The Burgess Shale

My daughter pointing to a fossil she has found in the Burgess Shale.

I have just returned to New Zealand from a research trip for Looking for Darwin. One of the highlights was a hike to the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park, Canada – the site made famous by the fossilized bodies of weird creatures found at no other place on Earth.

My daughter accompanied me and the low cloud suggested an inauspicious beginning as we gathered with the rest of our party in the small British Columbian town of Field. Access to the Burgess Shale is strictly controlled: a guided party of 15 is allowed but a few times a week for a very limited number of weeks in the short alpine summer. In all, I estimated that only 400 or so people are allowed into the site each year. And maybe that is enough. Maybe that is all the people who are stupid enough to bust their guts over 22 kilometres and 800 metres elevation just to see a few stones – at least those stupid enough to pay $69 for the privilege of doing so.

And yes, it was a humungous effort; and yes, the clouds and rain obscured much of the spectacular scenery – revealing teasing glimpses every now and then of what they hid; and yes, the Walcott Quarry – as the part of the shale that has yielded the most fossils is known – was decidedly underwhelming, not much bigger than the fireplace in my dining room. But it was brilliant too, in a way that transcended all that. There was something about being up there, so isolated, standing on rocks that were more than half a billion years old, and being able to fossick among the slivers of shale and find the telltale marks of creatures that had lived way back then. And the most amazing thing from my perspective was the realization that these creatures did not live at over seven thousand feet gasping for air as we were: they lived on the sea floor. As if to emphasize the enormity of that, the clouds pulled apart and we looked down – way down – on the aptly-named Emerald Lake, while across the valley, mountains with glaciers barely able to cling to them stood even higher than we were. And it hits you, like a thump in the stomach of the brain: someone, some thing, some power, had to have pushed these giant slabs of rock from sea floor to mountain top.

What does it all mean as far as the Darwin story goes? Certainly, Darwin never got to Canada, let alone to take a stroll up to the Burgess Shale. But he had had a revelation, much as my own, when he discovered fossil shells high up in the Andes mountains. Darwin realized that the Earth must be considerably older than biblical sources or the Church taught. Moreover, the Earth is a living thing. The land changes, continents change. But back to the Shale and the half-a-billion-year-old fossils of animals that crawled across the sea floor: what they show us is that in the
struggle to survive that is pivotal to Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, it is not always, as Darwin had suggested, the fittest that win. Chance can play a big part. But that is opening a whole can of worms, so to speak, and I shall save commenting further until I post a sample extract from the draft of Looking for Darwin that covers the Burgess Shale.

The hike down was uneventful save for one small worry. Actually, it was one large brown furry worry. Our guide had warned us about bears but added that there had never been a case of a bear attacking a party of more than four people. Which was okay on the way up as we had all stuck together, but on the trek down my daughter and I struck out alone. We were fine until we came to an area where large quantities of bear scat adorned the side of the trail. Our pace quickened and I hoped that if we did stumble across the by then evidently empty and presumably hungry bear, that it could not count.
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