“…and now for something completely different!” Ironically, this entry was discovered during an adventure in “garage archeology” where layers of debris were being removed to expose the “ancient” treasures hidden beneath. A single piece of paper was found buried beneath a pile of 5 1/4 inch floppies that had titles such as CS-101 and EE-315, remnants of school attendance at Wright State University. Nancy was attending that school back in 1991 in pursuit of a degree in Electrical Engineering. She eventually earned that degree but one of her most enjoyable classes was one in which she went on a field trip looking for fossils. On that paper printed on a dot-matrix printer, was a well written report about that field trip. Her teacher felt it was good enough for publication. So do I…
By Nancy Lacey
July 13, 1991
Saturday, July 13, 1991, and the day breaks as any ordinary day. Not completely ordinary, however, as today I’m to start on a new adventure. Just what this adventure involves I have yet to learn – for now I only know I’ll be exploring rocks and fossils and Earth history. No small insignificant adventure, this. It promises a glimpse of life as it unfolded on this fragile and resilient orb we call Earth. Indeed, it is a porthole into the shaping of the Earth itself, and the life-supporting structure we so often take for granted. I am eager to begin.
I learn from our tour guide that today’s adventure is to take my fellow time travelers and me back in time by some 445 million years. After a brief over-view of the day’s (millennium’s?) events, we’ll board a time travel machine that looks remarkably like a common garden variety van, and begin a fascinating journey to the Ordovician Period of Earth history. A time long before life began to take root and flourish on land – when life itself was comparatively new and exploding with diversity it its watery world.
We board our magic carpet, and I feel a vague uneasiness as I watch tens of thousands of years go rolling backwards. Am I qualified to make such a journey? Will my untrained eyes know what I’m seeing? I am assured that the only requirements for this incredible sojourn are a willingness to see without eyes, and think with open mind. As the crazily spinning time dial begins to slow at an astonish 440+ million years in the past, I take a deep breath and step out into a hauntingly familiar yet beautifully eerie and alien world.
No longer standing on firm Ohio soil, I find myself drifting in a wonderfully warm clear sea, surrounded on all sides by an abundance and diversity of aquatic life I could not even have imagined just moments before. The sea floor is literally carpeted with the bodies, both alive and dead, of brachiopods, bryozoans, clams, trilobites, and sea lilies. I hold in my hand the hard, lifeless, fossilized body of a crinoid – beautiful in its starkly carved death moment. As I gaze out at the wondrous scene before me I’m amazed to see the lovely, colorful form of a living sea lily swaying gently in the slight current of the sea, arms gracefully arching back and forth in a breathtaking ballet of life as it filters food from the water passing over it.
I know from the guide book that I’m standing in a relatively shallow portion of this continent-encompassing tropical sea. I see evidence all around me of the life that lived, flourished, and died in these idyllic waters. There is also evidence of the changing surface of the already ancient planet, as mighty mountains to the east struggle toward their long and violent birth. The bodies of all these bottom-dwelling creatures jumble and shift together, slowly calcifying into the limestone I hold in my hand today.
There will be other, more turbulent periods for the life in this sea, as the water floods and drains in a rhythm predetermined by the push and pull of the massive continents shifting about on the face of the planet. Here in the Wayne rock formation, the limestone is relatively unbroken, and the creatures I see before me settle peacefully in death to the sea floor to calcify in a relatively whole state. Later, in the turbulent shallower seas of the Arnhem formation, the sea bed around me is constantly churned by waves and tides, the animals there washed to and fro, breaking the lifeless bodies into pieces and depositing them in a heap on the sea bed.
As we move on a little farther into the future, I find myself in deeper, calmer water – still warm, but much murkier that before. I am to learn that by far, life here thrived in just these conditions as the new rugged Appalachians sent rivers and streams of silt and clay particles into this sea to settle like a blanket on all that inhabited it. The peacefulness of the scene is nearly overwhelming, as animals die and drift slowly to the sea floor to be buried into layers of shale. Here truly the press of time can be felt, as thousands of years pass until the next big upheaval causes the seas to recede and life again to become turbulent and jumbled for Earth’s only inhabitants.
At last our time-travel machine takes us forward to the edge of the Silurian Period of Earth history. We have passed through increasingly shallow seas, witnessed not only by ripples of waves fossilized in the sea bed, but by increasing layers of jumbled, wavy limestone and decreasing periods of slate and sediment buildup. The seas begin to recede before my eyes as we enter the last of the Drakes formation. Here the scene goes dark, and time seems to wrinkle as we jump from the Drakes formation to the Silurian Brassfield formation. Eleven million years vanish without a trace. For now, the land is king and the sea waits patiently to return, bringing with it a great surge of marine life.
As we journey homeward, I think about the millions of years of life I witnessed today, and the sheer vastness of it is nearly overwhelming. Mankind’s reign on Earth is little more than a blink in comparison. Yet, how easy it is for us to take for granted all that has come before us, or dismiss it as insignificant or unimportant. In her great revolving evolution, Mother Earth has added each millennium to the previous one to provide us our very life support. How frightening to think that what took the patient building of billions of years could be completely destroyed with the callous flip of a collective million hands.
I review the record of life I saw played out before me today, and I’m left with a haunting thought – what story will mankind reveal 500 million years from now? Will our legacy of wanton abuse of precious Earth resources leave its mark, or will our record be wiped clean like the missing 11 million years following the Drake formation? One thing seems very clear to me after today – even as Earth shifts and moves beneath our feet, and mountains erode and wash into the sea to form massive fossil deposits, and entire species are born, flourish, and die, the great ebb and flow of life will continue. With or without us, it will continue.