thought of James Hutton, a Scottish physician from the 18th century, this morning when I saw the broken granite cobblestone depicted above. It is located in the middle of Water Street at Jay Street in dumbo, Brooklyn, NY. I have probably walked over this cobblestone hundreds of times since 1995, and don’t remember seeing it broken. I’m not sure if this is ironic or not, because my artwork is about breaking stones. For whatever reason, I noticed this stone today and I wondered when and how it broke.
I am of the position that James Hutton had one of the greatest insights in the history of our species that permanently changed our perception of the world.
In 1787 along the hillside at Siccar Point, Scotland, he noticed a long horizontal layer of rock atop a thick layer of rock that was stratified vertically. This was the eighteenth century when people believed the landscape was as God created it 6,000 years earlier. Hutton already suspected – from his previous thinking about erosion on his farm and through discussions about the Earth with other intellectuals of his time – that these rocks told a story of the past. What was new for Mr. Hutton was that he saw a rough, irregular layer of pebbles and grit between these two that, he realized, came from the erosion of the lower layer that could only occur over a very long time period. He suddenly understood not only that there were enormous forces that took a massive horizontal layer of stone and pushed it upright into what could have only been a mountain, but also that there was an “abyss of time” – longer than he could possibly imagine – that then allowed this mountain to erode away, leaving the stratified, vertical remains (that he was looking at) to be submerged into an ocean where another layer of stone formed on top of it; and, then, through another enormous force and even more time, it was all pushed up – again! – into a landmass he called “Scotland.” Hutton was stunned at the length of time the Earth must have existed for this to have happened.
Hutton through this insight knew the world was much older than anyone thought and, more than that, this process was still in operation whereby the Earth was constantly changing and perpetually being reformed. As Marcia Bjornerud described it in Reading the Rocks, “Hutton saw [this as] evidence for an endlessly rejuvenating, infinitely old Earth with ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’” Hutton explained this “abyss of time” and his other geological thoughts in “The Theory of the Earth,” published in 1788. Many of his principles still conform to modern geology; however, we now understand the Earth to be about 4.55 billion years old – not “infinitely old,” but still it’s been around a very, very long time.
Many of New York’s cobblestones came from Europe and were used as ballast for empty merchant ships sailing across the Atlantic in the 17th century to pick up goods and materials from the New World. The colonists used these cobblestones to pave the streets. The broken cobblestone I saw this morning is most likely originally from Europe because this is an old part of the city. The forces that broke it were not tectonic and the time it took was not geologic. Rather, the cobblestone probably broke from industrial vibrations and forces and the freeze and thaw of climate. It will eventually erode away and probably contribute to the sediment at the bottom of the East River and be part of a future continental landmass eons away.
I really want to know when this cobblestone broke and I am going to contact some geologist I know to try and get a more precise window of time. Stay tuned …