Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Very Basic Equipment

Jasper Burns (Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States) asserts that fossil hunting isn’t more popular because the basic equipment needs are so minimal that there’s no commercial push behind the activity. He may be wrong on the popularity – from the number of people I run into on my hunts and in online discussions, I think it’s plenty popular – but he’s right about the basic equipment needed to pursue the elusive fossil. Pretty much next to nothing. Bretton W. Kent (Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region) says that all that’s really needed to search for shark teeth on the beach is a pair of good boots, a container to store the treasures, and tissue paper for protecting the fragile finds. He and Burns do have a bit more extensive list of what would help in the search, particularly if the activity is not just cherry picking teeth on a beach. As the hunter gets further onto dry land, the list includes things like chisels and a hammer, glue (to patch those broken fossils together in the field), and band aids (to try and hold that cut finger together after shards of slate and wayward hammer blows inflict their damage).

Back to footwear for a moment. As one whose feet balk at being encased by most hiking boots out there, I put good footwear way up on the priority list. There’s a great homage to a recently deceased pair of hiking boots on the paleochick blog (link here). Most of my hunting is done on beaches and in streams so the primary boots on my list are waders and hip boots. My steel-toed boots are for the dry land adventures, particularly in mines, and finding a good pair that will allow me to live in them for 8, 12 hours, or more is a miracle. One key to success in the boot area are great socks.

Despite the notion that the equipment needs are minimal, I and others who hunt on beaches and in streams go to great lengths in acquiring or building wooden framed screens to sieve stream gravel, sticking screen on the end of potato rakes to drag through sand, wiring all manner of kitchen colanders to the end of long poles, ad nauseam. It’s a bit competitive. We comment, sometimes out loud, about the contraptions that others bring in search of fossils, asserting that this weird tool or that ungainly item is useless or priceless.

Still, after all of the acquiring of tools of the trade and the building of that apparatus that I think will result in great discoveries, I am increasingly convinced that the most essential, most fundamental piece of equipment necessary in this endeavor is the set of eyes I bring to it. And, to be precise, it’s not the eyes, it’s the eyes trained by the mental image of the fossilized objective of my search. This whole enterprise succeeds or fails almost entirely on insight – what I see on the margins of the image that my eyes transmit to my brain or what my eyes and brain do to the obscured fragment that is capturing the light. Is my mental image powerful enough to complete that fragment and guide my hands to the tooth whose distal root lobe is all that’s visible? Is that curving line that’s barely visible in the sand part of a water worn stone or the graceful swoop of a dolphin’s tympanic bulla (one of the ear bones – a thing of great beauty)? Am I really seeing what my screen holds? Whether I reach for and discover that fossil will depend upon how that mental image guides me.

(Of course, as with all things in life, I wont succeed if I’m in the wrong place. So, I add some geological maps to that quiver of fossil hunting arrows.)

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