Like so many people I am a person of varied interests. Many people are surprised to discover that I am an avid fan of paleontology, and of certain eras in particular. The eras that go way back - to the very beginning of life, the Cambrian and pre-Cambrian - are the ones that have fired my imagination since I was very, very young. Some children love dinosaurs and the like, but not I. I was always fascinated with the trilobite and his kind, small creatures that foreshadowed those that followed.
I probably read "Wonderful Life" just after it was published in 1989. I had read some other books by noted evolutionary theorist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and they were always amazingly good reads as he had ideas that were quite novel and ways of presenting them that truly provoked thought. I'm sad to say he is gone now but his legacy lives on his books which deserve to be read again and again (and I do).
"Wonderful Life" is about a very specific era in time, just after the Cambrian explosion of life. The creatures that existed at this time are unlike any the world had ever seen before, and unlike any we have seen since. It seems a time when evolution and life went to the far edge of experimentation, and when the creatures seem a bit wonky to us. The point is that was it not for an extinction event these creatures could have been the ones to continue to evolve, and our world could look like a very different place today. It's the sort of thing that tends to do my head in a bit (like thinking about the consequences of time travel) and yet it's something I can't stop thinking about, either. It's a question that teases and taunts me, and that has haunted my thoughts ever since reading the book.
One of the most incredible things about the topic of the book is that the creatures were found at the Burgess Shale, in Canada's very own Rocky Mountains. The mountain containing the shale is located in an area called Yoho National Park, and for many years you have been able to do climbs to the Shale to see this amazing place where life so different from today once existed.
For years I dreamed of visiting the Shale. In the 90's it was something I simply couldn't afford to do, and then in later years it became clear it was physically impossible for me to do so. You see, dear friends, I spent many years in very poor physical shape, carrying around an extra 60 pounds or so, and there was no possible way I could endure a 10-hour, 20 km mountain trek even if I desperately wished to do so. Two years ago, though, my life changed, and as I embraced my life again I shed that excess baggage weighing me down. Suddenly, the Shale seemed possible. It had beckoned me for twenty years - would I answer the call?
On July 5th, dear friends, my husband, myself, and a small group of friends (almost all scientists and/or geologists, and all with a love for the Shale) will be accompanied by a guide to the Burgess Shale. We will visit the site that inspired the book that inspired me. I will see the place where these creatures lived and swam and reproduced...and died. I will see where life took some bizarre evolutionary turns, and where it could have changed the entire face of the world but for a twist of fate. I expect there will be some challenges along the way as it is not an easy hike, and it is a long one. With the company of my beloved husband, who has long wished for me to achieve this goal, and my good friends, I know I can make it, and I can stand where I have long dreamed of standing. That night we have planned a lavish dinner at a local lodge/resort where we can all celebrate a good day's hike, an accomplishment, and, in some cases, a dream realized.
I expect I will cry when I reach the Shale. I plan to carry a small paperback copy of "Wonderful Life" with me in my pack, and to read a passage or two from it when I reach my goal. You see, I believe it is important to celebrate and memorialize these events in your life, and the realization of a dream first dreamed twenty years ago seems worthy of such celebration. Dear friends, I will write one day about the climb, and about the Shale, and about the feeling of being there. Today, however, I continue to simply revel in the dream, and to think about the possibilities this life holds for us when we allow ourselves to simply dream.