With this book, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, I did something I almost never do. I got the book from Amazon a few weeks ago. I read it cover to cover. Today I went back to re-read the book.
The book is not without flaws, and I will address them before long. However, I do enjoy Fortey's chatty, personable style. He actually visited most of the sites where he found living remnants of his ancient life forms. He describes the locations -- many, some of the most remote in the world - as well as the guides and transport he used to access them. It is like an odd sort of safari. I began re-reading with his chapter on the stromatolites. In this chapter especially, Fortey conveys an excellent sense of "deep time." The stromatolites are about the only fossils from the deep pre-Cambrian -- and go back a billion years before other organisms evolved and thrived. These strange colony organisms were comprised of a symbiosis of several bacteria, creating mushroom shaped rock-like living structures.
Dr. Fortey takes us to the actual location where the fossil animals survive -- with the stromatolites, it is Shark's Bay in Australia. For the velvet worm, it is the rotting tree boles of New Zealand. His narrative is enlivened by a lively description of the location. To get to Shark's Bay, Fortey had a 22-hour Greyhound Bus ride to the extreme, remote part of Australia. One may think of Crocodile Dundee and a portrayal of "Walkabout Flats" in the eponymous movie.
Fortey's writing style is permeated with latinate words. In a single sentence, one can often find several four or five syllable words. Hence the writing is rather dense at times. The reader must be somewhat forbearing. However, Fortey is as much a popular writer as a scientist, and this is certainly evident if we review his recent publishing history. Fortey can make remote creatures such as stromatolites, trilobites, velvet worms, and other exotica to be rather exciting.
The book spans 317 pages of rather dense material, and most of it nonetheless engages and draws the reader. I must confess, there were a few chapters that were deadly dull, where Fortey abandoned his usual engaging "just you and me" style and submerged himself in technical language. Well, "two out of three ain't bad," as the old saying goes. Sometimes, too, I would wish he could cool down on the chatty personal anecdotes --- which can be excessive -- and keep on his subject better than he does.
Even so, Fortey conveys that feeling of "deep time," the sense of eons of time. Let me quote once-- "fossils dated at 3.5 billion years have been found in the Apex Chert of Western Australia and in Swaziland. It is hardly possible to imagine such antiquity. I have the same trouble trying to grasp the number of stars in the Milky Way, for my mind loses its frame of reference when numbers get so large." Well, when you look at 3.5 billion years, you are looking at 3500 millions of years. That's quite a bite for most of us. And yet in that remote past time, stromatolites were flourishing.
One attractive quality of Fortey's book is to correct and update misleading or erroneous "notions" that have recently been overturned. One correction he makes several times is to disclaim the phrase, "blue-green algae." Fortey states -- based on more recent science -- that there's no such beast. The biota described are "the blue-greens," as he calls them. But they are NOT algae.
What is among the fascinating observations at the base of his book is that the "prehistory" he describes yet lives today. Stromatolites, complex colony creatures from the earliest eras of the earth history, can still be found and observed. Ditto for the velvet worms -- organisms that are still to be found thriving throughout New Zealand even though of immeasurable antiquity.
Although God created new "layers" of life, such as eucharotic cells and the multifarous animals of the Burgess Shale, nonetheless God oftentimes forgot to erase the blackboard. So some of the earliest denizens of the living earth have still persisted, only waiting for Fortey to find them, and to highlight them.
Heck of a book. Strongly recommended. I am planning to send a copy or two to friends as a Christmas gift this year.
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