[The picture heading this website is one I took whilst visiting Charmouth beach, Dorset, England].
BEHIND EVERY PICTURE
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to visit Dorset in the south of England, and more specifically the area known as the Jurassic Coast - famous for its geology, and the fossil remains of sea creatures from the Jurassic seas of up to 180 million years ago. (I don't know about you, but whenever I read about 'prehistoric history', my brain does a somersault in its attempt to understand this oxymoron. In attempting to put this into some kind of context, us humans have been around 'only' one million years!)
The Jurassic Coast is a world heritage site which stretches 95 miles from Swanage to Exmouth. The clay, shale, and limestone cliffs continually crumble onto the beach below, releasing the amazing fossils. This is particularly evident in the coast around Lyme Regis. How incredible then that these fossils are seeing the first light of day in 180 million years! And how wonderful that anyone can stroll along the beaches and with a little patience, uncover this vast period of history for themselves.
Getting back to Charmouth beach that late afternoon, it was immediately apparent that this fossil hunting was something to be taken very seriously. Everyone looked so confident! 'Striding along the beach in their wellington boots, carrying their large buckets. I felt like quite an amateur, with only had my pocket to store any finds. Perhaps I too could be promoted next time to having a bucket! And then there were those who were had geological hammers! Wow, they must be good at this, I thought. They obviously know what they're looking for.
There were whole families involved - and why not! The younger ones excitedly scrambling up the cliffs before bringing pebbles, rocks, and clay back down to their parents. Typically dad was the one with the hammer - sitting with legs astride striking the latest offering with great gusto.
It was all very impressive; that is, apart from one thing. On looking closer, I realised that there were very few fossils actually being released. Peering into buckets as I passed, I saw drift wood, attractive pebbles, and coloured glass - yes. But anything resembling a fossil? Well not really.
I then had an amusing thought. We all know how appearances can be deceptive. I found myself wondering how many of the vast numbers of fossil hunters on the beach actually knew what they were looking for? More to the point, even if they did know what they wanted - were they looking in the right place? Perhaps they were all as clueless as I felt?!
"Why study the ancient past? Because it gives us perspective and humility. There are an infinite number of histories that we could've had. We only get one, and wow, did we ever get a good one."
Kenneth Lacovara PhD. World renowned palaeontologist, who has unearthed some of the largest dinosaurs ever to walk the planet. View his TED talk here.
As we later found out thanks to Stuart, the fossil warden - the best place to find fossils (ammonites) was at the water's edge, as this is where the waves wash up the fossils that have broken away from the cliffs and that have been naturally eroded by the sea. He showed us some samples - which he kept in his pocket! Grey pebbles, with traces of white on the outside, indicating the fossil inside.
And he was right - we did indeed find some fossils of our own at the water's edge!
But as exciting as this was - realising how these fossils came ultimately from the same source as the stuff you and me are made of? Now how exciting is that?!
Looking out across the vastness of the sea, the sun getting ready to set once more behind the horizon, I was reminded of how our experience of life 'works'; it's infinite wisdom of mind lying beyond the boundaries of personal thought. In those moments when any notion of personal thought drops back into the formless universal mind - we catch a glimpse of our 'prehistory'. And with that, we're able to sense with grace and humility, our true place in this wonder we call life.