Sunday, December 21, 2008

Suspension of Disbelief

Hiking down the root-punctuated path, a faint corridor through a sprawling woods of maples, tulip poplars, and oaks, it is easy to believe that I am being stalked. The feeling is vivid, real. The product of too much television, too many movies. A switch to "subjective camera" (a la the movie Lady in the Lake) and it's all being seen through the eyes of someone breathing heavily and watching through bushes as our intrepid fossil hunter stumbles over a tree root. Yes, this is all too easily believed, and my heart races a bit until a deep breath calms my run-away imagination. I actually mumble out loud, "This is Deliverance." What gives? Here I am citing a movie I've never seen, but this metaphor probably captures for a majority of Americans the fear of being stalked in the wilderness.

How easily we believe some things (at least, react as if they might be real) and how difficult we find it to believe others. For instance, had I been in this place and transported 60 million years into the past, I would be underwater, in a warm sea, drowning and probably being eyed by a mackerel shark, an Otodus obliquus. Now, that proves a challenge to my ability to suspend disbelief. My eyes don't lie. I am walking on solid ground where trees grow 40 feet or more into the sky, blue jays mark my passage, and myriad squirrels set the underbrush crackling. This could never have been under water. Yet, it is true that in the mid to late Paleocene, the Salisbury Embayment, a basin of the Atlantic Ocean, covered this part of the Potomac shore line. These were waters crowded with bony fish and dominated by predator sharks. There were no mammals, no whales, no dolphins, . . . yet. (Well, except for me as I complete the process of drowning.)

As I reach the shoreline and begin my trek along the beach in search of the fossilized remains of creatures that swam these waters so long ago, I find it becomes easier to suspend my disbelief and glimpse that world long dead. Dead, well, perhaps not. The interaction I begin to have with that world slowly comes to seem all too real, all too alive. That world reaches out, pokes through the veils of time, telling me and anyone else who cares to be open to it, that multitudes of lives were lived and lost right where I stand, above me, around me, below me. Of course, it becomes so much easier when the fossils begin to appear. It takes a moment for my eye to acquire the "search image" that makes the teeth emerge, as with this sand tiger (a Carcharias sp. -- the "sp." indicates that I have been unable to identify, or too lazy to identify, the species for this tooth).

When I scan the cliff side in front of me I see the layers of sediment that have been laid down over millions of years, as the Salisbury Embayment ebbed and flowed over this area. The fossils littering the beach and embedded in the cliff side are coming from the Aquia Formation. And in those layers, fossils of invertebrates -- gastropods, snail-like creatures -- stand out.

Over time, I am finding it easier to believe what this world was like in the distant past. It is a developing understanding that uses my imagination as a tool, a way to enhance my ability to see that world. Still, as I walk through the woods alone . . . .

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