words & photos :: Leslie Anthony.
As an author of more than a few books laden with autobiographical elements, I’ve often found myself wondering over the waypoints of life—those twists, turns and starting points that lead us to who and what we become, the world views we embrace and the habits, beliefs and outlooks we develop.
Looking back, I can track several that led me into biology, research, teaching and eventually a career documenting issues and developments in science and the environment. Some are comically obvious: Being bitten by a harmless garter snake at a day camp in Toronto and seeing the panicked reactions of adults begat an immediate fascination with reptiles and amphibians. Others are somewhat quotidian: Living in a suburb with forests, fields and streams as a backyard, a family cottage in Haliburton, and summers spent canoe-tripping provided ample opportunity for immersion in nature. One waypoint, however, subtler and almost prescriptive in its outsized influence, was a destiny literally written in stone: fossils.
Like many kids, my eyes were immediately drawn to the recognizable traces and shapes of life found in the sandstones and limestones that abounded around Toronto—whether exposed in river valleys, along beaches and constellating the nearby Niagara Escarpment, or as driveway gravel and even the massive blocks used to erect landmark downtown edifices. The impressions of crinoids, belemnites and brachiopods I’d ferret home in sagging pockets offered once-upon-a-time reinforcement to the parade of contemporary organic life I was becoming acquainted with. With my allowance, I’d buy fossil shells, shark teeth and bone at the gift shop in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), where I’d taken to spending Saturday mornings.
Journeying from Haliburton one rainy weekend to the Bancroft Gemboree—an annual gathering of rockhounds from around the continent—my eyes were opened to exotic fossils from other locales. After oohing and aahing over crystals and other mineralogical wonders, I plunked down $10—the most I’d spent in my life—for a limestone slab bearing fossilized ripple marks, worm traces and molluscs from the bottom of a ~450-million-year-old ocean that once covered Texas. Knowing little about my paleontological treasures drove me to the local library—where I was already digging into the worlds of amphibians and reptiles—to find out.
Eventually a librarian, intrigued at the weekly stacks of books I’d check out, asked my mother what I was doing. She mentioned my fossil collection and the librarian immediately invited me to create a display, including drawings and labels, for the library’s entrance hall as a point of interest for patrons as well as, I suspect, demonstration of the wonders to be plumbed at such institutions (in those days, the only non-academic source of any and all information). That watershed, I believe, reinforced a suite of interests that became central to my life, from collecting and organizing, to research and art, to public presentation and knowledge sharing.
Moreover, learning about fossils catapulted me from the muddy stratum of Catholic school pedagogy into the more illuminating echelons of science, replete with an understanding of evolution. From a young age I knew what these secrets held in rock meant: that although we can’t go back in time, time comes back to us. This knowledge molded my view of the earth and life, so I owe that library a lot. And I still have the fossilized ripple marks—a reminder, any time I need, of the insignificance of human existence in the face of deep time.
Whether working as biologist or writer, my fascination with fossils never wavered, and I’ve been lucky enough to write about them—from illegal trade in Alberta ammonites to B.C.’s first dinosaur dig in Tumbler Ridge, from the Ordovician landscapes of Anticosti Island to the Mosasaur graveyards of southern Manitoba. But my best assignment, and one that truly closed a circle, was to the Burgess Shale, a place of intrigue since, as a university biology student, I read Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life, which detailed the marvels revealed in the 505-million-year-old formation discovered by American geologist Charles Doolittle Walcott.
Located high on a mountainside in B.C.’s Yoho National Park, the Burgess Shale remains the world’s single most important fossil deposit. Containing almost all life forms known from the so-called Cambrian Explosion—when numerous new phyla and body plans appeared “suddenly” in the fossil record—the Burgess has been lionized in print, literature, film and even music. Its importance to both evolutionary theory and an understanding of all extant animal life, including the chordates from which we arose, remains unmatched in the annals of science. In recent years, the Burgess has re-commandeered popular consciousness with stunning new interpretations of well-known fossils that speak to evolutionary issues as central as means of movement, mode of reproduction, predation and sight—as well as discoveries of life forms entirely new to science.
From a young age I knew what these secrets held in rock meant: that although we can’t go back in time, time comes back to us.
All of this was on my mind when I made the infamous 10-km hike to the Walcott Quarry where the Smithsonian scientist and his family excavated for some 20 summers beginning in 1909. ROM scientists have been working new Burgess quarries since the 1970s, making exciting new finds annually. But the popularity of the Burgess Shale has also made it vulnerable: Park officials once chased a pair of thieves, pockets laden with purloined fossils, across the precipitous slopes. As a result, signs now warn of a restricted area above the trail where only official guides may tread.
Here, you cross the talus where Walcott famously got off his horse and noticed impressions of strange creatures in rocks that he’d eventually trace uphill to their origin. Shortly thereafter you make a final upward turn on switchbacks equivalent to climbing a 41-story building, where anticipation erases the fatigue of ascent. When you finally reach the Walcott Quarry, you can only pause to reflect.
Neither joy of accomplishment nor the beauty of the surroundings can surmount the emotion of knowledge that washes over you—so powerful it can bring tears to your eyes. In the bricolage of broken shale slabs on which you stand lies the ungraspable monster of deep time, the humble beginnings of humanity reflected in an odd little riot of life that took place on a muddy ocean bottom some half-billion years ago.
More than a century after its discovery, the Burgess Shale continues to reveal the deepest secrets of evolution, the very existence of its fossils a statement of why ignorance of their meaning is so dangerous. To stand in the Walcott Quarry and truly understand its significance is to let go of all prejudice, imperialism and appetite for war, and to abandon notions that artificial constructs like “the economy” carry any meaning in favour of seeing all of humanity—which came onto the scene a mere geological blink of an eye ago—as sharing this razor-thin slice of geological time as one.
In retrospect, to see the unity of all of humankind in a fossil might be the worthiest waypoint of all.