When I was young, my dad took me on a trek through the mountains of his childhood: a range of unnamed summits above the tiny town of White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. We parked on the side of the road and went straight up the mountain, following deer trails and my dad’s childhood memories of mountaintop seashells.
Earlier that summer, searching for salamanders in a West Virginian stream, I had overturned a large rock and was astonished to find it covered with seashells. I knew something about fossils then and had a vague understanding about the age of the Earth, but finding a 350 million year old slice of an ancient ocean floor on a mountaintop forever changed the way I thought about the world.
Eons ago, those shelled creatures had lived in masses, died in piles and were buried, the sediment sheltering their resting place from both the inexorable wastes of time and violent uplift of the seafloor into the once mighty, now majestic, Appalachian Mountains.
At some point, my rock was broken from its stratum and displaced by water and gravity to that one serendipitous spot where, across all space and time and what I thought fantastic chance – I happened to find it. I was a slight eleven year old and that rock must have weighed half as much as I did, but it was my treasure and I lugged it home, grateful that I lived downhill.
When I showed my dad my fossil rock, it brought back memories from his youth, of finding seashells high in the mountains. A few weeks later, up we went. The climb was grueling, as hard as anything I’d done in my young active life, but I loved it. My muscles ached and my lungs burned and I felt alive and free.
My dad’s memory served him well and we found many rocks full of fossils that day. I filled my backpack and dad carried down several large slabs for me. I remember returning to our car at sunset, feeling like I had discovered one of the Earth’s great secrets: Time is infinite and we are here by fantastic chance. The best we can do, as tiny sparks in the vast vacuum of geologic time, is burn bright and illuminate the world around us.
My love of fossils – and mountains – was not fleeting. I went back many times to West Virginia, to that unnamed place my family came to call Mary’s Mountain and many of the fossil rocks I found there now line the walkways of my mother’s gardens. In college, I studied geology and biology as a self designed Evolution major. When I was 20, I got a Darwin fish tattooed on my wrist. Now 30, every time I look at “Charlie”, I smile.
Last week, my dad and I climbed another mountain on a quest to another ancient seafloor: the Burgess Shale. Paleontologists are a contentious bunch, but most would agree that the Burgess Shale is the single most important fossil quarry in the world. It also happens to lie in one of the most beautiful places on Earth: on a ridge at nearly 8,000 feet, between Mount Wapta and Mount Field in Canada’s Yoho National Park.
To visit the Burgess Shale, you must go with a guide and promise not to take any fossils. We hiked up to the quarry with Hugh, a geologist with the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation and eight other fossil enthusiasts, three of them children, ages 6,7 and 8. The kids were so familiar with the Burgess fossils that when Hugh asked us to go around and introduce ourselves and name our favorite fossil, they each had one in mind: Anomalocaris, Opabina and Marrella. My favorite? Wiwaxia!
The Burgess Shale owes much of its popular fame to a book called Wonderful Life by the eminently eloquent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Published in 1989, the book was a best seller. The title is a reference to the scene in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel replays the tape of life without him, to drastic effect.
Gould argues that if the tape of life on Earth was rewound to the time of the Burgess Shale and played again, the history of the world would unfold completely differently. Catastrophic extinctions, like the meteor impact that took out the dinosaurs and opened the door to the rise of mammals – and eventually us – often come down to pure chance. The moral of the story: we are all here by fantastic fortune.
Even without the famous fossils, the Burgess Shale hike would be a contender for one of my top ten hikes of all time. After a few steep kilometers of switchbacks, the trail passes bright blue Yoho Lake and then emerges on the flank of Mount Wapta, in view of the dramatically glaciated Presidential Range and the jade au lait waters of Emerald Lake, far below.
The hike up to the quarry is a bit more strenuous than Gould’s description of a “pleasant stroll” in Wonderful Life. In fact, by the time Gould hiked the 11 uphill kilometers up to the quarry, he was so exhausted, he insisted his guides hail him a helicopter home. This juicy tidbit was imparted to me by Gee, my guide up Mount Stephen’s, a Burgess-era trilobite bed on a neighboring peak. Gould conveniently left his helicopter descent out of his book.
The hike to the Burgess Shale is a challenge, but for a fossil enthusiast, it’s worth every step. Overturn just a few slabs of shale and you’ll find treasure. Since the quarry’s discovery in 1909, tens of thousands of fossils have been removed from the site, the vast majority stored in drawers at the Smithsonian, and yet there are many more.
The Burgess fossils are small but exquisite, preserving vanishingly fine details of body structure and even last meals: tiny trilobites frozen in stone, deep in the visible guts of larger worm-like predators. As a rule, fossil records are dominated by hard parts: shells, teeth and bones. But the soft-bodied Burgess fossils reveal everything, giving us a unique look into the anatomy and physiology of some of our most ancient ancestors.
The Burgess quarry is famous not just for the sheer number of fossils or their rare and lovely preservation, but also for the window it opens to our past. Multicellular life evolved around 570 million years ago, about 65 million years before the Burgess assemblage, with a bang known as the Cambrian Explosion. Within a short geologic time span of a few million years, the ancestors of virtually all major groups of modern animals appeared on the scene.
The Burgess fossils date to around 505 million years ago, at a time when a vast selection of life forms produced by the Cambrian Explosion were swimming through the ancient seas. And what forms they were! The Burgess animals are bizarre. Despite the fine details preserved in the fossils, in many cases paleontologists are still at a loss to tell tops from bottoms and heads from rear ends. One especially head scratchingly-weird specimen was even formerly named Hallucigenia.
I could have spent days at the quarry. The fossils were prolific, beautiful and fascinating, and every time I looked up from the rocks, I was dazzled anew by the view. But all good things must come to an end and Hugh eventually herded us down the mountain. On the descent, the kids, coming down from their fossil high, turned tired and cranky. At some point, my dad snuck past our guide and disappeared ahead of the group down the trail.
A few switchbacks later, my patience with the kids wearing thin, I asked Hugh if I could run ahead and catch up with my dad. “If he beats me off this mountain, I’ll never hear the end of it,” I said. With a smile, he let me go. I ran down the trail, feeling light as a child, delighted to be alone for a few minutes on the mountain.
Downhill is one of my specialties. On the steepest, loosest slopes, I fly, trusting in my mountain legs to catch me. I didn’t want to beat my old man off the mountain; I wanted to walk with him. I caught him near the bottom and we returned to the tiny town of Field together, matching stride for stride, no fossils in hand but as triumphant as we had been at the base of Mary’s Mountain.