Superior, Arizona, just a couple of miles east of the BTA, sits at the base of a geological formation known locally as Apache Leap. The cliffs of the Leap are composed of a dark volcanic tuff squeezed from the earth’s bowels around 25 million years ago. In the hills beneath the cliffs, one sees layered bands of gray sedimentary rock – once a seabed but now faulted limestone – having originated during the Carboniferous Period. In this limestone, one finds the remnants of organisms that populated the ancient seas – mostly brachiopods, bivalves, and crinoids.
My partner Lori and I hiked up to study a few of those limestone outcroppings. We found a slab about 30’ long and 8’ high, composed mostly of a dense conglomeration of fossilized shells. We walked along that wall, brushing our hands thoughtfully across a solidified expanse of time.
For me, fossils demand some reflection. Their antiquity – 300 million years in the case of these shells – is enough to warrant a few minutes of awe-struck wonder. When these marine creatures were alive, there were dense forests of trees and ferns that eventually became the coal deposits on which much of industrialized mankind depend. There were also insects back then, and fish, and millipedes six feet long. These bivalves and brachiopods were also alive when the most “advanced” land animal was a type of amphibian. Even if the bivalves had had our consciousness (which, of course, they did not), they could still not have imagined that their forms would be covered in mud, replaced by minerals, buried beneath the roiling earth, and then pushed back up and uncovered, only to be marveled over by a species of primate. Beside this cracked gray monolith of shells, I was reminded of the Zen koan, “What was your face before your parents were born?”
There is a twisting string that goes back, long before these marine animals existed, connecting us all by chemical alignments allowing seemingly infinite variation. This three and a half billion-year-old string has frayed, with minute strands bending in different directions and many strands being cut entirely by catastrophic events, but here we are, barely standing, with binocular vision and swiveling heads and brains containing 86 billion neurons, studying a wide and uneven terrain. I touched the ancient fossil shells and realized I was also touching a part of a shared lineage to all living things. I was, in a sense, seeing my original face.
Wistfully I wondered: How can the abstract and poetic latitudes of our thoughts ever be preserved in the turbulent pressures of time? I don’t think papyrus or a thumb drive will last as long as these shell fragments. My consolation was that, momentarily, for whatever it was worth, I could ease myself against a relic of earth’s biological and geological magnitude and not feel intimidated.
- T. Stone