Friday, March 26, 2010

Death Of A Fossil Collection

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped in the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft.

~ from the poem Home Is So Sad
by Philip Larkin

We walked through the living room where the pictures still hung and bookshelves were full. The mail was tossed onto a coffee table. Only a box or two were signs of the dismantling of two lives that had been taking place throughout much of the rest of the house for the past several weeks. This house was beyond that initial moment of bereavement, no longer a home “shaped in the comfort of the last to go.” On this gray day in March, the house was cold.

We climbed the stairs to a gray room. It had been a front bedroom or maybe an office, impossible to tell absent any furniture and with the jumble of boxes and the myriad lumps wrapped in tissue or newspaper randomly strewn across the floor. Now, it was yet another temporary resting place for the final remains of a husband and wife’s fossil and mineral collection. Maybe mineral had deserved top billing at one time, but not now. Rockhounds had already drilled through the collection, leaving mostly fossils. And even those had lost brethren. Reportedly, the Smithsonian had been offered, and taken, some of the prizes in this collection that had been built over decades as the couple traveled the world. Other amateur paleontologists had been through it as well. So, the death knell had sounded, and we were here with a mission, move these remains out of the house and do with them what seemed most appropriate. So sad.

I sat on the floor and began unwrapping. Triage. A cataloguing of final destinations. Curiously exciting because there wasn’t any direction to the exploration, no structure, no certainty of what would be found. It was so unlike a fossil hunting trip where the formation and possibilities are known, as are the improbabilities and the impossibilities. None of that here. Rather, a Jurassic stemless crinoid, spread across a slab of rock like an open armed spiral galaxy, was followed by a bag of worn Miocene fossil shark teeth with sand sprinkled throughout, which in turn gave way to a well-armored Devonian trilobite as fierce today as then. We seemed to be in a giant version of that drawer in the bureau that is a basin of attraction for all of miscellany left over in your pockets at day’s end.

Worse, labels had become detached or were missing. I could tell from those I found that this couple had taken their custody of fossils seriously. For many, they had carefully typed on slips of paper the genus and species of their specimens, and, often, the order and family (ironic in this house with this debris). They’d included the location where the fossils had been found and, usually, the geological formation, too. These they’d slipped into plastic bags with the specimens (too often these bags were not sealed) or affixed them to fossils (with glue that dried, cracked, gave way). Time and rummaging hands had created chaos. So sad.

Days later, for the several items that, after all of the divisions, had become mine, I prepared new labels, a few of which noted “unknown location,” and modified some of the old ones, so that all of them now specified from whose collection the fossils had come. Somehow that seemed only right. It’s what I would hope might happen when my collection is cast to the winds, that some of the orphans will come to carry a name tag mentioning whose hands had dug them out or caught them in the wash on some shore.

But, maybe, it’s not all so sad. There’s still some power in these last few remnants of a collection. For me, at this moment, that power is preserved in those original labels.

I considered them. I tried to translate the scribbled notation running perpendicular to the typing on one, wondering whether the handwriting was his or hers. The labels were a trace of past lives, much like the fossils they attempted to identify. I studied one, really looking at the typing, seeing that “o” and those “e”s in “Eocene,” those dirty letters, literally, the empty spaces in the letters a smear of gray.

And my image of the collectors changed. I saw my grandfather. No, he was not a collector, but he was a typer (you know what I mean). I still have notes he wrote on that manual typewriter of his that rose mysteriously from the bowels of a massive desk when a section of the desktop was lifted up. Whether true or not, my memory is that the keys on his typewriter invariably struck muddy imprints of those and other letters. It feels good to think of him. (I also guess I am a member of the last generation that will remember the dirty letters of printed text.)

And, there’s more to these labels than just these personal memories.

The orphans from that collection have tried to cheer me up with humor and some learning about new places. Like Chunky, Mississippi. Savor that name.

A web journey to Chunky intending to discover its connection to shark teeth skipped me to Meridian and then further east, across the state line into Alabama, to the Shark Tooth Creek where fossil teeth from Cretaceous sharks leach out of the Mooreville Chalk. On one website with a video of families walking the creek in search of shark teeth, someone has posted a comment. In this day and age, I have to assume he or she was serious, something that should have made me sadder, but, instead, made me laugh all the harder. The comment read:

A shark living in a creek? No wonder they became extinct.

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