I owe a lot to fossils. Growing up just a block from a fossil-laden river in western Pennsylvania, as a kid I’d go fossil hunting with my brothers. They weren’t difficult to find. Maybe not museum-quality, but not bad considering that they were free for the taking. I’d pour over some rock with many shells perfectly impressed in it and wonder. Of course, my childhood religion taught that the earth was quite a young place because that’s what the Bible seemed to indicate. Other than Chick tracts and related comic books we didn’t have many books around the house to explain this discrepancy. One thing was pretty clear—the fossils were quite real. We had no doubt that there had been dinosaurs. How they fit into the Bible’s chronology (since the Good Book was written long before dinosaurs had been discovered) was unclear.
Mine was not an educated family. We simply believed what the preacher told us. Since Fundamentalist preachers don’t attend seminary, their response was probably something along the lines of, “the Bible says…” Thinking about how to apply the Bible in a complex world was not their strong suit. So we’d be taught that evolution was evil, but just literally a stone’s throw from the church hundreds of fossils could be found. I suppose the evidence of those fossils kept me grounded. I never could buy the “theory” that God created the world with apparent evidence of great age to test our faith. A deity like that isn’t worthy of the name.
I still pick up fossils when I find them. Apart from a brain coral and some crinoids, mostly I just find shells. Knowing that this particular rock is evidence of the sea floor millions of years ago is thrilling. It puts me in touch with the great antiquity of our planet, the times when people had not yet evolved to complicate everything. Just a few days ago I found a rock with a vignette of life under the sea. Looking at it closely there are crinoids among the shells, and what appear to be a drag mark where some unknown creature disturbed the silty Paleozoic sea bottom on its way someplace long before humans showed up. Fossils always remind me of the responsibility of reading the Bible with an eye toward rationality and a recognition that a guide isn’t the same thing as a taskmaster asking you to believe the ridiculous. That, I suppose, is why I can’t pass up a fossil on the ground.