I have never cared much for geology. enthusiasts say the pleasure derives from its slow motion: Shifts occur, sediments accrete over eons, static landscapes conceal dynamic lives. Time itself allegedly expands in a Proustian way and becomes "deep time."
I have enough trouble getting through Proust. Books about rocks likewise fail to stir me. The sole exception is A Land, an intimate and eloquent history of Britain's human landscape and its geological underpinnings by the late archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes. Alas, the others capture little of geology beyond its glacial pace. Woe to the writer whose attention turns to stones.
Recently, however, I had a reading experience I can only describe as metamorphic. For years now I've been writing a book of my own. In an attempt to actually, finally complete it, I escaped New York City for several weeks and hid out in Cape Breton, at the far northern end of Nova Scotia. The community there is a hardened one— the vassal and, ultimately, victim of geology. For decades the main industry was coal, drawn from seams that underlie much of the region. But the mines began to close in the 1960s, coughing bent, broken men back to the surface. Folks get by today on the graces of tourism and government assistance.
Coal, as any mining museum in Cape Breton will tell you (and there are several now), is the dark fruit of ancient garden beds, the carbonized remains of swampy jungles that covered much of the Earth 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period. Generations of trees, ferns, and gargantuan reeds grew and fell before being submerged and then gradually buried under successive layers of sediment, like botanical specimens flattened between the pages of a book. Chemical changes reduced some layers to true fossil beds, others to coal. The cliffs of northern Nova Scotia are internationally renowned for their fossil contents. In Joggins, a forlorn town on the Bay of Fundy, entire trunks of fossilized trees--indeed, whole cemeteries of stony forests--emerge from the bluffs and fall in pieces to the beach below. At low tide, visitors prowl the mudflats in search of sunken fossils and scavenge the shoreline jumble, rock hammers in hand.
I stopped at Joggins on my drive up to Cape Breton. After several hours wandering on the beach, I'd gathered several pounds of seemingly matchless fossils: signatures of ancient grasses, the talon imprint of some dinosaur, intriguing whorls of indeterminate origin. I lugged them to the interpretative center, a small brown house on the town's single street. The center had a collection, too, gathered over years by local experts. Tiny claw prints of lizards. Articulated silhouettes of insect wings. Whole root systems of trees. In comparison, in an instant, my collection seemed pathetic, even, I began to suspect, illegitimate. The center's guide, a high-school senior and the granddaughter of the curator, offered to identify what I'd found. The conclusions of her microscope were brutal: My fossils merely looked like fossils. "They're just rocks," she said gently.
Things improved a few days later. The house I'd rented was set back from a low bluff overlooking the sea. In the face of the cliff I recognized the same sedimentary features I'd seen at Joggins: pancake layers of geological strata, dark traces of coal, a scree of fallen rocks on the shoreline below. At low tide I went down and poked around. The rocks were of sandstone, siltstone, and shale: thin layers of sediment, each layer representing a year, or 10, or 100--I had no idea--welded by time into varying degrees of solidity. With care, and the can opener on my jackknife, I found I could pry the layers apart. Inside were the fossils I'd sought: stems, leaves, roots, their textures finely etched on pages of stone.