Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Standing on Ancient History

When I was a kid, I used to love hunting for fossils. It was like an Easter egg hunt, only it was any day I was out in the woods. You know the feeling, don't you? You've gone to pick blueberries and finally have enough to get you through the winter for your morning oatmeal and you can't resist plucking the random beautiful berry as you walk out of the field. 

Hunting for fossils is like that, only I never needed that first rock the way I needed those berries. It was all about imagining an altered world. Maybe I did need that rock. It's a little like looking at the stars and wondering at the smallness of one soul on a blanket in the grass. Fossils can give you that feeling, only measured in time and not distance.

I liked to imagine the life of this poor dead creature. There was an ocean, right here in the middle of the Midwest. It just goes to show you how much things will change. Yet, while it could, this one was born here, grew, ate what came along, hung out with friends, and died, right there on that rock. I loved it. 

Oh, who am I kidding? I still love finding fossils. On Sunday, when we walked down to the creek, finding three pieces of fossilized coral made me happy. These rocks were black and about the size of a Halloween tootsie roll and had lines running their length. There were chert nodules too, smooth round rocks the size of a walnut, some of which were embedded in layers of limestone. Beautiful. But, there were no crinoids.  My favorite have always been crinoids. 

Yesterday, my nephew took me to crinoid beach on the lake. Oh, a bunch of the rest of them tagged along, but this is something he wanted to do for me. 

When I was a kid, if I found a sweaty fist full of the little round crinoid stem disks, I would be in heaven. The adults could talk all they wanted as they sat in their aluminum lawn chairs. The other kids might be throwing rocks into the water or getting wet even though our mom said to stay dry today, but I was getting muddy,  looking for crinoids.

So today, when we got out of our cars, I pretended to be adult about it and walk slowly with my mother, but I was itching to bolt ahead with Nick, my niece, and my nephew, John. John had come here with his paleontology class and he said it was cool. Nick was carrying his water shoes. 

Eventually, my sister took pity on me and sent me ahead to find them and scope out the steepness of the hills. 

I walked the lane, getting sweaty. When I came to a fork in the road, I called my sister and told her I thought the hike would be too much for my mother. I could barely see the water. 

Then, I did a loud woo hoo into the woods and heard an answer along the fork to the left. It seemed to take forever to get there and it was looking nearly impossible when the three cousins traipsed back to me and said they couldn't find it. 


I was too hot not to go to the water, so while John bushwhacked through the woods looking for it, the rest of us took the most direct route to the lake's edge. 

And there, I immediately found a crinoid stem.  And another and another. They were everywhere!

I sang a woo hoo in John's direction and he sauntered along the shore to find us. 

"This must be it," I said. "There are crinoids everywhere!"

"No, it gets better than this!" He said. We walked around, picking up different ones and showing each other. Nick put on his water shoes and walked into the water. This was like bath water compared to the swimming we did in the Pacific Northwest. I knew, after showing him a couple of fossils, that he was there to swim. My niece walked into the water with him.

Why did I love these creatures so much? I can't explain, but I felt it again when John had showed me a YouTube video of a crinoid crawling across a sea bottom when he first told me about the crinoid beach the night before. It looked like a flower, only it was leaned over and using a couple of petals to walk and dragging its long stem behind it like a tail. I wanted to know what compelled it. John had said it had no brain. 

"There's a girl crinoid over there and he likes her enough to pull up his roots and drag himself over," I said. John laughed. That was when he had decided I needed to see crinoid beach. 

John said we needed to walk along the shore to get to the real place. I picked up a big imprint to show him. He grinned at me. 

"It gets better than that. There's a huge one that's embedded in a boulder that nobody has been able to carry off yet."

Eventually, the humidity overtook all three of them and they swam along the shore while I ostensibly carried their phones and money and Epipens and wallets. No, I wasn't really being adult about this. I just didn't want the sediment in the water to obscure my view of the fossils.

"You'll know you've hit it when you feel bad about where you're putting your feet."

I walked through bushes that were sure to harbor chiggers. I found more fossils. I hugged the shore and a misstep filled one shoe with water. I kept walking, looking down. I walked through a cloud of mosquitoes. They dogged me as I bent over to pick up another. I carried a handful as if I were going to bring them home with me. I ignored the possibility of poison ivy which was everywhere. I straddled a large log and scratched my thigh trying to get across and got the other foot wet to match

Oh! Suddenly, I was crunching across a solid mass of fossils, crinoids and brachiopods. I couldn't move. 

"Take only pictures and leave only footprints," John said quietly as he stood knee deep in the water behind me.

Eventually, the sun began to get lower in the sky and they were done swimming. I think they had to call me to come on three or four times before I walked back the way I had come. 

Thank you for listening, jb

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