Students find purchase atop a glacial erratic in Central Park NYC.
Waiting in the lobby of the Austin Hilton, I glanced at my feet. I noticed that I was standing square atop a beautifully sectioned and polished Turritella embedded in the floor tile. Suddenly, the “pop-out”effect clicked in, an experience familiar to anyone who has searched for fossils, foraged for mushrooms or read Martin Hanford. Snail fossils began leaping out of the floor tiles left and right.
In an entire hotel full of paleontologists1, how many realized that every time they went for a free refill from Starbucks were trodding across fossilferous strata? Well, one at least.
We are creatures of the crust, not just elements upon it. Our ancestors, immediate and ancient, have been tilled into the lithosphere, the lucky ones, and their remainders poke out here and there. We dwell in mud and gypsum pockets, build cities of marble and granite, aggregate and lime. We drive down ribbons asphalt impregnated river gravels, burning vintage carbohydrates cooked up in Tethyan lagoons. We draw wires and hone tools, set foundations and fire vessels. We exchange bits of metal for goods, labor, love and status. We place them with great speed into the cells and organs of our livestock and adversaries. We eat Total.
Look up. Chances are good that some mineral veneer hovers over your head. Nummulitic limestone, spun glass, reinforced concrete…it won’t hang forever.
Some 530 million years ago, give or take, organisms began to make shells like nobody’s business. Brachiopods in their crenulated valves and molluscs their tortured cones, arthropods in chitinous armor, corals and bryozoans in whatever condominimal style that suited. Echinoderms with pentameral beauty and, and of course, vertebrates with chunks of apatite scattered amidst the myomeres.
Like the Parthenon and Chichen Itza, the Great Wall and Gizeh, evolutionary monuments linger long after their utility has passed. Crinoids litter the ground. We found our creation musuems atop Paleozoic mausoleums and call it good.
Every step hits a grave, a million lives, five billion years, a living, dying planet. Where will you settle?
1 – Granted, they were vertebrate paleontologists and most couldn’t have given a multituberculate’s ass about some snail shells.
Funny how things resonate. Nigel Hughes popped up this photo during a talk about Himalayan stratigraphy and noted that Mallory was “clinging to the Cambrian.” He said that a search of the rocks around the corpse would probably turn up ample trilobites. An “old English dead” freeze-dried amongst petrified Cambrian seafood at the roof of the world. How poetic?