I REMEMBER seeing a flat piece of stone on a library table, with the skeleton of a fish distinctly raised on one surface. The friend who owned this strange-looking specimen told me that she found it in a stone quarry. She brought home a large piece of the slate, and a stone-mason cut out the block with the fish in it, and her souvenir made a useful and interesting paper-weight.
The story of that fish I heard with wonder, and have never forgotten. I had never heard of fossil animals or plants until my good neighbour talked about them. She showed me bits of stone with fern leaves pressed into them. One piece of hard limestone was as full of little sea-shells as it could possibly be. One ball of marble was a honeycombed pattern, and called "fossil coral."
The fossil fish was once alive, swimming in the sea, and feeding on the things it liked to eat, as all happy fishes do. Near shore a river poured its muddy water into the sea, and the sandy bottom was covered with the mud that settled on it. At last the fish grew old, and perhaps a trifle stupid about catching minnows. It died, and sank to the muddy floor of the sea. Its horny bones were not dissolved by the water. They remained, and the mud filtered in and filled all the spaces. Soon the fish was buried completely by the sediment the river brought.
Years, thousands of them, went by, and the layer of mud was so thick and heavy above the skeleton of the fish that it bore a weight of tons there, under the water. The close-packed mud became a stiff clay. After more thousands of years, the sea no longer came so far ashore, for the river had built up a great delta of land out of mud. The clay in which the fish was hidden hardened into slate. Water crept down in the loose upper layers, dissolving out salt and other minerals, and having harder work to soak through, the lower it went. The water left some of the minerals it had accumulated, calcium and silica and iron, in the lower rock beds, making them harder than they were before, and heavier and less porous.
When the river gorge was cut through these layers of rock, the colour and thickness of each kind were laid bare. Centuries after, perhaps thousands of years, indeed, the quarrymen cut out the layers fit for building stones, flags for walks and slates for roofing. In the splitting of a flagstone, the long-buried skeleton of the fish came to light.
Under our feet the earth lies in layers. Under the soil lie loose beds of clay and sand and gravel, and under these loose kinds of earth are close-packed clays, sandstones, limestones, shales, often strangely tilted away from the horizontal line, but variously fitted, one layer to another. Under these rocks lie the foundations of the earth—the fire-formed rocks, like granite. The depth of this original rock is unknown. It is the substance out of which the earth is made, we think. All the layered rocks are made of particles of the older ones, stolen by wind and water, and finally deposited on the borders of lakes and seas. So our rivers are doing to-day what they have always done—they are tearing down rocks, grinding and sifting the fragments, and letting them fall where the current of fresh water meets a great body of water that is still, or has currents contrary to that of the river.
Do you see a little dead fish in the water? It is on the way to become a fossil, and the mud that sifts over it, to become a layer of slate. Every seashore buries its dead in layers of sand and mud.