Inspired by a sea-shell seller
I was eight when I read the story of Mary Anning, the “she” of She sells sea shells by the sea shore tongue-twister fame.
The early 19th-century girl discovered a complete fossilised ichthyosaur skeleton on the beach at Lyme Regis in Dorset, turning the British scientific establishment on its head. I was transfixed — imagine finding such a thing! And at 11 years old and with only Sunday school education, she understood its significance.
Until Anning’s discovery, the prevailing biblical belief put the age of the world at 6000 years. She went on to find many more significant fossils and contributed enormously to the understanding of natural history, but she was never allowed to join the Royal Society.
I found the story terribly sad as well as wildly exciting; I was hooked on palaeontology. As a child I read everything I could find on the subject and dreamed of bones and imprints. But life has a habit of directing one elsewhere. I never got that degree and the only fossils I saw had been found by others and displayed behind glass.
So when we began planning a trip to Europe, Lyme Regis was on the not-to-be-missed list. In the middle of winter, the beach was crawling with fossil fossickers. Dogs sniffed and splashed and the kids were fascinated we’d come from the other side of the world to their beach.
We found three small, fossilised ammonites (long-extinct molluscs) worn smooth by waves across the millennia. Someone had cracked open a lump of soft shale to reveal a perfect imprint of a long-dead marine creature. It was too soft to move, but breathtaking to see the detail in the fine shadows as the gulls wheeled overhead.
The village takes its position on England’s Jurassic Coast very seriously; there are several fossil stores and the street lights feature a stylised ammonite. There are organised fossil walks and a tour that maps Anning’s life. Her father, a cabinet-maker, died when she was very young and she had supplemented the family income by selling sea shells and fossils to visitors on the shore, hence the tongue-twister composed in 1908.
Later at dusk, in the village churchyard, we found Anning’s grave. She lived in poverty and died in 1847 of breast cancer at just 47. We left an ammonite among the pile of fossil offerings on her grave. Send your 400-word contribution to Follow the Reader: firstname.lastname@example.org. Columnists will receive a beautifully boxed set of a dozen 2ml vials of woody, floral and spicy scents from international fragrance house Amouage; $110. More: libertineparfumerie.com.au.