The Coelacanth and Me

When you relocate cross country everything changes. And quickly! As part of the journey from old to new, people you don’t know are involved – if only temporarily – in your life. So when the movers came to pack up my belongings, I wasn’t surprised at the comment of one mover, ‘Are you really taking all those rocks?’, he asked. ‘Of course,’ I said. But the truth is they were not just rocks. They were and are an important part of my life. No, they aren’t diamonds, but they’re every bit as special to me.

My fossil fish

My fossil fish

I confess to being a fossil hunter and a rock hound. In Illinois, it was easy if you knew where to look and what to look for. Which brings me to the coelacanth. My then companion Steve, his German Shepard, Commodore, and I often made the drive on I-55 from Chicago to Braidwood, the site of the Peabody Coal Mine Pit 11.  It was a strip coal mine.

We were passengers in the diminutive orange Chevy Blazer dwarfed by the enormous equipment that clawed back the earth to expose and harvest the coal beneath. Coal is compressed prehistoric plant material. It is in the coal and adjacent rock that surprises lurk. Life from prehistoric times never before seen by eyes – let alone human eyes! When you crack the concretions – those symmetrical lumps of rock that split cleverly to reveal their secrets– wonderful impressions emerge that were made from life long gone. Ferns, Trilobites, Tully Monsters, worms, jelly fish, pine needles and so much more.

It was on one of those trips I found a largish concretion, and carefully split it open, fully expecting another fern or pine needle fossil. But I was wrong. There it was – a Coelacanth. I was the first human ever to see it! At the time, it was believed to be extinct, but today we know better.

I still have my collection of fossils from Pit 11 and many other sites. They’re in a basket in my living room where they rest as reminders of my past as much as reminders of theirs. Life is about exploration. They are memoirs of not just the earth’s prehistory, but of my quest, relationships now gone, and treasured experiences.

Today, the strip mine is no more. It is a national park – dedicated by one of our presidents. But beneath the lush grass and trees, and in the adjacent landscape, images of ghosts from before man walked the earth are still present for those who choose to look.

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