• Christopher Tanner

An Interlude with an Atheist: Why I Collect Fossils

A brief outing/collecting trip this morning to an abandoned zinc mine near the base of the Arbuckle foldbelt near Davis, Oklahoma followed by a visit to an Ordovician-Period fossil site a little higher up the side of the anticline prompted me to think anew along the following lines:

The semi-chaotic stash of rocks and minerals at my house can no more properly be called a collection than those tons of materials that followed me like a bad penny between various jobs and domiciles over the course of past decades but are no longer in my possession owing to divorces, career moves, misplacement and reluctant abandonment. They are not now and never were a collection in any sense of the word that implies responsible curatorship: they are and were an accumulation of heavy, space-consuming chunks of Earth’s crust. True, they are more nearly organized at present (that is, sorted into labeled boxes) than they ever were before or ever again will be, but their sheer tonnage has most likely sealed my fate: I will eventually die in Norman, Oklahoma, for no relocation will ever again be possible.

I do occasionally ask myself why I do this.

Far be it from me to cloak with protestations of loftier motives those base impulses that actually drive me to do the things I do: I’ve always been something of a packrat, and my immediate surroundings are perpetually cluttered with scraps of lumber, discarded lawn mowers, glass bottles, rusty hand tools, bricks, lengths of twine, rope and electrical wire, railroad spikes, bolts and other curios I’ve picked up from beside the road and from piles of refuse: the detritus of civilization come home to rest with a human tumblebug (I am a paradigmatic Arkansan to the core, cinder blocks and all). My house is also littered with shells from various beaches, the cast-off skins of cicadas and snakes, countless seed pods, cones, dried flowers, leaves and fungi, driftwood, bones and teeth of every description, and most any other inviting thing I’ve had the (good?) fortune to stumble upon in my wanderings. (During one three-year period of my life, I collected so much desiccated scat from the trails in the Mark Twain National Forest – a blessedly short-lived fascination – that I could almost have opened my own turd museum.) And I haven’t even mentioned the books – not a library in any meaningful sense, but certainly an enormous accrual. The more of them I give away, the more that come home to live with me. It could well be that my rock collecting habit is no more than a subset of this more general impulse. But I think it is more.

Very few found objects engage me as fully as rocks, minerals and fossils (especially fossils). I may wonder about the provenance of a rusty screwdriver extricated from a muddy bar ditch, but not for long. The molted skin of a snake can keep me fascinated for a little while longer and probably induce me to look up some information or watch a short film about it later, as time permits. An interesting rock specimen, however, can keep my mind spinning in slow circles for hours as I try to reconstruct its history. Generally speaking, when I pick up rocks I’m gathering far more than their volume, mass and appearance: I’m collecting geology. Although I make my living as a teacher of a narrow specialty within a field of study that has nothing to do with any of the sciences, I’m far more likely to be occupied for hours on end by a topographical feature or a nodule of chert and the circumstances and forces that lay behind either of them than I am by a polymetric war dance from the Niger River Delta or a kriti from South India. I love music with all my heart, but I love geology even more.

(Because I love geology, I relish the company of geologists, geochemists, geophysicists, mineralogists, paleontologists and evolutionary biologists: I have questions, and they usually have answers.)

It could be that my infatuation with geology – which was awakened in earnest about two decades ago when I was living in southwestern Missouri and had the extravagant fossil richness of area roadcuts at my disposal – represents a kind of compensation, or a corrective (or even antidote) to an earlier misunderstanding. For better or worse, I grew up in a milieu in which the Earth (and for that matter, the universe) was thought to be about 6,000 years old, and humankind was taken to be a special creation in a lush garden somewhere in Mesopotamia. Not everyone is privy to this understanding of the world: it helps to be born in a small Arkansas town, to a teenaged couple without much experience of the wider world or interest in much of anything beyond making it through the rough day at hand. In straitened circumstances, the first lifeline offered is often the one that is grabbed, and I suspect that’s the explanation for the persistence of such novel (or are they antiquated?) ideas within a culture that is otherwise scientifically-informed – or at least has the benefit of scientific insights available to it.

In addition to being a curious kid – that is, driven by curiosity (although the other reading is also defensible) – I tended to be a little cheeky. Once, when I was a young teenager and my family was enjoying the serene beauty of the Ozarks on an outing to the Mulberry River, I picked up what must have been a fossilized brachiopod on a trail high above the floodplain and took it home, along with some questions. It was obviously a marine fossil, and we were just as obviously hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean and quite a bit higher in elevation than mean sea level. So I asked the ultimate authority figure in my life – the pastor of the church where my opinions were being molded – what a marine fossil was doing at the top of a mountain. (Was it a challenge? Perhaps.) After mulling it over for a bit, he informed me that there were four possibilities:

  1. God had put it there in order to test my faith, or

  2. The devil had put it there in order to destroy my faith, or

  3. It had washed up there during the great Flood described in Genesis, or

  4. Someone had taken it up there and left it

He allowed as to how he considered the last alternative the most likely of the four. My spluttered, off-the-cuff rejoinder to this infuriating bit of sophistry was to the effect that “No one ever goes up there!” His answer, in retrospect, was perfectly predictable: “Well YOU were up there, weren’t you?”

Looking back on my misspent youth, I’m pretty sure that if I’d understood that the rolling, orchard-covered countryside where I grew up was once part of a continental shelf, and that the hard, dense arenite that kept the Boston Mountains to the north of me high in relation to their surroundings had been deposited as beach sand along ancient shores, I might have become a geologist. The picture of this planet that has emerged in my thinking over the course of a couple of decades of amateurish study and even more decades of admittedly random collecting is no doubt something I’d have relished mulling over daily on a professional basis (as indeed I have, albeit avocationally). Plate tectonics was one of the greatest discoveries of my life – and to think that the revolution happened when I was in high school! (Not that I was aware of it at the time – I had hormonal fish to fry.) Ever since I employed such primitive math as is available to me, to try to come to terms with the number 4,567,000,000 – which is the age of the Earth in years – I have seen the world through different eyes. When I came to realize vividly the extent of the greatest mass extinction in the history of our planet, which happened about 251,900,000 years ago, I was almost overcome by a new appreciation of the frailty and contingency of life, and of its beauty and preciousness – to say nothing of the improbability of the existence of any one of us or any species among us (our own included): we were by no means inevitable. The problem of abiogenesis fascinates me. The bonds that make molecules possible fascinate me. The fact that I can see traces of bottom-feeding, burrowing Paleozoic marine animals just a few miles north of my hometown absolutely charms the pants off me.

I want to claim more for geology and my relationship to it than perhaps most people want to hear. The deep-time view of the world that geologists ever since James Hutton have been laboring to bring forth – a view the full benefit of which Charles Darwin did not enjoy since radiometric dating was still a few decades in the future when he went to press with On the Origin of Species – has enabled me to make my peace with the world. I will try to explain without becoming overly dramatic. Like everyone else I know, I often find life to be a vexatious proposition. In order to get through my days in a condition of reasonable health and humor, I pretty much constantly have to squelch the misanthropic feelings that arise whenever I contemplate what can only be called human stupidity. And like almost everyone else, I have little choice but to contemplate it: we’re surrounded by it. I see us somewhat as Pascal saw us: “the glory and shame of the universe.” It is not uncommon for me to grow anxious about the many walls that we – all seven point two five hungry billion of us – seem to be hitting simultaneously. A great deal of my hand-wringing is due to the fact that I have a 30-year-old son who is a far finer, fairer and more talented human being than I ever was, and I want him to be able to enjoy a fulfilling life in a functioning world for as many years as he might wish. But I do know that human populations are not exempt from the same natural laws that keep other populations in balance with their environments – and we are most decidedly out of balance with ours. I will say no more about this dolorous subject for the time being: I have drawn my own conclusions, and everyone else will have to do the same.

There is much about the likely near future that I find deeply disturbing. But there is an enormous context in which that near future shrinks to something very much like nothing. That context is geologic time – deep time. Our notions of civilization do not extend back in time more than a few millennia – ten would be perhaps overly generous. Our species is about twenty times that old, and anything we could conceivably call the “modern world” dates only so far back as the first stirrings of the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution has had only a couple of centuries to reshape the planet and change its atmospheric and oceanic chemistry. In the context of the whole of Earth’s history, and even of the 3.8 billion-year saga of life on Earth, and even of the saga of large, multicellular life on Earth – i.e. since the so-called Cambrian Explosion some 542 million years ago – our entire history vanishes into negligibility (together, however, with the sad legacy of having driven a Sixth Great Extinction): little more than a black smudge of carbon sandwiched between the geology that now lies beneath our feet and whatever will in due course cover and fossilize us, to the great amusement and bemusement of the paleontologists of a far-distant-future sapient species, if any. Call me crazy, but – dyed-in-the-wool Carlinian that I am – I find this comforting.

That’s why I collect.

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