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Creek Running North

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February 10, 2004

Sand dollar

My poor wife is up late sewing costumes for a school play. Hours of labor spent for kids who won't appreciate it, whose parents couldn't be bothered. She's complaining, but in vain, because that's the kind of person she is: reflexively selfless.

Last year she and my brother Craig and I were fossil hunting south of here. Craig was having a rough week. We were trying to distract him, and fossil hunting is one of those things he and I do when we're looking for distraction. It's an activity replete with metaphor: searching the rubble, the worthless shards of soft and crumbling rock for some hint of something that might once have been alive.

The outcrop we were working is late Miocene, a silty Briones Formation sandstone laid down in shallow water about 15 million years ago. The Union Pacific runs through the site: we found that day a partial skeleton of a fawn that apparently didn't get off the tracks in time. Its skull now sunbathes on our front porch, its jaw in a box of school supplies for when Becky teaches some subject to which deer bones are relevant.

The rock holds clams and scallops not much different from the ones in San Francisco and Tomales bays, sea snails still curled around pockets of sand grains, russet stains of iron ore running through the rock. Where tree roots penetrate into the rock, water and humic acid soon turn the moderately solid rock to gelatin. There are ticks and poison oak and the occasional fawn-killing train speeding around the blind curve. It's a happy place.

The slope, an apron of scree well above the angle of repose, resisted our attempts to climb, and the fossils often crumbled as we pried them from the cliff. But before too long we had a few pockets full of the usual clams and scallops and snails, rescued from the next rock-crumbling storm. And then a coup: Becky found what is surely the coolest fossil anyone has pulled out of that cliff: a sand dollar, still pink and about an inch across.

My brother and I, being not only brothers but more to the point male, have this little competitive thing we do when fossil hunting. Well, not just when fossil hunting, but let's not get into the rest right now. We scan the ground, the talus pile, the outcrop above, looking for petrified exoskeletons and leaf impressions and pterodactyl wing imprints and the like. And we each find interesting things pretty reliably. We've been doing this for 35 years and you get to know when a certain rock will hold a fossil on the underside. One of us finds, oh I dunno, a dimetrodon tooth and says "hey COOL, look what I just found," and the other comes over and admires it, and we are both sincere in our admiration of the other's fossil. But it's better to be the one who finds, because that proves coolness, which springs from happening to notice something first just because the other guy headed in a different direction. There is a certain amount of preening that takes place. Imprecations are hurled, and aspersions cast on the eyesight and intelligence of one's rival. Good times.

Unfortunately, Craig usually finds the better stuff, which is like so totally unfair. And so I overcompensate when I find something worth showing off. I am reasonably certain I would have been insufferable had I found that sand dollar, thrusting it into Craig's face, my gloat flecked all over with little sparkly bits of hubris as he admired it — which he would have, because he did. I would feel myself lifted up slightly by the grudging admiration from my brother for having been in the right place at the right time, and managing not to be distracted by something shiny.

This past weekend, Becky told me her first thought on finding the sand dollar was to run to Craig and show him. Oddly, however, there was no gloating involved. "This will cheer him up," she thought. "I've got to show it to him right now."

Reflexively selfless.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 10, 2004 11:49 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Wonderful post.

My wife is like that too. Compassion is so native to her she has no idea, half the time, that she's displaying it.

I can aspire to that, but I don't think I'm likely to get anywhere near it in this life.

Posted by: dale at February 11, 2004 10:59 AM
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This post is a beautiful counterpoint to today's entry on "envy" over at CommonBeauty. Thanks, Chris, and thanks, Becky for your selflessness.

Posted by: beth at February 11, 2004 05:41 PM
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Might you let us see a photo of the sand dollar? I'm entranced by the thought of its pinkness.

Posted by: Pica at February 12, 2004 06:58 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs