I have a smart younger sister. Not genius level, but close enough. She loves rocks and Native American artifacts. Not long ago, she phoned me to tell me something incredible had happened. “You’ve fallen in love,” I suggested. “Someone offered to buy your house for twice its worth.” Or, barring all that, “your tortoise is pregnant.”
Imagine my surprise when she explained that she’d found a 300 million years old plant. A three by four foot fossil—a cypress-like plant called Walchia.
To put the 300 million years in perspective, dinosaurs thrived 220 million years ago.
She found her plant at the Kinney Brick Quarry in the Manzano Mountains, eleven miles south of the Tijeras Canyon, east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Three hundred million years ago it was at sea level—a brackish place, with shallow water. Now it was at the top of a mountain. A treasure trove of fossils, paleontologists have discovered plants, shell fish, spiders and cockroaches, and even a shark there—and there’s a lot more to be found.
On that day the twenty-five members of the Friends of Paleontology each found their stations and began by removing the old stuff—most of it broken rocks—and then, searched between layers of smooth shale with paint scrapers and brushes, prying the shale away. My sister started looking at pieces of a plant, a plant that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. The question was, should she keep working and take it out, or do what she could to preserve it where it was. She didn’t know, but she was with a bunch of experts and they all gave her the go ahead.
They took that beautiful thing from the mountain. The plant has been put away with other bits of the site, and she may never see it again. After all, it’s just a thin piece of a carbon environment, one bit of a place that’s full of primitive life, all of it hidden away in boxes and drawers now. A place that was lifted up to the top of a mountain from a murky swamp. Amazing. Our planet has had the most extraordinary life.
But finding anything that’s part of that drama “would have been a joy to me,” she said. Not bad for a little sister, I say.