26 July 2009

The numberless goings-on of life, inaudible as dreams

I imagine standing upon a Cambrian shore in the evening, much as I stood on the shore at Spitsbergen and wondered about the biography of life for the first time. The sea lapping at my feet would look and feel much the same. Where the sea meets the land is a patch of slightly sticky, rounded stromatolite pillows, survivors from the vast groves of the Precambrian. The wind is whistling across the red plains behind me, where nothing visible lives, and I can feel the sharp sting of wind-blown and on the back of my legs. But in the muddy sand at my feet I can see worm casts, little curled wiggles that look familiar, I can see trails of dimpled impressions lefts by the scuttling of crustacean-like animals. On the strand a whole range of shells glistens -- washed up by the last storm, I suppose -- some of the mother-of-pearl, others darkly shining, made of calcium phosphate. At the edge of the sea a dead sponge washes back and forth in the waves, tumbling over and over in the foam. There are heaps of seaweed, red and brown, and several stranded jelly-fish, one, partly submerged, still feebly pulsing. Apart from the whistle of the breeze and crash and suck of breakers, it is completely silent, and nothing cries in the wind.

I wade out into a rock pool. In the clear water I can see several creatures which could fit into the palm of my hand crawling or gliding very slowly along the bottom. Some of them carry armour plates on their backs. I can recognize a chiton, but the others are unfamiliar. In the sand there are shy tube-worms. A trilobite the size of a crab has caught one of them and is shredding it with its limbs. Another one crawls across my foot, and I can feel the tickle of its numerous legs on my bare flesh -- but wait, it is not a trilobite, but a different kind of arthropod with eyes on stalks at the front and delicate grasping 'hands'. Now that I look out to sea, I can see a swarm of similar arthropods sculling together in the bright surface water -- and can that dark shape with glistening eyes be Anomalocaris in pursuit? Yet, for the top of its body briefly breaks the surface, and I can glimpse its fierce arms for an instant. Where the water breaks it shines luminously for a while in the dying light -- the seawater must be full of light-producing plankton -- and I have to imagine millions more microscopic organisms in the shimmering sea.
-- Richard Fortey (1997)

Image: Tiger Iron

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