Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fossil Communities -- Miscellany

Amateur or professionals at this process of hunting, collecting, and studying fossils are, whether they like it or not, members of various communities. These are varied -- encompassing academic, professional, formal, and informal aggregations of the somewhat like-minded. With membership in these communities come various pleasures and nuisances (hopefully, never more than nuisances). These are not unique to the communities that have been built around fossil collecting and studying, but that’s my present context.

Swine Flu

An online fossil collectors’ community of which I am an occasional part was the source of some startling news – neither a pleasure nor a nuisance, just a bit of the unexpected. One of the teenage members (I take him at his word that he’s a teen, that he’s a he, that . . . ) announced that he, along with other members of his family, are among those in New York who have contracted the swine flu (that is, "swine-origin influenza A H1N1" – even flu viruses have aliases and may not be whom – what – we think they are). He’s recovering nicely and will now, I assume, have built up an immunity to it. When this flu virus comes back in spades this next winter (after it vacations with a vengeance in the southern hemisphere for the next several months), he’ll be in better shape than the rest of us.

I thought about his announcement and the fact that many of us in this community read his message, posted good, cheering sentiments in response – giving him, I guess, virtual hugs. The beauty of this online community of fossil collectors in these times is that we run no risk of contracting the virus from him, no matter how much of this contact we have.

I can see it now. The online experience which, for years, was decried as producing a generation of loners and social misfits, becomes the only place in which community can continue to exist when, in the rest of our lives, we avoid public places and people.

Then again. How immune is this community really? Not very.

Last week, it was hit with a vicious attack by hackers trying to bring it down.

Oldest Member

P.G. Wodehouse, in his many short stories about golf, created a character known only as the “Oldest Member” of his golfing club. He is the one who tells the stories. The Oldest Member sits in a comfortable chair, sometimes sipping lemonade, and watches the younger generation destroy itself on the golf links. He knows the sport inside and out, knows its history and how it has changed. He also knows something about life. When some member of the club approaches with a golfing problem, or, more likely, a problem in a romantic relationship, the Oldest Member has an “appropriate” golfing story to tell. (Many of these stories are no longer covered by copyright and are available on the web. Try The Clicking of Cuthbert.)

Every community has its Oldest Member. Fossil communities are no exception. For instance, each fossil club (or more typically, “gem, mineral, and (afterthought) fossil” club) has an Oldest Member, very much akin to the Wodehouse creation, though I doubt he or she is approached for advice of a romantic nature. These are usually silver haired (or no haired) members who, in some clubs, were part of the founding generation of members, those who nurtured the organization through the lean years. Now that the community has a more or less secure life of its own, the Oldest Member sits back and observes and comments (and comments . . .).

Sometimes, of course, the Oldest Member bemoans what’s happened to his or her creation. “That’s not how we did it.” “In my day, this would not have happened.” Specific to a fossil community, the Oldest Member may draw on his vast experience and intone, “I remember when we’d hunt at this site and you could find so many complete trilobites that you stopped looking for them.” Or, “Yes, I did a lot of collecting there . . . before Interstate 96 was built over it.”

Still, without their Oldest Members, these communities would be very much the poorer.

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