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A Fossil Story

Updated on January 8, 2016

On a recent trip to the local Goodwill in search of neglected treasures, Sandy found a bag of 11 fossils, each packaged separately with an identification card. It was an amazing find. Included were a fossil fish (Gosiutichthys, 40 million years old), a trilobite (Elrathia Kingi, 550 million years old), a shark tooth (Miocene Period), fossil brachiopods (325 million years old), and a small fossil dinosaur bone (Jurassic period, 150 million years old). Since we were fishing these out of the bottom of the bins at the outlet store at the end of the day, it was highly probable that (had we not saved them) they would have ended up in a dumpster with all of the other junk that did not sell. The irony of this struck me. Half a billion years ago, a Washington-quarter-size trilobite lives a simple life, then dies and is covered by sediment in an area we now call Utah. Its body becomes fossilized and remains hidden for 550 million years. Geological transformations thrust it to the surface, then a fossil hunter stumbles across it, extracts and cleans it, packages and sells it. It is purchased and taken home, admired, and stored away for a few years in a shoebox on the top shelf of a closet. Then, under circumstances which we will never know, this treasure is discarded - given to a local charity. It sits for sale in the thrift store, but no one is interested. It is considered unremarkable, sitting on the display shelf not too far from the bright green discount shoes, the rap CDs, the hair dryers made in China, the kitty print chemises made in Indonesia, and the big-eye art prints. After a few months an unenlightened and impatient employee sends it to the thrift store graveyard (the outlet store). Again it sits neglected. It shuffles to the bottom of the bin, buried again (this time briefly) by an ugly vacuum cleaner, a filthy child's toy, a broken bottle of shampoo, a stained Calvin Klein bag. Bratz dolls, with grossly oversized eyes, stare blankly at their neighbor the trilobite. Barbie, naked and with ratted hair, lies nearby, equally catatonic. Then, late in the day, a weary shopper digs to the bottom of the bin in search of the small remaining treasures. Barbie is shoved aside and the trilobite is again unearthed, along with a few other fossils which were also recently buried Utah, Wyoming, and California. And what if this weary shopper had missed them, glanced instead at the marbles nearby or the (ironically) small plastic toy dinosaurs? Closing time would have come, the bins and their neglected contents would be rolled into the back warehouse. The following morning the bins would be emptied into a large dumpster - the beginning of the end. Inevitably, the local garbage carrier would come, empty the dumpster into a truck and transport it to a landfill. There, somewhere in the immense pile, the tiny fossils would find themselves back underground. Compacted, in close proximity to the broken vacuum cleaner, the 8-track tape, the naked Barbie, the water-stained diet book, and the precious stuffed toy dog, the fossils would settle into their new place of rest. Unlikely to be disturbed for many years, they would remain in this perverse new environment - a graveyard of overproduction and mass consumption. And for how long? For another 500 million years? Let's just say that it is, indeed, another half-billion years before geological forces once again force the trilobite fossil to the bright surface. Since the death of the small animal, it has remained underground for a billion years. A thousand million years of darkness. Except for a few years when it was briefly resurrected in the 1990s. Yet that time of air and light was brief. A mere fraction of a second in that billion year period. Yet, because a woman with an eye for treasure saved it from its fate, it has a more hopeful future...


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