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The road to the Carboniferous Period leads through Nova Scotia

When you visit certain parts of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, you can easily imagine yourself stepping back in time.

When you visit certain parts of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, you can easily imagine yourself stepping back in time.

The towns seem like towns from the 1950s preserved-in-amber, lifestyles are deeply rooted in the land or sea, and people move in a casual, unhurried way.

Sometimes those people do not even seem to move at all. Near Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, I recently saw what appeared to be two corpses lying in the middle of the road.

Upon closer inspection, however, the corpses turned out to be two teenagers enjoying an amorous tryst. It was as if the automobile hadn’t been invented yet.

Within a short distance of Parrsboro itself, you can find places so far back in time that they predate even the world of Jurassic Park.

Take West Bay, for example. A local named Eldon George told me that its cliffs are “an excellent drag site.”

He did not mean that these cliffs were a popular hangout for local men who liked to dress up as women.

Rather, he was referring to the fossilized drag marks and prints of prehistoric creatures preserved in the rock.

As if to prove his point, Eldon, a dedicated amateur fossil collector, showed me the prints of a horseshoe crab, albeit a horseshoe crab that would have been only a few centimetres long.

The drag mark of its spiky tail swiveled behind these prints like a miniature “s.”

“Maybe 250 million years ago, these little buggers were walking around on the sea bottom here — imagine!” Eldon exclaimed.

Indeed, “little buggers” were once the dominant form of life in this part of Nova Scotia.

In 1984, Eldon discovered a rock crisscrossed by fine tiny trackways at nearby Wasson Bluff.

These trackways turned out to have been made by the smallest dinosaur ever found, an animal scarcely bigger than a house sparrow.

Eldon was more exhilarated by his discovery, an early Jurassic ancestor of Stephen Spielberg’s charismatic mega-reptiles, than if he had found the jawbone of a T rex. For him, size matters, but in reverse.

So there the two of us were, studying the cliff face at West Bay for evidence of Parrsboro’s prehistoric past. Eldon’s 75-year-old eyes were much better at this than my somewhat younger eyes.

At one point he showed me some small depressions in the rock and told me that they’d been made by pellets of ancient hail.

I almost found myself saying: The buggers that made those little holes fell millions and millions of years ago — imagine!

As we moved along the base of the cliff, we saw dozens of ancient mussel shells imbedded in the rock.

Eldon also pointed out what he said might be the drag mark from the tail of a Batrachopus, a primitive crocodilian so small that a mere toddler probably could have wrestled it into submission.

“I’m so lucky, living near a storehouse for such treasures,” Eldon told me.

We could have searched this storehouse all day, but the tide was coming in, and as this was the Bay of Fundy (actually, Minas Basin), it was coming in quite dramatically.

Even as I watched, the sea was swallowing up large boulders. Lest we be swallowed up ourselves, we headed back to Eldon’s house, and he showed me one of his favourite finds — a chunk of rock that had the tracks of two mating horseshoe crabs imbedded in it.

The Bay of Fundy reveals at least as much as it swallows up. Its 12- to 15-metre tides — the highest in the world — sweep against cliffs like those at West Bay and Wasson Bluff, abrading and eroding them.

This activity constantly exposes fresh outcrops of rocks, each with its own potential gallery of fossils. Thus you can find new fossils on an almost daily basis … twice daily, in fact.

The idea of “new” fossils coming into the world may seem like a paradox, but on Fundy shores it’s a reality.

After I left Parrsboro, I decided to go even farther back in time, so I headed for Joggins.

Driving along Nova Scotia’s Route 209, I passed the pinprick towns of Port Greville, Diligent River, and Advocate Harbour.

Near Apple River, a moose sauntered casually across the road and vanished into a spruce thicket on the other side.

In two hours, I saw only five other vehicles, each of whose drivers greeted me with a wave. Then I arrived in Joggins (Micmac for “Place of the Fish Weirs”).

The town reminded me of the half-derelict town in Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show, with Fundy fog replacing West Texas dust.

But appearances can be deceptive. For Joggins — described by 19th century geologist Abraham Gesner as “the place where the delicate herbage of a former world is now transmuted into stone” — has recently been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At the Joggins Fossil Centre, I met Don Reid, another dedicated amateur and a man who’d been collecting fossils for over 70 years.

He showed me a fossil tree trunk and asked me to smell it. I smelled charcoal from (imagine!) a 300,000,000-year-old fire probably sparked by the super-abundance of oxygen in the air.

“Welcome to the Carboniferous Period,” Don said, and went on to tell me that local cliffs preserved the most complete record of life at the time of this fire of anywhere in the world.

With fossils, it’s not always easy to tell the players without a program, so I was fortunate that Dr. John Calder, a geologist specializing in the Carboniferous, was visiting Joggins.

Soon he and I — joined by a couple of locals — were going for a leisurely prehistoric stroll on the rocky beach just below town.

Right away he pointed to part of a fossilized tree trunk in the cliff face.

It was more than a half-metre in diameter, which made it seem more robust than delicate.

Vaguely bamboo-like, it also seemed somewhat familiar.

“It’s a Calamites,” John said, “an ancestor of the present-day horsetail.”

As it happened, a bunch of horsetails were growing at the edge of a nearby sward.

They were more than a half-metre high, whereas the Calamites would have been 15 metres high or more.

This prompted one of the locals who’d joined us to say: “Honey, I shrunk the horsetail.”

What shrunk the horsetail, in fact, was climate change. It prospered in the hot, humid climate of the Carboniferous, but did not prosper with the arrival of global cooling.

Yet if the current warming trend continues, perhaps horsetails will again rise to stately heights.

John now showed us a diamond-shaped pattern in the rock, saying that it was from the stump of a Lepidendron, an arboreal ancestor of the club moss.

Once again, the ancestor would have dwarfed its descendent 20 or 30 times over.

It was inside a stump like this one, John observed, that bones from the world’s oldest reptile were found in the 1850s. He added that Hylonomus lyelli, named for Charles Darwin’s mentor Sir Charles Lyell, is Nova Scotia’s provincial fossil.

Fossils seem to inspire both a hunter-gatherer and a competitive urge, so after we heard about the tree-stump reptile, we began trying to find fossils new to science ourselves.

At one point I noticed a strange meandering trail on an algae-covered boulder.

“Look — the trackway of an ancient worm!” I exclaimed.

“Actually, it’s a periwinkle’s trackway from a couple of hours ago,” John said, adding: “But many geologists have made that same mistake.”

Later he showed us a trackway that resembled the tread of a caterpillar tractor. It had been made not by a prehistoric caterpillar tractor, but by a prehistoric arthropod called an Arthropleura.

Probably similar to a millipede, the Arthropleura was the largest land creature in Joggins 300,000,000 or so years ago.

“How big was it?” a girl asked.

“Maybe six or seven feet long,” John replied.

“A seven-foot millipede — gross!” the girl yelped.

I thought about posing this question to her: Which is more gross, a giant arthropod whose specialty — then as now — would have been recycling the litter in its environment or a modern hominid whose specialty is creating litter all over its environment?

After the walk was over, I decided to investigate the cliffs on my own. So the following day I went down to the beach and quickly found myself engulfed by a dense Fundy fog.

I could barely make out the cliffs, but I did see what looked like the newly-exposed trunk of a Lepidendron tree.

All of a sudden, I heard a voice in the fog, and then a wraith seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

The wraith turned out to be a man talking loudly into his cellphone. So intent was he on his conversation that he did not seem to notice me.

A moment later, he disappeared although I could still hear his disembodied voice shouting in the fog.

Welcome to the present age, I said to myself.

Travel writer Lawrence Millman is the author of Last Places: A Journey in the North among many other books. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.

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