Victim of Geology

Whatever you do, don't get started on fossils

By Brent Humphreys and Alan Burdick
Jul 1, 2001 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:41 AM
Three-hundred-million-year-old fossils rain down from the 75-foot-high cliffs at Joggins, on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. | NULL


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I have never cared much for geology. enthusiasts say the pleasure derives from its slow motion: Shifts occur, sediments accrete over eons, static landscapes conceal dynamic lives. Time itself allegedly expands in a Proustian way and becomes "deep time."

I have enough trouble getting through Proust. Books about rocks likewise fail to stir me. The sole exception is A Land, an intimate and eloquent history of Britain's human landscape and its geological underpinnings by the late archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes. Alas, the others capture little of geology beyond its glacial pace. Woe to the writer whose attention turns to stones.

Recently, however, I had a reading experience I can only describe as metamorphic. For years now I've been writing a book of my own. In an attempt to actually, finally complete it, I escaped New York City for several weeks and hid out in Cape Breton, at the far northern end of Nova Scotia. The community there is a hardened one— the vassal and, ultimately, victim of geology. For decades the main industry was coal, drawn from seams that underlie much of the region. But the mines began to close in the 1960s, coughing bent, broken men back to the surface. Folks get by today on the graces of tourism and government assistance.

Coal, as any mining museum in Cape Breton will tell you (and there are several now), is the dark fruit of ancient garden beds, the carbonized remains of swampy jungles that covered much of the Earth 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period. Generations of trees, ferns, and gargantuan reeds grew and fell before being submerged and then gradually buried under successive layers of sediment, like botanical specimens flattened between the pages of a book. Chemical changes reduced some layers to true fossil beds, others to coal. The cliffs of northern Nova Scotia are internationally renowned for their fossil contents. In Joggins, a forlorn town on the Bay of Fundy, entire trunks of fossilized trees--indeed, whole cemeteries of stony forests--emerge from the bluffs and fall in pieces to the beach below. At low tide, visitors prowl the mudflats in search of sunken fossils and scavenge the shoreline jumble, rock hammers in hand.

I stopped at Joggins on my drive up to Cape Breton. After several hours wandering on the beach, I'd gathered several pounds of seemingly matchless fossils: signatures of ancient grasses, the talon imprint of some dinosaur, intriguing whorls of indeterminate origin. I lugged them to the interpretative center, a small brown house on the town's single street. The center had a collection, too, gathered over years by local experts. Tiny claw prints of lizards. Articulated silhouettes of insect wings. Whole root systems of trees. In comparison, in an instant, my collection seemed pathetic, even, I began to suspect, illegitimate. The center's guide, a high-school senior and the granddaughter of the curator, offered to identify what I'd found. The conclusions of her microscope were brutal: My fossils merely looked like fossils. "They're just rocks," she said gently.

Things improved a few days later. The house I'd rented was set back from a low bluff overlooking the sea. In the face of the cliff I recognized the same sedimentary features I'd seen at Joggins: pancake layers of geological strata, dark traces of coal, a scree of fallen rocks on the shoreline below. At low tide I went down and poked around. The rocks were of sandstone, siltstone, and shale: thin layers of sediment, each layer representing a year, or 10, or 100--I had no idea--welded by time into varying degrees of solidity. With care, and the can opener on my jackknife, I found I could pry the layers apart. Inside were the fossils I'd sought: stems, leaves, roots, their textures finely etched on pages of stone.

This Carboniferous-aged fossil, a foot-long cast of the hollow interior of a calamite stem, was found near the cliffs at Joggins, Nova Scotia. Some Calamites species grew 100 feet high. The more modest horsetail (right) belongs to the genus Equisetum, a group of perennial herbs that are Calamites' only living relatives. | NULL

Slowly, I picked through the fallen debris, pulling apart, marveling. Shreds of rock fell in my trail. The pressed flora of an ancient Earth was revealed to me. When I looked around at the rubble still left to examine, suddenly I saw not rocks but books: mounds of blackened, soggy tomes; heaps of hardcovers, their titles indecipherable; leaves of text that crumbled at my touch. At one point I came across a rock as big as me. It stood on edge with its thin layers of sandstone aligned vertically, facing me like a giant prehistoric thesaurus. I peeled away the leftmost page--it took two hands--and felt the rush of ages.

Something came over me then. It was as though I had stumbled onto the charred remains of the Great Library. I began tearing at rocks, ripping off their covers for the prizes inside. I leaped from stone to stone, sized up the most promising tablets, pulled them apart--hurrying now, for the tide would rise soon and wash much of it under. Of course, I was only making matters worse, exposing the fragile specimens to the elements. So I hurried faster. It became imperative that I return the next day--and the next day, and the next, and retrieve everything I could.

And do what with it, exactly? My house filled, then overflowed. Window ledges grew thick with fossil clumps of ancient grasses; my office door sprouted several Carboniferous doorstops. I was producing more paperweights than paper. And still the cliff continued its relentless output. Even as I sat before it, poring over its works, more would clatter down its face--more tossed-off volumes, more epics for me to process and preserve. The cliff's prolificacy was maddening. I considered investing in a helmet, lest an Encyclopedia Britannica of rock fall on my head.

But this was not production; it was expulsion. The land was shedding. It happens all the time, of course, all over the place, yet I had never stopped to see it. Even the most avid collector of books eventually confronts the limits of physical space: There is no more room on the bookshelf, no room in the house for more shelves. Books must be purged, let go, set free. The Earth was sloughing off its memories, unburdening itself of recollected weight. It discarded effortlessly, without thought. I admired its efficiency, and felt small beside it.

It struck me then that I was not in any kind of great library at all but rather in a sort of remainders bin, the geological equivalent of a basement clearance sale at the local library. It was not the dustbin of history yet, only because I stood in it. I was a rummager, a bargain hunter, a gleaner, a bookworm. I was browsing for the right title, which I would know when I saw it. I was scanning the frayed paperbacks of a Broadway street vendor, looking for the one to fuel me. Shelves are for books. Why empty them if not to fill anew?

I walked to the house, arms full. We are detrivores: soil mites, composters, readers, writers. We digest. Sediment falls, a bed of leaves snows down; we turn it over or are buried trying.

For a virtual tour of Nova Scotia's rich fossil history, visit the province's Web site:

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