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  • John stopped me in the road and wondered if he might stop by later and see my fossils.

    I was barefoot and just on my way over to my parents to check something quickly. I had mentioned the fossils a while ago and he and Tina had been a bit agog that I had just been able to pick them up.

    Any time, I told him. I’m just working around the place today.

    He and Tina showed up later that morning when I was up to my elbows with getting the new garden beds finished. I brushed the dirt and wood chips off and went in and got the fossils and a big magnifying glass.

    We sat around the blue table on the covered porch and went back in time. Way back.

    I pick up rocks wherever I go. Come back from walks and rambles with my pockets full and the latest best one in my hand. I love the solid feel of stone in my hand. A connection with place and time as I walk.

    I have bags of rocks from different trips. I am not a labeler. Not a careful cataloger with correct names and geological sequences, but I can open any box or bag and go back to that walk, that time, that place.

    I had about 7 fossils on the table for John. I knew he was skeptical, I was just Benjy, a few years older than his son. Not an academic credential to my name, or after my name. Well, none that related to the rocks at hand anyway. No university affiliation, no organizational membership. The professorial clan has invested heavily in that stock and I had exactly zip in my account.

    I put the first one out. It is a piece of fossilized mud, about 3 inches thick, dark reddish brown on top where minerals concentrated in the drying, dying lake, pale along the sides where other bits of windblown sediments fell into the great puzzle of cracked and hardened mud, grey on the bottom where it connected to the old layers of river borne sediments.

    I showed him the dimple where a raindrop landed, back when it was still soft enough to take an imprint, before it was covered with a kilometer or more of sand and then sandstone and then all that overburden wore away again to expose this piece of the story to light and air again and let me reach down and pick it up.

    He looked at it with the glass.

    But how do you know, he said.

    Carly brought out the box of jewelers’ loupes she used with her sixth grade science classes. The other night John and his wife Tina, both had had a go at Carly about her statement that smart phones and apps and connectivity could be a tool in the classroom.

    They should just ban the things, they declared. This is just ridiculous. Surely teaching hasn’t changed.

    Carly bristled and went silent.

    You use these in your classroom, he asked, putting a loupe to his eye. I never heard of them.

    Carly explained about observing and drawing and using metaphor to develop and deepen understanding.

    I showed him the shoulder blade, the leg bone, the piece of jaw with the broken tooth, the piece of bone with the epidermis and the dermis and the little holes where the hair follicles went in.

    Skin, he said.

    Tina joined us at the table. Passing from hand to hand solid chunks of the stocky reptiles that ruled the earth in their time.

    I told them about the great Karoo, the brooding desert in the heart of South Africa. How once it had been a vast and twined system of swamp and lake and inland sea. How a change had come. How it had dried and baked. How in the land of scrub and stone this layer of reddish brown crops out marking the boundary between the deep layers below of grey stone, born of muds and floods and water, and over it, towering layers of windblown sediment. Mountains of sandstones. The layer is one thin page in a long, long book. It marks a moment of time. A moment when things changed, when there was a definite before and a definite after. Above and below.

    The Permian extinction. The closest yet to the end of life on earth. The Great Drying.

    Below, Pangaea, the sheltered Tethys Sea and the vast and surrounding Panthalassa Ocean. A supercontinent and an alien and yet weirdly familiar life in the swamps there beneath towering fernlike forests, from sea to shining sea.

    Above, maybe 96% are gone. Lost for all time in a wilderness of shifting blowing sands.

    You now how mud looks when it dries, I asked.

    They nodded thinking of the thin skin of mud around a drying puddle, or maybe CNN coverage of drought somewhere.

    I pushed out the piece of fossilized mud again.

    Suddenly they saw it. A piece of the puzzle.

    See Tina, said John. There’s where a raindrop landed.

    We all looked at the dimple in the stone. 250 million years ago. At the end of an age before the dinosaurs. The last raindrop landed in mud soft enough to take an impression.
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