5 Aug 2011

Dinosaur Huntress?


Sometimes life has a funny way of throwing odd coincidences at you. Carl Jung called them "synchronicities," and attributed them to the cosmic consciousness and Universal Oversoul (As a science writer, I tend to attribute them to the Law of Really Big Numbers, a feature of modern life that I examined in my book Are You Psychic?).

In May, I experienced one of these wonderful synchronicities. My adventure began at my local public library when a book on the "New Non-fiction" shelf leapt out at me. It's called Curiosity: A Love Story. With a title like that, and cover art showing cutely creepy prehistoric animals eating each other, there was no way this book was not coming home with me.

The author, Joan Thomas, is a Winnipegger. Her first novel, Reading by Lightning, won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book and Amazon Canada's First Novel Award. It was also chosen by the Globe and Mail as one of its Top 100 Books in the year it was published.

Curiosity tells the story of Mary Anning, a Victorian woman you know of thanks to a famous tongue twister: "She sells sea shells by the sea shore."

Mary Anning did indeed sell sea shells, but she also sold fossils. She combed the cliffs and beaches of Lyme Regis on England's south coast for the "snakestones" and other curiosities that turned up regularly there, the result of the the limestone cliffs routinely crumbling from the force of wind and water. Her curiosities were sold to scientists who were trying, for the first time, to piece together where these unexplained objects came from, and how life forms not found on Earth today could have been buried in cliffs and stone in a world that was believed to have remained unchanged since the Flood.

Mary Anning combing for Fossils
The novel tells the story of  the first paleontologists tentative steps toward knowledge from Mary's point of view. She was "just"  a peasant girl, with no education, but she had a keen mind and a far better understanding of the finds than of the men who purchased them from her.

Her story is riveting, and Thomas' skill as a writer transported me to those wet, windswept beaches that were Anning's haunts and home.

How strangely delightful, then, to unexpectedly find myself a mere two days later combing a windswept, rainy beach for fossils - without leaving Canada!

I'd finished reading Curiosity on Sunday. On Monday, I flew to Moncton, New Brunswick, to begin my tour for the Hackmatack Awards Authors in the Schools program. I'd be spending the next few days in rural Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, speaking to students about books and writing.

The historic lighthouse at Parrsboro,
one of the towns where I presented. It's
just down the coast from Joggins.
My host, Chantelle Taylor, is the Youth Services Librarian for the Cumberland County Library System. She arranged my visits, made sure I was fed and watered, and drove me back and forth across the county from school to school. On our second day together, we had some free time. I had just finished reading at the twee little library in River Hebert, when Chantelle announced we could pop over to Joggins to see the sights.

I don't know about you, but I'd never heard of Joggins. Chantelle told me it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and known for its signicant fossil finds, including the oldest reptile ever found.

I was surprised, to say the least. I consider myself to be somewhat knowledgeable about stuff like this. I'd dreamt of going to Drumheller for years, after all, and had just booked my air ticket to see the dinosaur bones there. Those were famous.

But Joggins???

Knock me over with a feather.
The cliffs at Joggins, on what seems to me to
be an uncharacteristically sunny day.

Joggins is indeed a spectacular, and important, site. Cliffs rise straight up from the water's edge. And just like the cliffs in Lyme Regis, they are chock full (or should I say "chalk" full?) of fossils.

The oh-so significant oldest reptile fossil.
In fact, the fossils at Joggins are some of the oldest and best-preserved fossils anywhere dating from the Carboniferious Period. 

Even more significantly, the same scientists who studied Mary Anning's fossil curiosities practically wet themselves in excitement over the fossils from Joggins. Charles Darwin himself developed key ideas in his evolutionary theory after examining them.

A lovely, new museum sits atop the cliffs at Joggins. Attractive, well-designed and clearly labelled displays introduce the visitor to the Joggins world - both its prehistory and its modern history. (Carboniferous  = coal, and Joggins was until fairly recently, an active mining community. The museum was actually built on top of the old mine.)

After touring the museum, the main event: Chantelle and I headed out into the cold, driving rain and down the path to the beach to hunt for fossils.

I felt exactly like Mary Anning: cold, and wet, and blinded by rain, as I scanned the loose rocks of the beach for evidence of something marvelous.

Synchronicity indeed.

I knew that my single foray onto the beach would be unlikely to yield a fossil of the caliber of some of Mary Anning's finds. But I was determined to find something, anything, that could be called a fossil.

Here's the photo of what I found. I think that squiggly section on the right hand side is a "millipede" track. At least, it looks an awful lot like the ones showcased in the museum.

Can you see the fossily squiggle sitting a the 2:00 position in the rock?

I took this photo because the plaque describes
why Joggins is so important. But it also
has as it's headline the title of one of
my books, What's the Big Idea? :)

1 comment:

Heidi Henderson said...

I visited Joggins years ago. Maybe 2004ish. I was there for a conference and had a few days off. So I rented a car, called up some locals to see if they might be keen to head out collecting and off I went. Aside from the wonderful fossils, I loved all the black and white architecture of the drive out from Halifax. Lovely country on the East coast. I'l looking forward to reading about more of your adventures.

ps. Loved both Curiosity and Reading by Lightening