Sample text for Trilobite! : eyewitness to evolution / by Richard Fortey.
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Out of season, the bar of the Cobweb Inn at Boscastle is everything a pub should be. There is a low, heavily-beamed ceiling hung with antique bottles, and a plain floor which is a jigsaw of flagstones. Photographs of the local women's darts team hang on the wall, alongside framed, faded newspaper cuttings which record in print the several virtues of the inn. A log fire gives out rather more heat than is needed. There is no music save the low buzz of rich vernacular; in November, no Londoner ventures to the North Cornwall coast. The Cobweb is a slightly scruffy, comfortable old place, where you can talk if you need to, but if you feel like saying nothing you can just watch the flames in the hearth, and nobody will think you odd if a smile plays on your lips. It takes an effort of will to leave the dark, comfortable, nourishing womb of the inn, and emerge, blinking, into the bright world outside; but leave I must, because I have to find Beeny Cliff before the light fades. It can be dangerous out on the cliffs after nightfall.
Boscastle is tucked into a cleft on the wild northern coast of the long peninsula that completes south-west England, and it is built around a narrow harbour where the River Valency cuts down to the sea. It is an ancient place, where the cosmetics of the tourist trade--Witchcraft Museum and knick-knack shops--have not quite succeeded in smothering a character that was born of slate and hardship. At one time the town comprised almost nothing but inns serving miners and seamen, of which the Cobweb is a survivor, and you can still imagine a dozen different signs advertising their wares all along the crooked street that leads to the haven. The houses are former inns, prettified with features that fail to disguise their boozy origins. The rough local stone gives the buildings their character. Even the Witchcraft Museum is a cottage with an ancient roof that sags crazily under the weight of Cornish slates. On this day the harbour is almost deserted, and I can imagine the place as it must have looked when the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy visited it as a young man, more than a century ago.
I leave the town on the northern side of the harbour where the path zig-zags up the side of the steep valley. There are gorse bushes which even at this time of year cheerfully wave sprigs of yellow pea flowers. Small birds secretively flit across the path--a wren and some stonechats--as if inviting me onwards. From up here I can see piers guarding the long, narrow harbour entrance, barriers that were already ancient when the first Elizabeth was on the throne. A cold breeze makes me wish I had put on an extra sweater, but I have luckily caught an interval between showers. Suddenly, I climb high enough to see the sea. This is one of those days when the furthest horizon is obscured in mist, as if the sea went on for ever. It is not stormy weather, but I can hear the growl of the surf smashing against cliffs, which weave in and out to the south, one after another, sheer to the sea. A white surf-line marks the junction:
With its long sea lashings
And cliff side clashings
as Hardy described this coast. The cliffs are dark, almost black, while the sea is strangely heavy, wrinkled like a pachyderm, so that only the lazily shifting white line of breakers serves to animate the prospect. The town in its secret valley has quite slipped from view; the solitude is absolute. I shelter from the breeze behind a wall, which is overgrown with rounded tussocks of sea campion and thrift. It is constructed mostly from blocks of slate; curiously, the slate slabs are placed vertically, so that they look like books set on their edges, pages towards you. I am accustomed to different, horizontally-built stone walls around Oxford. The pattern is broken by occasional piers incorporating angular blocks of white, coarse-looking vein quartz. The artisans who built these walls knew their rocks. Slates stacked vertical will let the rainwater (and there is plenty in Cornwall) drain rapidly away, parallel to the way the rock naturally splits. Rubbly quartz is indifferent to all weathers and makes for obstinate pillars. Both rock types are now decorated with a leafy, frilly form of green lichen, which softens every stony outline in such a damp climate.
Now that I study the cliffs I can see that they, too, are made of the same black slates. This is why they seem so forbidding, so stern and dark. In places they are beetling (a word which only seems to apply to brows and cliffs) with teetering overhangs, fissured, and with obviously dangerous crags. These cliffs are a hymn to vertigo: "haggard cliffs, of every ugly altitude . . ." I pay careful attention to the narrow and slippery path; there has been a lot of rain recently, and one foolish step might have serious consequences. Tumbledown stone walls indicate that fields formerly extended very close to the top of the sheer edge, but now there is only a steep grassy slope between the walker and the airy heights where razorbills and fulmars wheel on the wind. The few, stunted trees on the slopes lean away from the fall as if their branches stretched in horror from the tumbling edge.
By the time I reach the top of Pentargon Bay I have some feeling for the geology. The dark rocks displayed on the inaccessible cliffs have surely suffered in a great vice of Earth movements, for they are tilted and crimped. No strata follow a straight line, instead they take off on a convoluted journey of their own. On the far side of the bay I can see a fissure that extends vertically from cliff edge to sea, which has been excavated by the elements over millennia. This is certainly a fault--a great fracture through the black rocks--a dislocation which must have once made the Earth shudder and tremble. Faults are the visible signatures of earthquakes, sealed for eternity in the rocks. The whole coast must have been gripped by a mighty upheaval causing the strata to crack and buckle. The evidence of a prehistoric paroxysm of the crust is imprinted on these heights.
Look harder, and evidence of tectonism is everywhere. Not far from the fault a stream follows a narrow valley which has been excavated along another plane of weakness in the rocks. Where the stream reaches the sea its valley is cut off abruptly at the cliff, and the brook suddenly plunges into a waterfall two hundred feet above the sea, where it is whipped up by the breeze into spray. Near the water-line there are caves and smaller crevices which have been excavated by the probing sea. Even on such a calm day I can hear the suck and cough of waves assaulting the slates, picking out the weakest spots where folds have cracked the strata, marking each small fault with a chasm or a hole. From time to time a wave rushes into a cave compressing the air within it--which then recoils with a report. It makes a sound like distant cannon fire, an irregular salvo fired in an orogenic war. Imagine the battery on a stormy day. Now it is possible to comprehend how thousands of years of erosion have eventually isolated stacks and islands, like Meachard off Boscastle harbour. In time, these outposts of land will be worn quite away and returned to the sea. I can identify white quartz in the matrix of the gloomy cliffs, as clearly as scribblings of chalk on a blackboard. There is even a patch where the quartz trace shows the strata to have been folded over completely--turned upside down. I can only speculate on the massive forces which have treated solid rock with such disdain. Thicker masses of quartz are aligned along the faults. Squeezed from the rock like serum from a wound, it congeals in the cracks. This must have been the source of those large lumps in the stone walls. Elsewhere, it fills in voids in stressed rock like some kind of mad spaghetti. Ultimately, though, quartz is tougher than slate, and survives as pebbles long after the country rock has been eroded away. I would be willing to wager that some of the rounded pebbles on inaccessible Pentargon beach far below me are made of quartz. They will outlast these cliffs, and--who knows?--maybe they will outlast the human species.
The sooty shales and slates were once soft muds--sediments--which accumulated deep beneath the sea. Time has transformed them: hardened them, elevated them hundreds of feet above present sea level, and folded them. But how much time?
Where I am standing now, close to the edge, there is a notice in red letters: Caution! Cliffs are liable to cracking. Take extra care. And it's true. A stack of shale is teetering outwards into the void. It is hard to escape a shiver of apprehension as you imagine the block tumbling over and over to smash to pieces far below. The next haven up the coast is called Crackington, the name encapsulating the precariousness induced by erosion.
I have a geological memoir for the Boscastle area tucked into my jacket pocket. From the geological map which sketches out the pattern of the outcrops of the rocks I can see something of the tectonic agony which is so patent in the cliffs: rock formations twist and turn over the mapped ground, which is criss-crossed by faults. I can identify exactly where I am standing, on the outcrop of the Boscastle Formation; in the dry language of science the slates are described as early Carboniferous (what in the US would be called Mississippian). This corner of the world has an extremely ancient origin, older than mammals, older even than dinosaurs. These black slates would already have carried their contorted signature as a guarantee of antiquity when Tyrannosaurus was king of the hill.
When they were first laid down there were only tree ferns and cockroaches and cumbrous amphibians on land. Can there be a better place to reflect upon the vastness of geological time?
The erosion which I can both see and hear is ineffably slow. I could stand here all my life and notice little difference to the cliffs. Maybe a chasm excavated along a fault might seem subtly darker as its girth increased after an exceptional storm. Perhaps a rock fall would leave a scar cleared of campion and grass. But I am certain that when Thomas Hardy stood on this spot he would have gazed upon a comparable scene; my eyes now see what his once saw. To be sure, the vegetation would have changed, but the geological signature of the cliffs would have been legible in much the same way. How can we conceive of the time needed to wear away these cliffs to nothing, to convert all the massed slates into fine silt, quartz veins into pebbles--at first angular, then worn by the constant shuffling of the sea rounder and rounder, until they acquire the contours and colours of a hen's egg? Millennia are irrelevant, species come and go, and still the cliffs stand obstinate against the inroads of time. Yet given enough time even this rampart that seems to stand so unflinchingly against the surf will be reduced to nothing, and the flagstones on the floor of the Cobweb Inn will return to sediment, joining all the other works of Man, committed once again to the great cycle of change. Rocks are eroded to sediment: sediment is hardened to rock; rock is elevated above sea level by movements of the Earth, transformed by tectonics; and, thus raised, is once more subject to the assault of the elements. This is the great wheel of the Earth. If Gustav Mahler had taken the geological view, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) would have been a cycle of erosion and reconstruction endlessly reiterated, enough to try the patience even of those who admire the most mantric of symphonies.
Cornwall once formed part of a vast mountain chain. It marked one end of the Hercynides, which snaked through Europe just as the Alps do today in the south. The patent folding of the rocks was the result of the slates being trapped in a great tectonic vice that showed no mercy. Rocks buckled, in an attempt to accommodate forces that were irresistible. Every tiny ruckle in the wall of Pentargon Bay is the legacy of suffering under a rule of tectonics so mighty that no mere rock could stand against the imperative of crustal stress. When the rocks were folded, structure was piled upon structure until mountains resulted. Clever geologists from the University of Exeter, like E. B. Selwood, have spent years trying to unpick the buckling. They have interpreted this stretch of coast not as merely folded, but as divided into great slices of crust which have slid over and past one another. Squeezed rocks could not absorb the forces by contortion alone, and were compelled to fracture. To attain equilibrium, vast broken slabs of rock larger than a parish slid away from the centre of the forces at a low angle, like the twisted thorn branches leaning away from the reach of the sea wind. Under the sole of these sliding masses weaker rocks were folded over and over, crumpled like a pack of playing cards in the hands of a ruined gambler. Every crack that was opened up, as the country was ground beneath the tectonic wheel, would be filled with vein quartz. Now, the eroded remains of these mountains lay before me. The lichen-covered stone walls were fabricated from the relics of ancient Alps. The farmer who orientated the slaty slabs with such care was conniving with tectonic forces of which he probably knew nothing.
Not many miles to the south, near Bodmin, a granite tor rises above the general plain. It is reminiscent of some stepped Mayan pyramid, not least in scale, but is entirely natural. The strange pile of enormous blocks is what remains behind when granite is weathered over many thousands of years. Even granite eventually succumbs to the onslaught of the elements, rain and wind and frost. But granite endures longer than shale, as I was to see in St. Juliot's churchyard, not far away. Granite, too, is part of the narrative of the vanished mountain chain, although its source was utterly different from the shales of the Cornish cliffs. It was crystallized from a liquid magma, hot and invasive, within the deep heart of the former chain. Look now: you can see big crystals of felspar, and maybe the sparkle of mica. These crystals tell the story of how a mountain chain drives crumpled rocks so deep into the Earth's crust that they melt, and brew a buoyant, hot broth of liquid minerals, which once more rises through the crust to crystallize and solidify as granite batholiths and plutons. Granite lies at depth beneath the Cornish peninsula, reaching to the surface under the boggy stretches of Dartmoor and Bodmin.
At the moment of their formation, some of the crystals set in motion radioactive clocks. Precise modern instruments can now assess the ticking of geological time as it is recorded by decaying radioactive isotopes of uranium or potassium (and several other elements besides) contained in the substance of the crystals. This method provides the answer to that difficult question: how much time has passed? The decay rate is known: it is only a matter of exact measurement and careful calculation to obtain the date of the mineral's formation. If the Bodmin granites were intruded into the folded rocks, then it follows that the granites must postdate the folding. The crystals act almost like eyes that let us see into the past, to calibrate it, to fix it in our vision. So if the crystal age of the granite was 300 million years, it fixes our cliffs as older still--the black slates must have already been folded before the granites were intruded.
As to the soft muds which were eventually hardened and distorted into the black slates, they were deposited on a Carboniferous sea-floor, as long as 340 million years ago. Time hardened them, tectonics twisted them, granites punished them with plutonic heat, long before they came to form the cliffs which now make sites for the inaccessible nests of fulmars and kittiwakes. But messages can be passed on from that ancient sea: messages in the shape of fossils. When the sea-floor was young, shells of many kinds of animals lay littered among the muds and sands, just as clam shells can be found stranded on a beach today. These were mostly ordinary, small creatures, snails and brachiopods and the like. Their shells became incorporated into the sediment as more fine mud rained down upon them: mud originated from the erosion of an ancient landmass, which itself was the product of a previous cycle of Earth history. This is how the story of the world turns and turns again. With the passage of time--much more time--the shells were still there as the muds became deeply buried, and then hardened into shales when water was driven out. Perhaps the substance of the shells was augmented by a subtle infiltration of minerals at this time. Their original colours were leached away, a time-change that bleached shells of brightness, converting them to fossil-colour: they became stony simulacra of once-living creatures.
Their journey had only just begun. The Carboniferous sea in which animals once flourished and left their shelly tokens was consumed in the engine of plate tectonics. Rocks and fossils alike--the accumulated legacy of the sea--were passengers on a great journey. Many of the fossils were doomed to obliteration. They might be dragged to the centre of the growing Hercynian chain, fated to be squeezed or baked beyond recognition. They might be dissolved away. They might be chopped into pieces as the rocks carrying them recrystallized. Mountains grew over south-west England, great slabs of country were shrugged sideways in the melée. Granites insinuated themselves into the depths. As soon as the mountains were born, they were destined to die by erosion, so, most likely of all, the fossils could be worn away to an impalpable mash that was already on a journey to the next Earth cycle. We must marvel at the fossil survivors, their chutzpah in the face of the orogenic enemy.
Sealed in the aftermath of tectonics, the fossils still had to survive all that followed: the rendering of a mountain chain once more into the sea. Through more than 200 million years the Hercynian relic was ground down to its roots. It is certain that the granites reached the surface at a time when dinosaurs were still lumbering over the Weald and western Europe, for curious and distinctive minerals derived from these granites are found for the first time in rocks laid down in Cretaceous times, about 100 million years ago. Like a geological striptease, veils of rock were stripped slowly away to ever more fundamental levels within the ancient chain. Eventually it was stripped naked to its interior, and the show was over. What I was looking at in Pentargon Cliff was one of the inner veils, preserved from obliteration, with its strata still crumpled like discarded chiffon.
What fossils might survive in the dark slates? What miracles of endurance might they record, what cheating of the laws of chance? How could a wanderer along this slippery path high above the everlasting sea truly comprehend what is meant by the vastness of geological time, even though the evidence is everywhere displayed? Looking down on Boscastle I could almost capture the historical past--I could "see" it as one might episodes from half-remembered movies. It is not difficult to paint a mental picture of Hardy on this path. Or to envisage, more than a century ago, filthy slate miners tottering off to the inn of their choice, with the gentry nearby spry in traps; or to conjure up a bustling Tudor port with heavy-rigged ships sheltering from the wildness of the sea in the safe haven, talk of the Armada in the inns, costumes out of Holbein; I can even visualize an Iron Age farmer's tilth and husbandry, and the discomfort of a November day like this in a simple, smoke-filled dwelling. My vision is full of details rooted in shared humanity, set in bric-a-brac drawn from memory plausibly arranged. But to quantify the geological time required for the formation of Cornwall I need to multiply time a thousand-fold, and then perhaps nearly a thousand times again. I am as accustomed to writing figures in millions (of years) as is a Swiss banker (in dollars), yet the lines of zeros do not translate in proportion. Just as the average working man can understand exactly the purchasing power of fifty bucks, and fifty thousand is probably comprehensible, 500,000,000 has an approximate feel to it--surely, it's a fortune, but what does it mean? A lottery win of 5 million is a lot, but then, so is 22 million. We reel away from such vertiginous figures, we can envisage a huge pile of money, notes piled on notes, but we cannot comprehend its true magnitude. If our intention is to see so far into a past of many millions we shall need to develop a special way of seeing, a spyglass trained on former worlds. We will need to cultivate an indifference to magnitude, so that a million years becomes not, after all, such a long stretch of time. We will need to read rocks and cliffs as if they were books, and not shudder at the heights.
I have passed the steep side of Pentargon Cliff. Some kind soul has carved steps to ease the climb, but even so I am out of breath by the time the path levels off. It now follows a course along the middle of a steep, grassy slope, and is very slippery. There is a curious sense of suspension; the sea is far below, but the slope conceals the vast cliffs which I know must be there. I can still hear the sea clearly enough: there is an irregular bang! bang! as waves punish a sea cave along the invisible surf-line, but the great height I have now reached feels almost illusory, as if I were ambling along some unspecified stratum floating between sea and sky. I have reached Beeny Cliff, and I am grateful that the light has not yet started to weaken. A few drops of rain hit me hard in the neck. A flock of gulls suddenly rises up from beyond the cliff edge, buoyed by the updraught and mewling hysterically. The end of my walk makes me turn up my collar, and shiver.
Beeny Cliff is the scene of a terrifying episode in Hardy's novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Stephen Knight follows the same path that I had just completed, in the company of Elfride, the first of Hardy's complex, closely-observed women heroines. Knight is a man of scientific bent. Perhaps seeking to display his knowledge--or maybe just to satisfy his curiosity--he attempts to demonstrate the contrariwise circulation of the air currents up the face of the cliff: "an inverted cascade . . . as perfect as Niagara Falls--but rising instead of falling, and air instead of water." He leaps on to the slope below the path, and his hat is caught by the counter-current; in a foolish attempt to retrieve it he slips down the appalling incline. He ends up dangling desperately at the edge of the cliff-face itself; Hardy describes the black slates with some precision. Here it is that Knight comes face to face with the subject of this book.
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him, It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seem to have met in their place of death. It was the single instance within reach of anything that had been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
In this bleak spot, where I was gazing out towards the precipice between the wrinkled sea below and the darkening sky above, trilobites made a brief appearance in English literature. The path above Beeny Cliff was where two paths of my own life--trilobites and writing--uniquely intersected. I felt compelled to visit the place; and I was not disappointed. The eyes of the trilobite, "turned to stone," provided the image I needed to guide the reader through this book, which will try to see the world through the eyes of fossils as a means to animate the past. Equally, I was intrigued by the difference between the novelist's truth, which has nothing to do with testability and everything to do with the impact of the work on the mind and emotions, and scientific truth, which has everything to do with testability, but also with the emotions of discovery--many of them the stuff of novels.
So to what extent was Hardy telling the truth? Hardy was writing his novel originally as a serial--he needed to keep his readers enthralled, episode by episode. Knight's predicament was a cliffhanger in the most literal sense. How can you have more suspense than to leave your character exactly suspended? The trilobite eyes provided a focus for Knight's near-nemesis; while human eyes--blue ones--provided both the title and emotional motor for the novel. The critic Pamela Dalziel has noticed how the plot twists upon "spying" of one kind or another. The book is soaked with the implications of sight.
I was interested to see how closely Hardy had observed the setting for his cliff-hanging episode. Scholars have identified the location from many details from his early life. While he was still employed as an architect restoring St. Juliot's Church in 1870, he met his future wife, Emma Gifford, who was the sister-in-law of the Rector. Locations in the area are rather thinly disguised, and it evidently lies well to the west of the rest of Hardy's Wessex. A Pair of Blue Eyes included more autobiographical elements than his other novels, and perhaps for that reason evidently remained dear to his heart (he rewrote parts of it many years later). The height of the cliff itself is rather pedantically described, even as poor Knight flounders, surely indicating that the young writer had gazetteers open, and a sharpened pencil in front of him as he catalogued its statistics: "proved by actual measurement not to be a foot less than six hundred and fifty [feet] . . . three times the height of Flamborough, a hundred feet higher than Beachy Head . . . thrice as high as the Lizard" (and there is more in this vein). But what left me in no doubt at all about the site was the walk I had taken, which was duplicated exactly by the characters in the novel. Hardy had observed what was evidently the same waterfall plunging to obscurity that I had seen at Pentargon Bay, "running over the precipice it was dispersed in spray before it was half way down, and falling like rain upon projecting ledges made minute grassy meadows of them." He described the threatening cliffs, with their "horrid personality" at the same point as I had seen them on my walk. In many respects passages in the novel could be described as reportage: he could recognize both quartz and slate, he recounted physical features in order along the path, he knew some geology and meteorology. While Knight clung to the cliff face his mind raced back through geological time--a series of tableaux of the past succeeded one another in his desperate mind all the way back to the ancient time of the trilobites. It is not a bad account, scientifically speaking, of the succession of life through geological time as conceived about 1860.
But now we reach a point at which fiction and description take off along different paths; perhaps the fascination of the novel lies in these deviations. Why did Hardy refer to Beeny Cliff as The Cliff with No Name? The hamlet of Beeny is clearly named on old maps and he was usually adept at near-synonyms--Camelton for Camelford, Dundagel for Tintagel. I believe that "No Name" adds to the horror and mystery of the place. The same point was appreciated by Sergio Leone: in his brooding spaghetti westerns "The Man with No Name," played by Clint Eastwood, was the anti-hero. Naming is the first way we domesticate our surroundings; we would expect the highest cliff along the coast to have a name. Anonymity is horror. When a series of murders are committed terror is at its worst while the perpetrator is still unknown: a case of nameless dread. The fabricator of fiction knew this; this is where artifice comes in. Hardy liked facts, but he knew also when to suspend them. The trilobite itself is a convenient fiction. The Carboniferous rocks on this part of the Cornish coast have yielded no trilobites. The rocks are of the right age, so there is no theoretical objection to finding trilobites there. Fossils are very rare from such tectonically tortured rocks. Enough have been found--precursors of ammonites, clams, microscopic fossils--to establish the geological age, but trilobites are not among them. I would be absolutely delighted to receive a trilobite from a collector lucky enough to hammer one out of these unpromising strata; it would be of appreciable scientific importance. Hardy placed the fossil in the right geological setting, but the finding of a trilobite is an invention. He needed the trilobite to stare out Stephen Knight. As readers of fiction we relish his use of this particular fossil, "but a low type of animal existence," as heightening the drama of the situation. It matters not a jot that the occurrence is fictional, even though the rest of Hardy's account is an almost photographic reproduction of a real scene. A scientist would be appalled if one of his colleagues invented such an occurrence, for science trades on the truth--nothing but the objective fact. The truth of the artist can recombine the facts of the world in the service of creation, but the scientist has a different duty, to discover the truth lying behind the faáade of appearance. Both processes may be equally imaginative.
As for Mr. Knight, he escaped his predicament thanks to a rope, but a rope desperately manufactured from Elfride's undergarments. It is a turning point in the novel, symbolizing a change in the relationship between a flawed man and an unusual woman. And we are not compelled to wonder whether such an episode was fact or not, because it is woven into the fabric of a novel.
I left Beeny Cliff by climbing up the steep steps to Fire Beacon Point, a wild bluff commanding views of the whole Hercynian coast. It may have acquired its name as one of numerous beacons on which fires were lit to warn of the approach of an armada. Now, there is only a bench at the top dedicated to the memory of Paul C. Heard, but I thanked Mr. Heard's relatives for the chance to rest and regain my breath. I turned inland, following an old, walled track. I wanted to see the parish church of St. Juliot on which Hardy had worked. It is perfectly set on a sheltered hillside, and behind it a track leads out directly across fields upon which sheep graze unhurriedly. Despite the setting, there is something depressingly foursquare and Victorian about St. Juliot's--possibly the fault of Hardy's restoration--including a rather dumpy tower with unnecessary castellation. It is as if the site deserved something much more distinguished to live up to its associations. After all, Hardy wrote that "much of my life claims the spot as its key." Surely it is an ancient holy place, which the church fails adequately to honour. In the graveyard there are several "Jollows"--possibly a bastardized version of the name Juliot--the kind of family that must have grown out of the local soil as surely as wind-blown gorse. Inside the church there is a notice informing the visitor that most of the church plate has already been stolen. There was nothing to induce me to linger.
But as I left I saw the Celtic crosses, more ancient than the church itself. Close by the gate one crudely shaped column as high as a man stands sentinel; its apex is sculpted into a disc, and you might expect to find some sort of face hewn upon it, but instead there is a schematic cross. Unlike the slatey gravestones, these upright crosses are made from granite. They will endure when all the inscribed memorials to Jollows have crumbled into the same soil that long since claimed their bones. The granite was derived from one of the igneous intrusions into the bowels of the Hercynian mountain range. Maybe the blocks were derived from Bodmin or Dartmoor, but whatever the source their hewers knew about permanence. Each monument acknowledges the vast span of geological time, the durability of stone compared with a human lifetime. Each is a symbol of the crossing of human intention with tectonic history--the same history that placed Hardy's plausible but fictional trilobite into Beeny Cliff. The discoidal apex of the cross is like an eyepiece with a view clear back to the age of the tree ferns and lungfishes. This, after all, may have been what I wanted to discover on a chilly November day in Boscastle. I felt a curious elation, even as the icy raindrops began to refresh the lichens that alone could derive
sustenance from incorruptible granite--set solid ever since trilobites had patrolled the shallows of a vanished ocean.
If you can have love at first sight, then I fell in love with trilobites at the age of fourteen.
The peninsula of St. Davids forms the south-western promontory of South Wales, extending westwards like a miniature version of the Cornish peninsula where Hardy, too, encountered love. Like Cornwall, it is a region of spectacular and ancient cliffs, while inland the scenery is flat and characterless. There are little coves here, too, with names like Solva and Abercastle, formerly wild and remote fishing villages, but now spruce with whitewash over the rough stone. But the cliffs are as wild as ever they were, and displaying rock folds as convoluted as anything in Cornwall. A walk along the coastal path parades one rock formation after another, delineated by contrasts in colour and texture: here massive yellow or purple sandstones plunge like naked ribs into the churning foam, there a group of contorted dark shales zig-zag up the cliffs like some sort of beserk concertina. In Caerfai Bay there are bright red shales, looking improbably pert in a world of dun geology. All of these rocks are still more ancient than their Cornish counterparts. They date from the Cambrian period, the oldest of the shales having been laid down as muds beneath the sea something like 545 million years before the present. This is getting back to the beginning of things, to a time before there were any plants on land, to a time before any kind of backboned animal existed. Yet there were already trilobites to witness this nascent world. These trilobites were 200 million years older than Thomas Hardy's invented fossil (or, I should say, its real equivalents)--a span a hundred times longer than Man's brief tenancy of this planet. This was the time I explored with a coal hammer at a period of my life when my voice had just turned unreliably falsetto and baritone by turns. While others discovered girls, I discovered trilobites.
I had marked the presence of fossils on a local map. They were described as the oldest fossils in the British Isles. What could be more irresistible? There was something extraordinarily exciting about tapping into a vein of such prehistory. The top dressing of the landscape of human tenancy was stripped away to reveal some deeper reality, layer after layer of geological time unpeeled in my imagination. While my long-suffering mother knitted or read, I beat the rocks at Nine Wells and Porth-y-rhaw*. These were places where the rocks were accessible by foot and could be broken by sheer effort. I did not even have a proper geological hammer. The fever of discovery was upon me. I learned how to break the hard rock so that it split in the same direction as the former sea floor--this way I was more likely to retrieve something recognizable. It was clear that tectonic forces had tipped the strata vertically. I had to scrabble to dislodge reasonable-sized blocks for breakage. I ignored the sharp pieces of gorse that speared the backs of my hands. Time had made the rock both hard and brittle: it seemed to want to break anywhere but in the right direction. On the broken surfaces there were scraps and fragments of what might, or might not have been the remains of past life: black patches, a little shinier than the rest of the rock. Then, at last, I found a trilobite. The rock simply parted around the animal, like some sort of revelation. The truth is that the fossil itself had rendered the rock weaker: it was predisposed to reveal itself, almost as if it desired disclosure. I was left holding two pieces of rock: in my left hand the positive impression of the creature itself (known as the part); in my right hand the negative mould which had once comprised its other half (the counterpart); the two together snuggling up to survive the vicissitudes of millions of years of entombment. There was a brownish stain on the fossil, but to me it was no disfigurement--surely what I held was the textbook come alive. Drawings and photographs could not compare with the joy of actually touching a find which seemed, in the egotistical glow of boyhood, dedicated to yourself alone. This was my first discovery of the animals that would change my life. The long thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me and I returned the gaze. More compelling than any pair of blue eyes, there was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years.
I would one day learn that the trilobite had a name, Paradoxides. When we first exchanged glances I knew nothing of classification or nomenclature, and it did not matter to me: there was plenty of time to learn more. What I held was a specimen that fitted comfortably into the palm of my hand. It was clearly divided along its length into three lobes--a convex central portion and to each side of it identical, but slightly flattened, areas. These were the lobes implied by the name--trilobite. The whole animal seemed to bulge towards one end. I knew, by some principle which I could not articulate, that the wider end was the head of the animal. And of course upon this head there were the eyes. Despite the unfamiliar conformation of the fossil, I knew that eyes must always belong on heads. So despite the exoticism of the fossil there was already a common bond between me and the trilobite--we both had our heads screwed on the right way. I could see that the body was subdivided into a number of little divisions--or segments, as I would learn to call them. Then there were cracks running across the body. These had nothing to do with the original structure of the animal, rather they were testimony to the long journey through geological time that the Cambrian creature had travelled before it fell apart under my hammer blow. They were joints in the fabric of the rock itself, the scars of an adventure that might have seen the trilobite eroded into oblivion or obliterated in the vice of a thousand tectonic accidents.
This book grew out of that first encounter. I want to invest the trilobite with all the glamour of the dinosaur and twice its endurance. I want you to see the world through the eyes of trilobites, to help you to make a journey back through hundreds of millions of years. I will show that Hardy's description of the trilobite as "but a low type of animal existence" was hardly just, but that his placing the animal at the centre of a drama of life and death might have been nearer the mark. This will be an unabashedly trilobito-centric view of the world.
For trilobites have been witnesses to great events. Stephen Knight might have read from the trilobite's stony eyes that the predicament of a mere individual meant nothing. They have seen continents move, mountain chains elevated and eroded to their granite cores, they have survived ice ages and massive volcanic eruptions. No living thing can disengage itself from the biosphere, and trilobites followed the same pattern: their history was also shaped by the events they witnessed. When strangers express their surprise that it is possible to devote a lifetime to studying extinct "bugs" I remind them of how much has happened in the last few thousand years and invite them to imagine what it is to be a historian of dozens of millions of years. We are doomed to know so little, like fishermen trying to understand an entire ocean by throwing in a few baited handlines. And if anyone wonders how it is possible to invest such devotion in a group of organisms which died out long ago as a result of who-knows-what inadequacies, there is an obvious answer. Trilobites survived for a total of three hundred million years, almost the whole duration of the Palaeozoic era: who are we johnny-come-latelies to label them as either "primitive" or "unsuccessful"? Men have so far survived half a per cent as long.
There are accounts of scientific research that present the story of discovery as a series of glittering prizes that must be won by the most muscular intellect; this is science as a version of trial-by-combat. Or else scientific research is contained in a metaphor of a journey into uncharted territory, as expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson (in Pulvis et umbra): "science carries us into realms of speculation, where there is no habitable city for the mind of man." It is certainly true that there are races to be first in science and that a few massive minds venturing into "realms of speculation" command the most attention--and they deserve it. Such models of scientific progress are typified by mathematicians and physicists, beautifully elaborated by Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations. Nonetheless, as a description of much of scientific endeavour, both the combative and the adventurous-speculative views are flawed. Many scientists--perhaps most of them--are a curious species for whom the pleasure of finding out is at least as important as the size of the goal. He or she is often a co-operative creature, comfortable with the happy exercise of innate ability, and if a momentous discovery comes it may arrive unexpectedly, like an unanticipated legacy. The unique property of the scientific endeavour is that so many of the regular footsoldiers contribute to the victory. Unlike a poetaster whose burblings are destined for true oblivion while the creations of a Keats survive, even a minor scientist might well make a permanent contribution to a famous campaign--an uncelebrated private who did not die in vain.
Even the most singular fields of scientific inquiry relate in subtle or unexpected ways to larger questions. We shall see that an apparently self-contained and esoteric occupation like the study of trilobites has contributed to mighty debates about the origin of new species, or the nature of major features of evolution, or the distribution of the ancient continents. Those who started with a deep desire to know more about the details of life habits of vanished animals--out of sheer curiosity--may suddenly realize that the detailed knowledge they have accrued relates to something different and more general: something as grand as the structure of an ancient ocean or the arrival of an asteroid on Earth.
I believe that a more accurate image for the way much of science works might be a series of interconnecting paths. Each one has its own interests and delights; sometimes we know where a path leads, on others we are taken by surprise by twists and turns. And where there are intersections with other paths there can be unanticipated new directions which may lead to wholly unexpected views. Like Stephen and Elfride on the path above The Cliff with No Name there may be a crucial conjunction of circumstances which changes everything, and something as small and ancient as a trilobite may be the catalyst for the transformation.
This book will follow a few of the paths that led me from that first schoolboy find. In pursuit of trilobites I shall visit remarkable places and spend time with remarkable people. Knowledge has been hard won, and there are heroes whose names are known only to me and a few of my friends, who deserve wider recognition. There are stories of personal tragedies which have influenced this tale of trilobites. Discovery isn't a simple matter of "onwards and upwards." It is imbued with all the tawdry and magnificent stuff of human lives. The story of that small part of science which is important to me will illustrate the way this defining human activity works better than some other accounts of greater endeavours: like relativity or the first few nanoseconds of the universe. Sometimes, a miniature gives a better likeness than a grandiose portrait.
Come and see the world as it once was through the crystal eyes of the trilobite. We shall find out how trilobites tell us the pattern of evolution, and how it can be read from the rocks. We shall discover how faith in trilobites not merely moves mountains but shifts whole continents. We shall see how cast-off shells can be re-animated into living animals. We shall understand something of the origins of the richness of the animal kingdom. Through trilobites, we shall take possession of the geological past.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Trilobites