Small Shelly Fossils

“I found one!” Wolfie shouted, happy to grab the center of attention. He held his hand under my nose, revealing a reddish-brown stone barely the size of a computer chip. Etched delicately within its surface was the unmistakable contour of a clamshell about the size of Wolfie’s fingernail.


The shale protruding from the hillside was only a few feet across, but as the children and I scraped through the broken bits on the path, we found dozens of mineralized fossils. Most, like Wolfie’s, were shards of tiny clam shells, but we had found several that were fairly large (a lima bean) and complete. We had also found the engraved spiral of a snail shell, and a few mysterious images we couldn’t readily identify. Pitched on the side of a steep hill, over 7,000 feet in elevation, and within a vast desert many hundreds of miles across, Wolfie held in his hand a tiny remnant of an ancient sea.


“Is this one?” Advah asked, standing upright at my side. Shy at first, she had been dawdling in the shrubs nearby as the other kids plunged to their hands and knees to find the first fossil. Pema had found one quickly, then another, and another. “Hey, no fair,” complained Wolfie, who was eager to catch up. Fortunately, Silke had the foresight on the hike up to establish that all the fossils would be put in a bag, regardless of who found what, so that each child could take home at least one. “Here’s one,” Autumn said dryly, placing it in the bag. Solid as a rock, matter of fact as stone, she doesn’t need much acknowledgement. “Hey, here’s another one!” Wolfie shouted, holding it up for everyone to see. Ruby, who sprawled lazily on the ground in front of me as if drugged by some soporific, found a fossil and handed it to me as if it were all she could do to raise her arm above her head.


Within a matter of minutes, most of the children had found at least one. Some, like Wolfie and Pema, had found half a dozen. But Little Bear and Advah were still struggling. So when I turned to look at Advah’s open hand and replied, “That is definitely one,” she smiled. Now part of the gang, she returned to her dawdle.


“Teee-cher,” Little Bear whined. She sat on the pile of stones opposite me, nearest Silke, to whom she directed her lament. Little Bear, though only six, has a way of looking right through you with the sort of skepticism one would expect of a teenager. One burns under her gaze, and she’s not shy about it. Given a simple task - like finding a fossil in a pile of rocks that evidently had thousands of them - she will refuse to do it, or even to look at them. Scraping her hand noncommittally over the shattered stones, without looking down, she complained, “I can’t find one.”


“Little Bear,” I said, looking her in the face, “you’re not even trying.” She smiled a guilty smile, preferring the intellectual gamesmanship of a test of wills. I rolled my eyes and turned back to my task. Little Bear. Geeze Louise. Pain in the butt. Still, I admire her. I don’t like people telling me what to do either.




There are thousands of shale beds like this all over the world, evidence not only of a life that predates our modern ecologies, but a complete rearrangement of the oceans and continents. Around 540 million years ago, a relatively short, but unparalleled biological event took place and quickly spread over the earth. Referred to as the Cambrian explosion, prior to this life on earth had consisted solely of single-celled organisms, like bacteria. Tiny and austere, almost invisible, it had been that way for billions of years. The small fossils we were discovering were the remains, or, what’s more likely, the ancestors of that sudden proliferation of life into a diversity of multicellular organisms that, to our modern eyes, finally begin to resemble animals. During the Cambrian period, the basic construct of every type of creature was born, including echinoderms (sea stars and cucumbers), arthropods (insects and crabs), and chordates (vertebrates like fish, reptiles and humans). But it’s the mollusks, like the clams and snails we were finding, that we tend to recognize in fossil beds, because of their hard shells. Often called “small shelly fossils,” the mineralized remains of these proto-creatures can be found all over the world, though the creatures buried in the bed of fossils in which we dug may have been decidedly younger, perhaps as recent as seventy-million years ago, when New Mexico was last covered by a vast inland sea.




“Okay children,” Silke said in her we’re-about-to-do-something voice. “Who wants to go to the waterfall?” I looked up from the pile of rocks I had been scanning and caught her gaze. Autumn and Advah were eager to go, as was Little Bear. Ruby sat up. “Those of you who wish to stay can keep looking for fossils with Papa Joe,” Silke said as she began to rise. It was no surprise that Pema and Wolfie, who had been the most engaged, decided to stay.


“I found one!” Wolfie shouted as the others climbed down the embankment. Each new discovery elicited the same proud exclamation. He reached his hand into the bag, which now held dozens of tiny fossils, and plunked it inside. Pema, a little more discrete, but with a big smile on her face, added another. At this point, I was only picking up the really good ones.




Four days later, I was walking with Pema and Silke in even higher mountain terrain, some twenty miles or so from the bed of shale we explored with the kids. It was Father’s Day and we had, per my little ritual, gone to an isolated grove of wild roses to pick their delicate pink petals. There is about a two week window where the blooms cover a large stretch of the mountain, which just happens to take place over Father’s Day. The air, perfumed by millions of simple five-petal roses, is intoxicating. Just walking there is pleasant enough, but Pema and I have experimented with making rose water, which we bottle into little blue glass bottles and top with spritzers. By collecting a gallon or so of petals, uncountable thousands of fragrant, delicate blooms, we can make enough rose water to give to friends and keep a few for ourselves. Pema enjoys spraying the little bottles, as do I, and all year long we have the odor-induced memory of a Father’s Day spent idly wandering the fragrant mountain.


Having collected a couple Tupperware containers full of petals, we were descending the mountain on our way down to a shady patch of aspens surrounding the stream below when a small rock happened to catch my eye. In the shadow of a much larger stone, tucked under a sprig of grass, the rock was about the size of a half-eaten pancake, whitish-gray in color, with a dappled pattern of black spots. I have seen thousands of such rocks - in canyons, rivers and mountain tops - and this one did not strike me as particularly remarkable. For goodness sake, I told myself, mildly exasperated with my proclivity to pick up things I don’t need, what is it with the rocks? But that momentary hesitation was enough to cause me to bend down.


I know this gesture, and this inner conversation, intimately. Even as I reached my hand out, I was ready to discard it. Then again, maybe Pema would enjoy holding it for a bit as we walked down the hillside. Whatever impelled me, I managed to get all the way down, sidelong the large stone, under the sprig of grass, and pluck the small rock off the earth. It took no effort. No part was half-submerged under the dirt. I didn’t have to pull or dig. As I stood back up, raising the rock to my eye, I unconsciously wiped off a thin film of dust with my thumb, feeling the grit slide off its surface.


Even before I got the rock into my prime focal distance, I could see - and feel - that the black spots were not spots at all, but holes. Dozens of them. As my hand crossed my waistline, I began to identify another, subtler pattern, unrelated to the holes, of concentric stripes. And in fact, the rock appeared bluish, not gray, with a creamy-orange color that fell along the contours of the stripes. Well, I thought, still not quite recognizing it fully, this one appeared to be worth the effort.


“Hey Pema, check this out.” The words formed in my mind, but the final execution was interrupted as I turned the misshapen rock over in my hands and recognized, with a little incredulity, the rounded clasp, or umbo, at the hinge side of a clamshell. I held a fossil.


I turned the rock over several more times, trying to clear my head of such a preposterous conclusion - I have been in these mountains hundreds of times; I know hundreds of other folks who walk here; no one, to my knowledge, has ever reported a single fossilized anything; the location on which I stood was unremarkable in almost every way, with no other indications of fossilized material, nor even the types of rocks that contain fossils, or, for that matter, any other rocks like the one I held. Still, by the time Silke caught up to me, asking, “What did you find?” - a mere handful of seconds after it first caught my eye - there was no question that this was a clamshell. It was a fossil unlike any I had ever seen.


I shook my head. Of all the rocks, of all the places? There was nothing really remarkable in the way it had appeared, under the shade of the stone, under the sprig of grass. I recalled my hesitation. It was just a rock. I could have easily ignored it and been another twenty feet down the path. No one would have noticed. Not even me. Why me? Why now?


In my bag, which hung loosely from my shoulder, thousands of delicate, pink petals oozed an intoxicating atmosphere that surrounded me as I stood there. Even my fingers, as I held the mineralized shell to my eyes, brought that pleasant fragrance to my nose.




“But can I just see it?” Wolfie pleaded. He was nearly on the verge of tears. Autumn and Advah, having retreated to the waterfall, had been playing together for twenty or thirty minutes. It was hard to tell precisely what they were up to, but they each appeared to have something, whether real or pretend, wrapped up in layer upon layer of leaves they had stripped from the trees and shrubs under the waterfall. Behind the waterfall, which slapped constantly into the pool of water at our feet, was a large cave strangely reminiscent of an immense open clamshell, in which I now sat. Silke had retreated back up the hill with Pema and Ruby, she and I having switched places, so that I was now down by the waterfall with Autumn, Advah, Wolfie and Little Bear. Little Bear variously kept to herself, per her norm, or came up to me with open arms and, through clenched teeth, issued her characteristic, “eesh,” by which she meant she wanted me to pick her up.


Wolfie, having just joined us, immediately wanted to know what Autumn and Advah were up to, prompting Autumn and Advah, who had already been playing an insular, secretive game, to establish their boundaries clearly. Whatever they held, it was not for Wolfie. Unable to escape that temptation, Wolfie began to stew with longing.


Wolfie trusts me, but he doesn’t look to me like a father figure. In other words, he doesn’t expect me to win his battles for him. But he was so distraught over the game Advah and Autumn were playing , that he finally broke down and, within earshot of me, started to cry. “They won’t let me see it,” he said in plaintive tones, real tears forming in his eyes. He so eagerly wanted to see it, to know what it was, that it was real. His mind could not let go.


I’m sympathetic to any child’s sense of exclusion, but there was nothing really wrong here. I don’t think everyone needs to play with everyone, at least not at any given time. It was perfectly fine for Autumn and Advah to retreat into their own space for a little while. And I believe requests for sharing are often veiled demands to simply take something for one’s own. So I looked at Wolfie sympathetically, knowing his anguish was real, but I wasn’t about to solve the problem for him.


“Wolfie,” I said, “it’s okay for the girls to play by themselves for a bit. It’s not their responsibility to show you everything.” Then, as a courtesy, I turned to Advah and Autumn, “But hey, girls, there’s no reason to make a big deal of your secret either. Don’t entice Wolfie, okay?”


Wolfie did his best to move on, running off to Little Bear, who was up the other side of the hill, but he never completely forgot. A little later, as we gathered together to head back down for lunch, Wolfie was still plying for a look at the sacred bundle, while the girls, fancying their power over him, played up the secret. It had grown into a fairly complex behavior, and even Silke, who was hip at this point, was having trouble unknitting the social fabric.


We moved on. Down the hill, we walked past the cairns and rock totems we had built along the way up, saying hello to them, our “guardians”, the climbing trees, the “old man’s beard” (lichen) hanging from tree branches. The change of scenery helped, but the power of the secret never completely went away.




Pema and Silke were impressed with the little fossil I had found, but they weren’t as mystified as I was. As we walked down to the stream, Pema asked to hold it. I resisted for a second, not quite ready to part with my secret, then I thought better of it. “I just want to put it in the water,” Pema said. “Okay,” I replied, “but don’t let it go.”


What is it about novelty that is so enticing? Or, better yet, what is it about possession that is so intoxicating?


I had just spent the morning picking roses with my daughter, pretty much the best way to celebrate Father’s Day I could imagine. Why had I, just then, found this fossil? I had walked this path countless times before. It stymied me. I was having a hard time getting past it. Surely it was just an accident, but the incredible unlikelihood of the find pressed into my mind. It just didn’t make sense. Was something magical afoot?


Pffft. I don’t believe in magic.




By the time we got down the hill, Wolfie was crying and pouting uncontrollably.  He wanted so badly to see, to understand. It occupied him so completely that he could hardly focus. Silke had separated the kids into a precise order, to minimize the effect on all of us, but it hardly made a difference. Everyone was suffering from the tension. We were walking in a spectacular forest, filled with birdsong and the buzz of cicadas, but we hardly noticed. I tried to soothe Wolfie, but the girls hadn’t done anything wrong. Wolfie was going to have to live through this.




Before the Cambrian explosion, the only easily identifiable evidence of life were colonies of bacteria, like stromatolites. Pools of bacteria that grew in shallow seas, stromatolites resemble the similarly named stalagmites, the mounds of stone that “grow” from the floors of caves. Over millions and millions of years, these small pools of bacteria collected bits of dirt which eventually calcified into layers of rock, slowly building up into towers that can still be seen today. The bacteria themselves are gone, but the towers stand as evidence of some of the earliest life forms known to have existed. One can still find living stromatolites though, but they are not as plentiful as they once were.


For billions of years, this was the primary force of life on earth - tiny little bacteria digesting sunlight and other substances, giving off tiny puffs of gasses like oxygen. Eventually, these tiny creatures synthesized the entire atmosphere, which had, till then, been largely been comprised of volatile volcanic gasses, like hydrogen sulfide and methane, and massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Untold quadrillions of little bacteria, living for billions of years, made it possible for animals, including you and I, to live and breathe.




After lunch, the kids and I were playing by the riverbed. Silke was the Mama, I was the Papa, and the kids clamored back and forth on various errands involving mud, sticks and leaves. Advah, in a moment of mercy, had finally showed Wolfie the small fossil she had wrapped in her layers of leaves, and harmony was reestablished. It was a good fossil, but not unlike the dozens we already had in our bag, many of which Wolfie himself had found. Satisfied, Wolfie forgot about it instantly.




I mostly think that the fossil I found on Father’s Day must have been dropped there by a child or adult years ago, or perhaps even recently. Finding it is still special, but, like an arrowhead, it’s more a sign of humanity than geology. After all, it was right along the path and is unlike any stone elsewhere on the mountain. It was so out of place, so conspicuous and yet hidden, that I can’t quite imagine how else it got there. Still, I’m intrigued. It is much larger, maybe ten or even a hundred times the size of the ones we found near the waterfall, blue with orange highlights. Tiny impressions cover it, even forming a dime-sized hexagonal matrix near the umbo, or hinge, that resembles a wasp’s nest. There is part of me that wants it to be magic. A secret just for me.