from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

fossils, from tales of wonder

I've been cleaning up my desktop (ha ha – what that actually means is shifting stuff around, procrastinating from working out how on earth I'm going to continue to make a living, and being diverted and distracted by interesting files).

In the process of being distracted, I've just come across a copy of a chapter from my book Writing the Bright Moment. I want to share with you an excerpt from it. (I should add that it's my writing; only the epigraph comes from Snyder.)

Tales of Wonder

from What you should know to be a poet

all you can about animals as persons
the names of trees, flowers and weeds
names of stars, and the movements of the planets and the moon

your own six senses...
Gary Snyder

As humans, we need mystery. As writers, we also need bottomless curiosity, the capacity to be astonished, a passion to carry on learning, and a sense of wonder. These all help to keep inspiration alive, and resuscitate a flagging imagination. This is also, clearly, quite a good recipe for life, too; and as a prescription an inquiring mind is as likely to be both cause and consequence of a spirited old age as anything else...
As you’d expect, most writers I know love learning new things. We have acquisitive natures, and you never know which little bit of tinder will ignite a conflagration. What I do know is that my creativity is often born in the place where a detail excites me.

If I analyse what inspires me personally, much of it is probably universal: music, art, literature, friendship, love, walking, good conversation and new ideas. Human achievements and human acts of courage and compassion. Also for me colour, places, gardens, being outside, dramatic or wild landscape, the ocean, the winds, travel, and so on. Animals, birds,  plants, trees, stones.  Prehistoric cave art. Esoterica, mythology, philosophy, mysticism. Old manuscripts: the Books of Hours; the Celtic holy books such as Kells; sources like the Mabinogion. Stories. Poetry, of course. Metaphor. Language and languages inspire me, and etymology – finding connections between things. (Connection is a very important one for me.)
What I’ve only realised recently is just how much scientific discovery inspires me, especially in the categories of cosmology and new physics, in addition to subjects I already knew inspired me: history, natural history, geology, archaeology and anthropology; and the way in which things are made – glass, for instance. I have only recently realised how fascinating The New Scientist is for non-scientists!
So I have started to keep yet another notebook – this one just for astonishing facts. I know, just know, that one day I’ll use this snippet from Radio 4: in Italy, in what’s known as the Botticelli Gorge, is a single stratum of clay just one centimetre thick in between layers of limestone. This layer has a much higher concentration of iridium than would be expected for such a thin layer of clay, even given that it has been compacted by successive layers of limestone. (At White Scar Cave in Yorkshire there is, apparently, a similar layer of clay in amongst limestone.) Physicists agree that this suggests extraterrestrial activity, such as the impact from an asteroid. So 65,000,000 years ago, apparently, that little seam of clay was laid down as a result of the meteor that, we think, took the dinosaurs. ‘So looking up at the layers,’ said one of the radio presenters, ‘you can see and move through time...’ I am astonished and excited. Inspired.
Looking back over what I’ve just written, I see that it’s very simple. What inspires me is the universe, but especially the earth. The earth moves me to awe. ‘In reality, the earth is the centre of mystery in our lives,’ says artist Daniel De Angeli. ‘Despite the thick layers of civilization and mobile phones, we are still not very far away from our origins, and nature has the power to take you back to the elemental, to a state of surprise and silence.’

I’m at the Cotswold Water Park, one of a team of artists working on a project there. Today we’re learning something of the history and prehistory of the park, which is, we’re told, part of the old Thames floodplain. ‘Wherever you go here, you’re walking on water,’ says Dr Simon Pickering, the Park Biodiversity Officer, a fact that is already inspiring me.
The Water Park contains probably the least known but one of the biggest and most exciting fossil sites in the country. Fossilised remains of crocodiles, giant squid, one of the world’s largest sharks and of such creatures as woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos have all been found here.
Most of these fossil beds are being exposed – and destroyed – as they are excavated for aggregate from the limestone beds. The ‘spoil’ heaps (not accessible to the public, but we are accompanied by an ‘official’ geologist) contain ammonites bigger than a man’s fist, cannonball-sized. We stumble over each other in our excitement. Then our guide, the geologist, lifts a large lump of ordinary-looking clay from a heap and gives it a sharp crack with his hammer. It splits, but he hands it to me without separating the two halves. I open it and gasp. The interior is solid with ammonites of varying sizes. The central one, larger than the others, has a hollow right at the heart of its spiral, and in the hollow is a drop of water. ‘Taste it,’ he says. ‘That’s seawater that’s been locked away in darkness for 160 million years. No one’s seen it before, ever.’ I dip my finger and taste salt.
He’s right.
I’m speechless (no mean feat).

That experience blew me away; and several years on I’m still overawed by it. 160 million years that secret drop of water has kept its salt taste! And needless to say I wrote about it; and wrote about it; and… And it has inspired me to new heights of enthusiasm for researching fossils, and the ages of the earth. The more I discover, the more I’m enthused, and the more I’m kicked sideways to write about new things.


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