In search of Deep Time

28 07 2007

In reading Gideon Mantell’s Medals of Creation Vol. I, I happened across this passage, quoted from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which is in turn a translation from a 13th Century Arabic manuscript, describing how difficult it sometimes is to understand that the earth as it is now is something novel, and its history extends far beyond the life of any man, family, or civilzation;

“I passed one day by a very ancient and populous city, and I asked one of its inhabitants how long it had been founded? ‘It is, indeed, a mighty city,’ replied he; ‘we know not how long it has existed, and our ancestors were on this subject as ignorant as ourselves.’ Some centuries afterwards I passed by the same place, but I could not perceive the slightest vestige of the city; and I demanded of a peasant, who was gathering herbs upon its former site, how long it had been destroyed? ‘In sooth, a strange question,’ replied he, ‘the ground here has never been different from what you now behold it.’ ‘Was there not,’ said I, ‘of old a splendid city here?’ ‘Never,’ answered he, ‘so far as we know, and never did our fathers speak to us of any such.’

“On revisting the spot, after the lapse of other centuries, I found the sea in the same place, and on its shores were a party of fishermen, of whom I asked how long the land had been covered by the waters? ‘Is this a question,’ said they, ‘for a man like you? this spot has always been what it is now.’

“I again returned ages afterwards, and the sea had disappeared. I inquired of a man who stood alone upon the ground, how long ago the change had taken place, and he gave me the same answer that I had received before.

“Lastly, on coming back again, after an equal lapse of time, I found there a flourishing city, more populous and more rich in buildings than the city I had seen the first time; and when I fain would have informed myself regarding its origin, the inhabitants answered me, ‘Its rise is lost in remote antiquity – we are ignorant how long it has existed, and our fathers were on this subject no wiser than ourselves.'”

How fortunate are scientists today who recognize that not only have empires risen and fallen, but so have the seas and all manner of extinct creatures. Sometimes when riding on the highways in the southern half of New Jersey, I wonder what it must have been like during the late Cretaceous, my minds eye inserting massive Hadrosaurus browsing on the side of the parkway, a stealthy Dryptosaurus lurking somewhere in the shadows of the pine forest beyond the barrier. Even when working at the Inversand Pit, uncovering marine crocodiles, ratfish, turtles, and mosasaurs, sometimes I stop and imagine myself standing on the bottom of a 100-foot-deep coastal shelf, watching a Mosasaurus maximus or Thoracosaurus (a marine crocodile) swim by. Still, even though I can create this vignettes, if I were to try to think sequentially backwards, hitting every century from now to the beginning of the Triassic, I don’t think I could do it; it is almost to my advantage that there are divisions in the rock that give paleontologists look at parts of time, as a continues record would be very hard to categorize indeed. In fact, many of the major divisions in geological strata are distinguishable because of the change in fauna, and Mantell especially notes this in the Permian/Triassic division in his 1853 book.

Call it childish if you like, but I do find it liberating to let my imagination run wild in Cretaceous New Jersey at times, pondering modes of behvior, colors, and landscapes I’ll never get to see firsthand. Perhaps this is part of the allure of studying ancient vestiges; regardless of how many scientific papers I read or the tentative qualifications I will have to make in future publications, the Mesozoic lives in my head, just as I’m sure that it does in the minds of everyone else who’s acquired an attraction for fossils.


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30 06 2011
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