“You have old stuff on your table!” announced my friend Susan Barker, a naturalist. Ready to be appalled and mortified by my own domestic failure (emotions not new to me), I grabbed a dishcloth. But she was not staring at breadcrumbs or a splotch of congealed egg yolk. Instead, she was holding a marble egg.
This was a few days before lockdown, and I had just brought out a wire basket of stone and hand-painted eggs. Her eye went straight to the black marble one. Turning it slowly in her hand, she nodded. “If that’s a belemnite hatchling, it’s between 66 and 200 million years old.”
What? It just looked like a white squiggle to me. But I like to surround myself with people who see things I cannot.
“They had ink sacs just like your favorite eight-legger octopus,” she continued. “They weren’t scavengers, but rather, predators. Remember, paleontologists rarely find a fossil that shows the soft tissue. It decomposes and/or scavengers consume it. Usually just the hard stuff, the skeleton, fossilizes—although I’ve heard of recent discoveries of dinosaur fossils showing feathers.”
The feathers gave me pause; I was not sure what to do with that image. When I refocused, Susan was suggesting that I hold the marble egg in my hand and imagine the little belemnite swimming in an ancient ocean. “The same ocean that left the limestone in our bluffs,” she added.
Obedient since childhood, I held the egg until its cool marble warmed in my hand. All the while, I stared at the squiggle. Then I did a little reading. Belemnites were squid-like—squiddish?—but with internal skeletons, which is why they make good fossils. Cephalopods, like the octopus, they looked a bit like cuttlefish. They became extinct when the dinosaurs did, 65 million years ago. But hold on. This was just an egg I bought in a gift shop twenty years ago. Surely it had been shipped a long distance, not mined in the Midwest? Where was the world’s marble, anyway? Italy, Turkey, Russia…
As it turned out, I could add much of the U.S. to that list. On a California website about stone quarries, I even found an article about “The Missouri Marble Industry in 1926”: “Marble is crystalline limestone. Most of the limestones of the world are believed to have originated from the accumulation of the calcareous remains of marine animals, such as corals and crinoids, on the bottom of the sea.”
Susan had told me weeks earlier that when Southern Illinois was beneath the ocean, sharks swam where we were standing. She had shown me a chunk of fossilized coral to prove it, a honeycomb of tiny chambers. There were also horn corals, she said (they look like a Bugle corn snack) and delicate crinoids, or sea lilies.
Were we time travelers, I said, my house would be floating on that tropical sea. “Your house is floating,” she replied. “The ground it sits on—and the rock below –is floating on hot, soft, butter-like magma. There is truly no real ‘terra firma.’ Oceans are kind of like a swimming pool on a cruise ship.”
And in all that liquidy mess, there was marble. I returned to the article: “This material accumulated through long ages, and in great thicknesses. In many cases they have been subsequently consolidated into limestones and then through earth stresses, under suitable conditions, compelled to crystallize into marble. Most of the marbles of the world belong to the Paleozoic era, the earliest of the geological eras in which there is an abundant record of life.”
I pick up the marble egg again and let its weight sink into my curved palm. “Easter eggs” is a nickname for hidden surprises, left on purpose, maybe tucked into a movie script or a painting, waiting to be discovered. By definition, they delight us, and so does this little fossil delight me. Our planet has seen cataclysmic upheavals, mass extinctions and obliterations, disasters at global scale. But a tiny squiddy thing burrows into a wet grave, and millions of years later, it is sitting in the center of my kitchen table. It reminds me of all the life this world has seen, its infinite variety of shapes and habits, and the way those long extinguished manage to preserve themselves in memory. Its marble tomb reminds me of time itself, and the tricks it can play.
Even the tomb’s shape is perfect: Eggs shelter and symbolize life. (Was the collective unconscious at work when, panicked by pandemic shortages, people bought up all the eggs?) In the Motherpeace Tarot deck, the card for rebirth shows a baby joyously hatching from a cracked cosmic egg. The poet Robert Graves imagined a goddess arising naked from Chaos, then laying the egg that contained all of creation. A Taoist myth maintains that the entire world began as a primordial egg that hatched a hermaphrodite giant. Ancient Greeks and Romans placed eggs inside tombs, or in nests beside them, as a symbol of life after death.
Then of course there is Easter, with its cyclical resurrection of the hope that our souls have been bought back, saved from time’s hard stop and death’s oblivion, redeemed. Christians snapped up the egg symbolism, appropriating the ancient but apt custom of decorating spring eggs as their own. I used to bow my head on Good Friday (it nearly always stormed in late afternoon); imagining Jesus, sweat-soaked, his own weight tearing his flesh where the nails held, turning his head from the sponge soaked in bitter wine and the mocking laughter. I could hear his hoarse cry of despair, “Eloï, Eloï, lema sabachtani?” and the peace that entered his voice when he had borne a world of pain and could finally say, “It is finished.” I thrilled to the story of castoff wrappings and an empty tomb; I woke to rainbow-colored eggs and chocolate bunnies and a new dress for church.
These days, I find it easier to worship in jeans, out of doors. I wake to the surprise of a belemnite inside an egg, grateful to make the connection, these new rites wordless but still full of wonder.