Wednesday, October 8, 2008
"Hear more often things than beings,
the voice of the fire listening,
hear the voice of the water.
Hear in the wind
the bushes sobbing,
it is the sigh of our forebears."
The "Old House", as we called the Dutton Homeplace, in my lifetime was only inhabited on the ground floor. Sure there was an upstairs, and a staircase to get there, but my Aunt Gladys so zealously guarded that domain, the Tut-like storehouse of the unseen past, that I never managed even to climb beyond the 4th step until after she died.
The steps went up to a landing, then turned and continued up to the upstairs, so from the 4th step you couldn't even see the doors of the upstairs rooms. In each space between the spindles of the banister an odd object had been placed. One of these was a brain coral. I think it's a fossil, but I've never seen another like it.
There are plenty of fossils hereabouts, because Dutton Hill itself, or the limestone of it, is the worn remainder of silts and sands that settled in the shallow sea that once covered this part of the world entirely, back in the period of time, some 360 million years ago, which paleontologists call the 'Mississippian". That sea was home to many peculiar creatures who left their remnants to remind us of our own impermanence, ironically.
There must have been a lot of crinoids, animals that look like lilies crossed with starfish, wafting to and fro in the currents of that long ago sea. If you wade Dry Branch, the seasonal stream fed by Pete's Spring, and the unnamed springs on Gladiators place, and the two springs on Cebah's homeplace, you're sure to find many little stone discs, with a star-shaped hole in the center, through which fairies can be seen if you look the right way. These are segments of the stem-ish part of the crinoid, or sea lily. Here's a rock composed almost entirely of them.
The ancient sea may have contributed other, less obvious forms in the landscape, such as the geodes, called by a ruder and racist name in my childhood. The details of their formation remain somewhat mysterious, but the current best guess is that they began in a "shallow-burial environment as nodules of anhydrite, which later altered to calcite and/or silica" - said silica likely coming from the dissolution of sponge spicules. The anhydrite "indicates precipitation from anoxic marine waters and evaporitic brines" or to put it another way they are lumps of sea-salt that were pressured into service as rocks by the immense weight of that ancient sea bearing down on them. The outer shell is chalcedony with inclusions of pyrite, the same stuff as one of the walls of heaven if I'm not mistaken. Here's a cracked open one. It's strange to think, when cracking open such a venerable shell that the sea air inside, dispersing at once into the contemporary atmosphere, has been restrained for 360 million years.
(This one, with Hen & Chickens growing in its crevice, is in the dandyland herb garden.)
In some places the mud flats and beaches rose up high enough, long enough, to have amphibians and swampy things - seven foot long centipedes and enormous dragonflies. Amphibian fossils are exceedingly rare, but a five foot long one was found in Kentucky, and our creeks are still home to the 2nd largest salamander in the world, the marvelous Hellbender, with loose black skin like a Shar Pei crossed with a newt. (29 inches) Nowadays the amphibians on Dutton Hill are much shrunk, but still around. There are still adorable tiny black mudpuppies in Pete's Spring, and salamanders, like the one Dave and I found lurking under the old studio. Alas, there are far fewer of them than there were in my youth.
While the salamanders were changing size the silt and mud was compressed into limestone, filled with zillions of little crushed parts of strange things, so much and so many that it formed an immense layer. In time, and there's been plenty of it, the limestone developed fissures and sinkholes and all sorts of cracks and depressions, through which acidic rainwater, made even more acidic by the decay of leaves and tendrils of innumerable plants, filtered down and hollowed out caves and crannies, the which filled with said water, under the earth, where, kept dark and filtered by the limestone, it developed an extraordinary flavor.
This is how The Hill and Pete's Spring was said to be formed, and part of why if you taste the water that pours out from deep within the rock, you will always come back for another.