It was a very strange feeling. Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum. Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum. On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth. Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth. On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up. Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints. Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines. Some of them even look like angel wings. But there’s a draw to the unusual.
Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify. It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination. And I had to wait in line to get an identification. It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum. The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil. She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral. This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian. The age of fishes. I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.
Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology. There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology. I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils. Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is). The earth is a great museum. Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers. It felt as if time was actually progressing.