My grandfather was an amateur astronomer and a paleontologist. Interests I inherited. As evidence of these passions, Granddad built a six-foot-long, rotating telescope and amassed a coin collection so extensive he housed it in a secret closet with a fake door to fool burglars. But the most fascinating thing Granddad possessed was a 275-million-year-old fossilized tree fern pod. This smooth oval rock was the size of your hands pressed palm to palm. The stones were often found en masse, but only some contained fossils. This one had been split in two to reveal the convex fern preserved on one half, its delicately veined concave impression on the other—like a nut in a shell.
In an effort to find my own fossils, I’ve come to Calvert Cliffs, south of Annapolis, where the water is rich in 10-to-20-million-year-old remnants of a prehistoric Chesapeake.
To get to the beach, you have to hike about a mile and a half through deciduous woods over babbling brooks and along estuaries covered in acres of lily pads. Hiking toward the bay yesterday, a snake as green and supple as a new spring leaf slipped across the path in front of me and mushrooms, glistening white and as big as hats, stood among the leaves. I overheard snatches of random conversations as we encountered other fossil hunters walking the trail to the beach.
“Why don’t we look into a program at NASA? They have openings for children,” a young mother suggested to her son.
“I’m sure they have spirits, sweetie,” a dad reassured his little girl.
And a stranger in a ballcap who had loved and lost a dog after 13 years together apologized for his young Labrador’s rambunctiousness even as he blatantly aimed it at passersby and let the lead out, clearly hoping to socialize “Duke” with the help of the public on the narrow path. We happily obliged.
So many lives intersected in just seconds–windows of intimacy that opened and closed in the space of ten steps. Like time capsules, like fireflies. Opened! Closed. Here! Gone. But what is not gone is the evidence that the world has teemed with life for millions of years, and that’s what we’ve come here to search for.
The first fossilized dinosaur bones were only found in 1815 and were not really common knowledge until 1850. Which means King George didn’t know. Jesus didn’t know. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know. Your own great-great grandparents likely didn’t know dinosaurs roamed the planet for 175 million years.
We begin to hear the waves, then glimpse the white strip of beach through the trees. As we break out onto the shoreline, children in shorts and hoodies use sieves to search the shallows for Miocene treasure. Across a barrier of yellow caution tape, 100-foot-high cliffs that once floored the sea, shoulder the bay, and a sign informs us that the cliffs are dangerous and off limits to the public. Mr. Oliver, who is with me, says, “And that means you,” then begins intently digging a hole in the wet sand (precisely following park ranger instructions), while I am drawn down the slope of sand into the water. I look innocently across the yellow tape cordoning off the cliffs. How dangerous could they be?
Adjacent to the cliffs, the water is so clear that the time-worn shell fragments are quite visible where they lay like a ribbon along the shore. Strewn among them, on rare occasions, one can find sharks’ teeth and other ancient creatures.
I look down and see a fleur-de-lis shape against the shards, which I scoop up before it is luffed away. It’s a 17-million-year-old fossilized shark’s tooth. I hold it up and wave to Mr. Oliver, who is digging his hole to China and coming up empty-handed. A moment later, I spot a 20-million-year-old scallop shell imprinted in a chunk of mug iron beneath the waves like I was born to do this.
A ranger strolling the beach explains to a mother and child what to look for in terms of shape. He mentions that he finds it very relaxing to just wade along looking at the shards. And it is. I could do this all day.
I don’t know why I find this so fascinating—the evidence of geologic time. That the earth has thrived for billions of years. That all our problems are so fleeting in the grand scheme of things.
Pattern recognition is a right-brain function. The right brain hemisphere is the seat of humor, metaphor, of intuitively accepting as true what doesn’t make sense logically. As is so often the case with love.
The left brain hemisphere, the seat of linear thinking, can’t understand metaphor, for instance, literally interpreting “out of sight, out of mind” as “blind and crazy.” Yet the right brain understands perfectly that, if necessary, we can more easily relinquish what we give ourselves space to forget. Except, of course, the memories we hold on to. Those we turn into stone.
I think about this a lot. Giving myself space to forget. Permission to let the past go. I remember things I should release as if I am required to be the record keeper, the precise preserver of all experiences, even negative ones that serve no one, just because those things happened. Is it fair to be me without a tally sheet of how I got here?
I’m constantly telling writers that the hardest thing about giving an account of your life story is knowing what to leave out.
The breeze is sweet, and the sun dazzles the waves. It dazzles me. I drop my fossils and everything that has come before now and walk back up the slope to sit in the sand.
I think about my grandfather selectively picking up stones, trying to guess which ones held the story of a life inside and which did not.
Today, I will be that rock upon which nothing is yet written.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.