For the love of fossils

I remember going fossil hunting with my parents. My father would carry a Stanley knife and a Tupperware in his rucksack, and we would sift through the stones on the beach or pick at the protruding face of the cliff. My mum, with a big smile on her face, would say, “You have to be on your knees for two hours before you find something.”

With the earnestness of youth, we would tread where my parents led, faithfully believing in the magic of our ‘finds’. My mum would say, “Imagine, Jack, you could be the first person to see this in hundred million years!”

On good days, we would find whole ammonites. They are creatures that were related to squids and octopuses you can see today, but they’re all extinct – they died out at the same time as dinosaurs. Trilobites were strange creatures, which were even older than ammonites (ammonites = 200 million years; trilobites = 400 million years). They are even more rare than ammonites. 

What we often found were the piece of rock containing a single shell of the bivalve Aviculopectin planoradiatus. Or belemnites, gastropods and fossilised plants.

I was perplexed that my friends scorned at my precious treasures. “They’re just bits of old shells!” My friends would scorn (but these are filled with old history).

Indeed. Pragmatically speaking, they are just little bits of something or other that no longer have relevance in today’s world. Yet my parents would invest hours each time teaching us to love these parts of a shell, a bone, a part of a forest when they world was still young. Would it not have been time better spent if these hundreds of hours were spent studying, learning a musical instrument, excelling in a sport? Instead, I learned the names of fossils and seaweeds, and committed them to my memory for life.

You would think so, but today, walking on the Jurassic Coast of my beloved southern England of my youth, I suddenly realised the true value of all those hours spent combing the beaches looking for insignificant pieces of antiquity. We looked at the exposed faces of the cliff and found so many treasures there – I was more excited than I would have been if I had been confronted with a shop full of designer gear.

I realised that my parents were teaching me how to fall in love with the world I live in, to celebrate meaningful little things rather than glorify flashy impermanent stuff, and most of all, to be in awe of mighty Mother Nature …. these fragments are the pieces that compile our heritage as human beings, custodians of the earth.  

PS. Look at this lump of rock below. My friend and I marvelled over it for ages. The evenly spaced grooves could be hewn out of the mechanical action of the sea over millions of years. Or it could be made by some prehistoric man’s tools.

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