Digging for Knowledge: Fossils and Gardening

I dig fossils.

I mean, not literally. I have never been on a fossil dig; I’m no paleontologist right? But I dig fossils, man. I didn’t realize this until a recent trip to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon. And of course, I have been gettin’ my Darwin on – lots of fossil talk. I listened to the audiobook of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True on my Oregon road trip. Pretty good overview of evolution with detailed examples, but I cracked up every time the narrator adopted a limply terrible British accent to read the Darwin quotes.

I didn’t plan on going to John Day Fossil Beds. Driving back to Wyoming from Bend on Oregon 26 (oooh, so gorgeous), I didn’t want to show up at my motel early, so I stopped at the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument.  The monument is actually three separate areas – a total of 20,000 square miles – spread out along the John Day River valley. I showed up at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center – ten minutes before closing. Bummed! I speed-wandered through the exhibit (40 million years in 8 minutes) and grabbed some pamphlets before the Ranger chased me out. Then I ambled across the road to the Historic Cant Ranch, a restored old sheep ranch and house, just as a big dark thunderstorm started to brew.

IMG_2963When’s the last time you really thought about fossils? High School science class? That museum somebody dragged you into on your last family vacation? Me too. But now I’m starting to become more interested in the fossil record. I’ve found a good overview website from the American Geological Institute about evolution and the fossil record that also has a handy concise summary of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. And there’s this web page from Nature – the most detailed, image-rich resource I’ve found that explains how scientists can determine the age of rocks and fossils.

The John Day monument’s landscape is beautiful – colorful striated cliffs, rolling meadows, the gentle river. And it’s extremely important to paleontologists; they are still actively digging, researching, and compiling within this important repository for the big mammals of the Cenozoic. The fossil assemblages are remarkable for their sheer quantity of specimens as well as the intactness of the communities preserved in the rock layers. As the Oregon roadsigns told me, it’s a Journey Through Time.

IMG_3007The word fossil comes from the Latin fodere (dig) and fossilis (dug up). I spent last weekend digging in my garden. Actually, it’s a plot in my town’s community garden that I share with two friends. I pitchforked the heck out of one corner (I cannot take credit for the rest), and yanked out a wheelbarrow-load of quack grass by the roots. I’m calling it quack grass, but I’m not 100% sure that’s what it is. I am 100% certain it’s annoying, pervasive and hard to remove. But it’s gone (for now), and I replanted some strawberries in a wee corner patch. The rest of our plot is ready for peas, lettuce, kale and even quinoa. Seeds shall be sowed over Memorial Day weekend.

The goal this summer is to start seed saving. I’ve never done that before, but it dovetails nicely with the first chapter of The Origin of Species – Variations Under Domestication. I’m rereading that this weekend. Also, I always find myself thinking of Punnett Squares and Gregor Mendel’s pea plants whenever I’m trying to grow food. Maybe a post about that later. Right now I just keep adding to my Seeds reading list.

I love multi-tasking, so I listened to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin while gardening in a soft spring rain. David Quammen is my favorite science writer, though this book reads more like a mini-biography. So far, Quammen focuses on Darwin’s deep relationship with his devoutly Christian wife, Emma, and on his relationships with his scientific contemporaries, all of which contributed to his intense internal struggles over how and if he should share with the world his discovery of descent with modification by means of natural selection. Thus far, it’s a wonderful portrait of the man. Grover Gardner narrates the audiobook, and I always enjoy his voice; I’ve listened to him narrate the excellent Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.

More gardening and Darwinning adventures to follow!

 

Photos of Sheep Rock, leaf fossil and strawberry patch by me!

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