My words fly up, my thoughts remain below

You’d think that now that I am rich in years, I’d have more than a passing acquaintance with most words; that even if I couldn’t necessarily pronounce them like a cognoscente (cognoscente springs to mind), they’d be tucked in my pocket somewhere; and that, with enough feeling around, I would find a recognizable shape and be able to pull it out -albeit usually long after the need had expired. Words can be like distant relations, or people you dated once or twice in university: usually identifiable with a little coaxing, even if you’d rather pretend you didn’t see them on the street. I like my words like that: filed away with options to use if you need to impress, or just left to lie fallow for another season.

Some words, on the other hand, seem all too odd to be invited to dinner parties, and since I certainly have experience with host reluctance, I can understand why. Who, for example, would ever get away with ‘taphonomy’, or, for that matter, ever work it into polite dessert conversation? It sounds like something a plumber might use to jack up the price as he clears his throat. At any rate, it’s a word I don’t think I could use in a sentence without excusing myself.

It turns out that taphonomist is a specialist word for a palaeontologist who deals with the processes of fossilization (which is fine if you know what a palaeontologist usually does, I suppose). It comes from the Greek ‘taphos’, which is a code word for a grave –another clue that it is not a polite word to use around old people like me.

I do not normally deal with fossilization in the course of the average day, so it caught me by surprise one morning when I heard someone at the next table in a coffee shop say they were dead (sorry) against embalming or even cryopreserving their head, should anyone ever be sufficiently emboldened to search for it at some stage in the future. “No”, they declared with a thump on their table that jarred the floor around them. “I’ve been reading about taphonomy, and I think you should consider becoming a fossil.”

Call me naïve, but this seemed a bit off kilter for the usual clientele I had come to expect in Starbucks. I often sit in the quiet corner table where people tend to speak in whispers to blend in with the shadows; it is also the table closest to the washroom, in case you’re wondering. At any rate, my ears perked up at once.

“I’m not thinking hundreds of years in the future, you understand,” the voice continued to his female companion, “but millions of years.

I risked a quick glance at the speaker, expecting an elderly man in a tweed jacket, grey flannel pants, and maybe Hush Puppies on his feet. Instead I saw a young man with long curly hair, wearing a leather bomber jacket over his Grateful Dead tee shirt, and scruffy jeans; I couldn’t see his feet. The grey haired woman with him was his grandmother -although I can’t imagine talking like that to an elderly woman who was probably already flirting with the idea of her own mortality.

“Oh really, Daniel, I don’t know where you’re getting all these strange ideas. Your grandfather and I are content to go the usual way…”

Daniel shrugged and in the dim light of our part of the room, I think I saw him roll his eyes. “Then you won’t last much more than a century, I shouldn’t imagine.” He had a quick sip of his coffee and then crammed a partially eaten doughnut into his mouth.

“But I’ll be dead, sweetheart… What will it matter?” She wiped her lips delicately with her napkin and sighed. His grandmother was obviously the clearer thinker of the two of them.

Daniel finished chewing his mouthful and then slurped his coffee noisily to wash it down. “Scientists have learned a lot about past eras through fossils, grandma…” He stifled a burp, and I could see her shake her head and stare reprovingly at him. 

“What makes you think there will actually be any humans in a million years, dear? Maybe there’ll only be cockroaches and rats left. They seem to weather the various global changes…”

Daniel smiled and shook his head from side to side. “Evolution will have changed those by then… And they’ll be as curious about us, as we are about dinosaurs or trilobites.”

“So…” -she hesitated, obviously unsure how to proceed with her wayward grandson. “Why is it important that I attempt to become a fossil? There are how many billions of us on earth right now…? Surely there’ll be plenty of our fossils to study.”

Daniel threw his arms up and shook his head at her naïveté. “Did you know that less one-tenth of 1% of all the animal species that have ever lived have become fossils? And only an estimated one bone in a billion gets fossilised. By that calculation the entire fossil legacy of the 32-odd million people alive in the Canada today will equate to approximately 6 bones.[i] And that’s if you can find them…” He stared at his empty plate for a moment. “Okay, I’m not actually sure of the figures, eh?”

His grandmother smiled, reached out to touch his hand, and stroked it. “Does that mean your grandfather and I will have to travel to the badlands of Alberta to die where they’re finding all those dinosaur fossils?” I think she winked at that point, although somebody dropped their stainless steel coffee thermos at another table, so maybe it was a flinch. “I’ve always fancied a trip to Drumheller; maybe I should book a reservation.”

Even in the dark corner, I could see the wrinkles of his frown. “You always make fun of my ideas, Grandma.”

“You’ve never mentioned fossilization before, dear.”

Another eye-roll. “Well, that’s because I didn’t know you could actually fossilize yourself.”

A solitary eyebrow rose on her face. “And now you do?”

He nodded smugly. “I read a lot…”

“And…?”

He shrugged as the smugness gradually faded into a frown. “It’s complicated, Grandma. But anyway, I found a DIY article on it…”[ii]

She smiled a patient smile. “That’s nice dear,” she said, gathering her coat from the chair beside her. “…But I have to meet grandpa for a walk in Stanley Park this morning. I’ll tell him what you suggested, but I have a feeling he may want more information before we commit ourselves to a suite in Drumheller…”

“Well, don’t leave it too long, eh? Lotta prep work involved, you know.”

In the dim light, I couldn’t tell whether he was kidding, or seriously weird.

It was grandma’s turn to roll her eyes, though. “Why don’t you send us the link to the article, sweetheart…” She hesitated for a moment after saying the word. “Isn’t that what you call it?”

He was obviously surprised at that. “But you folks don’t even have a computer, grandma…”

“That tell you anything, dear?”


[i] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180215-how-does-fossilisation-happen

[ii] Ibid.

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