When we were children, our parents took us fossil and rock hunting in the summers. Dad set the goal: trilobites, Fool’s Gold, beryl, tourmaline, Herkimer diamonds, rose quartz, geodes… We each had rock hammers and we’d fan out across the designated landscape with pictures of our targets in our minds. And we’d find these wondrous things to take home for our display table–or to take to show-and-tell at school.
So it was a great delight this birthday when I went to Utah to see my sister, to be given a new, “grown-up” rock hammer, protective goggles, and sturdy leather gloves. She then took me on a hunt for fossil clam and horn shells in the Green River Formation. The shells we would be hunting were from the Ecocene Epoch (57.8 – 36.6 MILLION years ago), a time so distant that it is hard for me to even comprehend.
After a long drive (and getting lost a few times), our 1950s Utah Rockhound’s Guide to Rocks and Fossils steered us up a dirt road up in Spanish Forks Canyon, at about 6,000 ft. of altitude. We were alerted to look for a narrow ravine, “exactly” 1.0 miles up the road, and read that “the fossils are up there.” A short walk, single-file, up the ravine, past mountain lion tracks, we started to see sedimentary rock where we knew there would be fossils if fossils were indeed there.
The rocks were soft shale that sometimes could be pulled apart by hand. Sometimes when we split open the rocks, we’d come upon a thin layer of something thick and black like oil or tar–not sure what it was. (See the first image that shows the black stuff…)
We did find the shells we were hunting, but damaged most of them. They were tiny, the size of a girl’s pinky fingernail, lots of them, too small to get super excited about, but still astonishing to me: these shells were millions of years old, and they hadn’t seen the light of day since then. Was it shocking to them to suddenly be illuminated by the harsh light of the sun again?
My sister found both parts of a clam shell, spread apart like angel wings. I fond what looked more like the ghost-images of horn shells–seemingly flat, not 3-D, and impossible to chop out of the rock.
Sometimes the fossils would literally fall out of a piece of shale I cracked open with my hands. Other times, I damaged the fossils with inexpert hammer whacking.
But every time I saw a fossil, I was profoundly moved. I held each of them in my hand and try to imagine the Earth as it was so long ago. I’d try to imagine how this creature whose remains I held, how it lived–was life hard for it then? How did it die? Although the shells were now rocks, I felt in them an energy that pulsed still, and I wanted the shells to know I was appreciating them in this new daylight, on the same planet that was totally changed.
I end up thinking not just about these sea creatures’ deaths, but of the end of whole species, habitats, and most of life on Earth after the cataclysmic asteroid hit that has recently been written about in the New Yorker, and in PBS’ NOVA, as an event that fossilized fish in the process of eating other fish, and feathered birds with their wings outstretched.
And I think about the deaths and the annihilation of the city and culture of Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, leaving behind in the ash and lava the casts of bodies of fleeing citizens, horses in their stalls, dogs on chains.
I think of the residents, animals, plants, buildings, libraries, and everything that was vaporized when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Sometimes all that was left were “atomic shadows” in place of the people who disappeared in a brilliant flash of light and heat.
As anguishing as those deaths must have been, I wonder if it’s “better” to not see what’s coming. To just be going about your life when, BLAM, everything is incinerated. Maybe you don’t even have time to be scared or conscious of pain. You just instantly leave this plane. You don’t have to worry if your life “meant something,” or if you contributed anything meaningful during your brief time on Earth.
“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”
I’m old enough that I think about these things. Not morbidly, not constantly. But the 57.8 million year old fossils make me think about what comes next–and how it comes. But more importantly, what will I leave behind? Ashes? Shadows? Or something that made life better for a person, people, animals, the Earth… Something that briefly illuminated the darkness in some tiny part of this universe.
“We stand on the edge of the abyss, across whose unknowable face we paint meaning
so as not to see into it. It is always there.
But we’re here too, and we are no less real than the abyss.
We are no less meaningful for being transient creatures
caught up in something too big for us. There is still value to our lives.
I’ve learned that those things that are most fragile are also the most precious.”