Trilobite Days

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The books are what I remember about the summer my family returned to “Chicagoland” from suburban Honolulu. There were so many of them! Boxed and stowed in a warehouse during our sabbatical year in the tropics, they had completely escaped my mind. In Hawaii, I don’t remember reading much at all—I was much too busy taking it all in, learning to hula, and playing jacks on the lanai with the neighborhood girls. In our “real lives,” however, we were, apparently, a family with lots and lots of books. Books that suddenly reappeared, just as the five of us were crowding into a hastily purchased split level without many shelves.

At some point, a veneered particleboard bookcase was constructed at the bottom of the basement stairs, and along with the Great Books and the Encyclopedia, it housed a number of natural history books for children. These were my favorites, and I returned to them again and again over the years, especially on those endless, cicada buzzing summer days when there was nothing to do.

Flipping through these books, I flirted with any number of obsessions–geodes, flatworms, and coelacanths, to name a few—before I selected my favorite. Dolphins and porpoises were popular at the time, but I dismissed them as too easy to love and not unusual enough for a “real” naturalist. Wooly mammoths possessed certain charms as well: those curving tusks, that shaggy fur! But it was trilobites, with their segmented, articulated bodies, tragic extinction story, and adorable ability to roll up into balls, which ignited my passion. Though they had died out many millions of years ago, there remained a lovely familiarity about them—they were sort of horseshoe crab-ish, in a sow bug-like kind of way, as my 9 year-old self would say.

Conveniently, the library was on the way to every errand in my hometown. Every ballet lesson, every trip to the grocery store, every expedition to purchase new winter coats and boots, was an opportunity to stop by. Visit the library once and you initiated a virtuous cycle: you’d be back to return the books in two weeks, when you’d undoubtedly find something new to check out. In biweekly binges, all throughout my youth, the library was where I fed my obsessions. Swapping out one pile for another, I devoured books about Amelia Earhart, platypuses, and UFOs. I read and re-read the magical stories of Edward Eager, checked out every single novel I could find that had a map in the flyleaf, and earnestly devoted myself to the subject of trilobites, even discovering, to my delight, this charmer of a poem featuring a specimen that speaks:

The Lay of the Trilobite
May Kendall (1861 – 1943)

A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.

So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!

And then, quite natural and free
Out of his rocky bed,
That Trilobite he spoke to me
And this is what he said:
‘I don’t know how the thing was done,
Although I cannot doubt it;
But Huxley – he if anyone
Can tell you all about it;

‘How all your faiths are ghosts and dreams,
How in the silent sea
Your ancestors were Monotremes –
Whatever these may be;
How you evolved your shining lights
Of wisdom and perfection
From Jelly-Fish and Trilobites
By Natural Selection.

‘You’ve Kant to make your brains go round,
Hegel you have to clear them,
You’ve Mr Browning to confound,
And Mr Punch to cheer them!
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!

‘You’ve Politics to make you fight
As if you were possessed:
You’ve cannon and you’ve dynamite
To give the nations rest:
The side that makes the loudest din
Is surest to be right,
And oh, a pretty fix you’re in!’
Remarked the Trilobite.

‘But gentle, stupid, free from woe
I lived among my nation,
I didn’t care – I didn’t know
That I was a Crustacean.
I didn’t grumble, didn’t steal,
I never took to rhyme:
Salt water was my frugal meal,
And carbonate of lime.’

Reluctantly I turned away,
No other word he said;
An ancient Trilobite, he lay
Within his rocky bed.
I did not answer him, for that
Would have annoyed my pride:
I merely bowed, and raised my hat,
But in my heart I cried: –

‘I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!’

Is it uncharitable of me to point out that my favorite couplet in the poem, “I didn’t care – I didn’t know, That I was a crustacean,” is, alas, inaccurate? Apparently, Mary Kendall didn’t know (or didn’t care) that trilobites are arthropods of the arachnomorpha subgroup. To be fair, the rhyme scheme works much better her way, and I didn’t know who Kant was at the time, so I suppose we’re even.

Although I still harbor a desire to hold one of their fossilized remnants in my hands, my infatuation with trilobites eventually waned. David Cassidy edged them out, along with sleepovers, and Nancy Drew, and the latest in pleather fashion. Still, we had a good run, the trilobites and I. Today, out of curiosity, I logged onto eBay to see if there might be someone out there trying to sell one. Wondrously, there are dozens and dozens of trilobite fossils for sale, some for just a few dollars apiece. Loved ones, if you’re reading this, Christmas is just around the corner.

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