Thursday, May 31, 2012

Paleontological Flow ~ A Family in Mourning

I am fascinated by families that hunt fossils together.  The stories I’ve collected of such families, whose members understood fossils as remnants of ancient animal and plant life, go back roughly two centuries.  There isn’t something magical about them.  All fossil hunting families are not alike.  This mutual enterprise has bound some families together; for others, fossils have contributed to familial discord and dissolution.  This posting is not about many families, but about one family, and, indeed, about a single photograph.

Circa 1913, that’s the best estimate of the Smithsonian archivists for the undated picture of three members of the Walcott family – father, son, and daughter – working away at pieces of the Burgess Shale, high in the Canadian Rockies, near the Continental Divide.  In the photograph below, they are, from left to right, Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850 – 1927), Sidney Stevens Walcott (1892 – 1977), and Helen Breese Walcott (1894 – 1965).  (Photograph is in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2008-1906.)

I love this photograph.  It is to be treasured for many, many reasons.  Let’s deal with the site first.  Though I recognize its importance, that’s not actually among the most compelling aspects of this image for me (I suspect I may be a minority of one).  The Walcotts first came upon this site in August, 1909, toward the end of a long season of fossil hunting in the Rockies.  Myths have grown up around its discovery, most of which were put to rest by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life:  The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) and, with a bit more detail, in an essay titled Literary Bias on the Slippery Slope, published in Bully for Brontosaurus (1991).  As for the find itself, Gould waxed enthusiastic.
Without hesitation or ambiguity, and fully mindful of such paleontological wonders as large dinosaurs and African ape-men, I state that the invertebrates of the Burgess Shale, found high in the Canadian Rockies in Yoho National Park, on the eastern border of British Columbia, are the world’s most important animal fossils. . . . These Canadian fossils are precious because they preserve in exquisite detail, down to the last filament of a trilobite’s gill, or the components of a last meal in a worm’s gut, the soft anatomy of organisms. (Wonderful Life, p. 23 – 24.)
Paleontologist Ellis L. Yochelson went Gould one better, writing
To put it as briefly as possible, the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale may be the single most important fossil find ever made.  (Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott, 2001, p. 43.)
The essence of the importance of these fossils can be captured in the phrases “Middle Cambrian” and “soft anatomy.”  This Middle Cambrian array of fossils captures the richness of the marine fauna that marked the so-called Cambrian explosion when multi-cellular life first appears in the fossil record.  It’s a critical time.  And by preserving not just the hard parts, which comprise most fossils, but also the soft parts, these offer a rare look at the physical totality and the lives of these often bizarre creatures, some of which remain well outside of our taxonomic “boxes.”  (I choose to skip over the issue of interpretation of these fossils – what they were, how best to reconstruct them, where they fit taxonomically, . . . .  All of which brilliant paleontologists have wrestled with for years, interpreting and reinterpreting, and often arguing with, and sometimes maligning, those who came before.)

No, for me, it’s not the site pictured in that photograph that is primary, it’s the family engaged in uncovering fossils.  Fossil hunting was a family affair for the Walcotts, a tradition dating back to the honeymoon that Charles spent with Helena (1858 – 1911).  “After the reception, the couple left to begin their honeymoon, otherwise known as fieldwork.”  (Ellis Yochelson, Charles Doolittle Walcott, Paleontologist, 1998, p. 231.)

If this is indeed 1913, then Charles was in his sixth year as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and spending his summer and early fall as he loved to, doing fieldwork with his family.  Son Sidney was home (well, actually in the Rockies) from Cornell University, and daughter Helen had just returned after spending more than a year in Europe.

I like to think this photograph was taken the afternoon of September 11, 1913.  The weather had not cooperated that year while the family was at the Burgess site and one of the major undertakings of this fieldwork was extending the Burgess quarry, a task involving the removal of massive amounts of overburden as the layer of fossils was followed back into the hillside.  At the moment captured here, the weather seems good and rock moving is clearly not what’s going on.  Walcott in his diary described September 11th this way,
Up at quarry cold & unpleasant in the morning & cleared up in the afternoon.  We found some fine fossils.  (Smithsonian Secretary, p. 126.)
There is tragedy behind this scene.  Missing is Helena, mother of these children, and Charles’ boon companion in life, most specially in pursuit of fossils.  She had been there in 1909 when the Burgess Shale first came to light, but two years later had perished in the wreck of the Federal Express train at Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Also missing is the eldest child of the family, Charles Doolittle Walcott, Jr. (1889 – 1913), who had died just that April, succumbing after a protracted battle to what was diagnosed as typhoid.

For me, coming to this photograph now, I feel a strong urge to fix these people here, even in this tragic moment, even though mother and brother are no longer with them.  They do not know there is more to come.  Though he was in the Rockies with the family that year, Charles’ youngest son, Benjamin Stuart Walcott (1895 – 1917) was not before the camera.  Just four years later, Stuart’s plane would be shot down in an air battle over France.

Probably Charles, Sr., Sidney, and Helen assumed poses for this photograph, but I deliberately choose not to believe that.  Rather, I naively accept this image as something candid.  A moment on a ledge in the Rockies where all three are fixated, so focused on the task at hand that they are removed from the tragedies they are living through (and that which we see coming for them).  It’s a kind of moment I’ve described several times on this blog, that moment during the search for fossils (and it can occur with many, many other actions we undertake) when time stops, when everything else recedes, and you are in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called flow.  (Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990.)  (I was put on to this literature about flow by a reference in Jack Hitt’s Bunch of Amateurs, a book discussed in the previous posting in this blog.)

Csikszentmihalyi has described flow this way.
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.  Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.  An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.  (p. 71.)
It’s that very separation from your life that gives this experience value, particularly when that life seems unrelenting in its tragedies.  The optimal experience can be restorative, psychologically and physically.  I hope it was for them.

I appreciate the power of photographs to speak across time, to preserve, reveal, and, in some way, restore life.  In that spirit, I close with another photograph.  This one is of the entire Walcott family, before the Burgess Shale, before death intervened.  Here are husband and wife, and their four children in “Olmstead,” near Provo, Utah, circa 1907.  From left to right, standing, are Sidney, Charles, Jr., Charles, Sr., Helena, and Stuart.  Helen is seated in front.  (The photograph is in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2009-0983.)

1 comment:

  1. i love this story =D

    when i collect minerals and fossils, my family say that's enough! your room is full of rocks :(

    this is so inspiring place
    i hope i'll be there in the Rockies soon <3


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