Tuesday, April 17


The Burgess Shale

I have a passing interest in paleontology and the odder corners of what in more interesting times was called natural philosophy. From time to time in my reading I turn up the sort of unsettling and beautiful oddities that modern science largely ignores but would have been the highlight of a Holy Roman kunstkammer. Reading the speculations of some savant on these matters, wild, intriguing and often filled with unfathomable spans of time reaching the hundred million mark, I feel the mixture of awe and shrugging skepticism more urbane individuals reserve for the pronouncements of mystics. Maybe that's how it happened; maybe not. In the end, the same sense of God's wonder is present whatever the conclusion.

Opabinia regalis, the hose-nosed something-or-other of the Cambrian.

One of these curiosities is the so-called Burgess Shale, a collection of wildly exotic fossils belonging to an assortment of evolutionary dead-ends that flourished about five hundred and five million years ago in the Middle Cambrian. The black shale fossil bed, or Lagerstätte, turned up in 1909 under the watchful eye of one Charles Doolittle Walcott in Yoho National Park, British Columbia. Their various body shapes would put Salvador Dali, Borges, and the grotesque-carvers of the Romanesque to shame. Nobody appears to have done much with its weird little inhabitants until the end of the last century, and even then nobody is quite sure exactly what they're looking at right now. One favorite is Opabinia, a five-eyed creature with 360 degree vision, a snout like a spikey vacuum cleaner, and a long leafy row of flaps down its sides--a lobster designed by H.P. Lovecraft.

Our friend the Hallucigenia, at least one version of it, a being reminiscent of the love-child of a virus and my childhood tinkertoy set.

Another was named, with very good reason, Hallucigenia sparsa, a three-centimeter long incognitum of an animalcule resembling a linear bramble-bush that made very little sense to even comparatively recent re-evaluators of the Burgess Shale. It didn't have a head, it didn't have a mouth, and it may have walked on its spines, like a zoological prophesy of the Crown of Thorns. Some theorize this odd being may have actually had mouths within its various tentacles, though others think they were looking at it upside-down, and the tentacles functioned as feet, which is the current favored theory. Or something.

The favored current reconstruction of the Hallucigenia, by one Lars Ramsköld, which is still baffling, but doesn't have to walk about on spikes.

Then there are others--the Anomalocaris (lierally, the "anomalous shrimp", with a disk-shaped mouth like a slice of pine-apple and compund eyes; Amiskwia, a worm with a double-tentacled head and a gut running down its length, and which appears to have been designed by The Cheat; the beautiful Nectocaris pteryx, which resembles a an art nouveau squid, and even whose phylum remains in debate; the Wiwaxia, a sort of clockwork pinecone, and the unnerving Orthrozanclus reburrus.

Anomalocaris, a rather cheerful-looking nightmare, that could grow up to 7 feet in length--a leviathan for its time.

What an inspiration they all are, for an artist rifling through nature's forms for new ideas and newer shapes--that go back to the dawn of life. The other day, at the Natural History Museum, I admired the long lazy curve of a stuffed anteater's snout, and thought it easy to believe God is an artist. And seeing these, I also know He has a very good sense of humor--and one which has taken great pains to remind us of the importance of one of the many gifts He has given us--that of wonder.

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