Vermont's Famous Fossils Get New Exhibit | History | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont's Famous Fossils Get New Exhibit


Published June 18, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

Take a walk through Isle La Motte's Goodsell Ridge Preserve, and you'll have to make an effort to avoid treading on the fossilized remains of prehistoric creatures. It's easy to spot the whorled forms of ancient gastropods (the ancestors of snails and slugs), and only slightly trickier to recognize the impressions of the antediluvian precursors of modern octopi and squids.

The fossil beds, which are some of the most prominent and geologically significant portions of the formation known as the Chazy Reef, are history written in stone. To stroll among them is to contemplate the history of the Earth: Some of the fossils at Goodsell Ridge are 480 million years old.

Char Mehrtens, a professor of geology at the University of Vermont, has researched, visited and written about the Chazy Reef for much of her career. In an email to Seven Days, she writes, "The Chazy Reef is important because it is the oldest example of a biologically diverse reef ecosystem on earth ... By 'biologically diverse,' I mean that the framework of the reef — organisms that lived together to create the physical reef structure — are of a variety of taxa [taxonomic groups] living in an ecological community."

The almost palpable sense of deep history offered by the geology of Goodsell Ridge is what makes it an ideal location for "A Walk Through Time," a recently installed educational exhibit that combines geology, evolutionary biology and a healthy dose of wonder.

Created in 1997 by Sid Liebes, a scientist at Hewlett-Packard's California headquarters, "A Walk Through Time" consists of 71 large, illustrated panels that, arranged into a timeline, recount the 4.6 billion years of the Earth's geological and biological history. In all the sites where the project has been exhibited — the Bay Area, Michigan, Switzerland and now Isle La Motte — its panels have been arranged along a 4,600-foot path. At that scale, each linear foot of the exhibit's path represents about a million years of history.

Linda Fitch is the president and founder of the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust (ILMPT), the nonprofit organization that is hosting the exhibit. For decades, her family has owned a home at the former Fisk Quarry, a nearby site that, through her efforts, is now a tranquil preserve. Her love of the island's natural surroundings runs deep.

Fitch says she first learned about "A Walk Through Time" in January 2014 through her friend, author Jennifer Morgan, the project's educational consultant, who is based in Princeton, N.J. Morgan, who has created children's books and a website on the subject of evolutionary history, had herself been contacted by the exhibit's owners, who were looking for a new location. One call was all it took for Fitch to sign up the Trust as host.

The ILMPT charges no admission and depends for its operation on donations, grants and the proceeds from hosting summertime art events. Fitch stresses that the exhibit could not have been mounted without the contributions of the Lake Champlain Land Trust, with which the ILMPT has collaborated for years. "They're our big brothers," says Fitch. "Their name and expertise are really important."

"A Walk Through Time" was made available to the Trust for the cost of transporting it to Vermont from Michigan. "So," says Fitch, "one of our board members and his son borrowed a truck from a neighbor and drove out to Grand Rapids in May. It was a hero's journey." The trailer in which the exhibit was hauled is still parked discreetly on-site.

The exhibit is a labor of love. Volunteers mapped out its winding course, mowed and now maintain the path along which observers walk and erected the weatherproof placards. Charming, handmade wooden signs, adorned with spirals derived from the shape of the iconic gastropod fossils, guide visitors along the twisting trail.

Though it has already welcomed several groups of field-tripping schoolchildren, "A Walk Through Time"'s official grand opening will take place this Sunday, June 22, complete with ribbon cutting and live music. Even on recent days when raindrops and mosquitoes arrived in equally large numbers, Fitch has enjoyed leading kids along the trails, she says; she's been impressed by their questions and enthusiasm. Her eyes light up when she discusses the exhibit's educational potential.

Perhaps those students' enthusiasm is rooted in the fact that the exhibit's educational approach is unlike those of bone-dry science textbooks. "A Walk Through Time" is infused with a sense of wide-eyed awe; its subtitle, "From Stardust to Us," bespeaks the "we are all connected" ethos that underpins the placards' text. A panel that details 3-billion-year-old bacterial division asks, for instance, "What would happen if human beings could swap ideas as readily as these bacteria swap genes?"

Fitch — whose professional experience is in the field of nonprofits, not science — embraces this approach. She calls the exhibit "a way for someone like me to understand science, be fascinated with it and filled with the wonder of it ... What most great scientists feel is really mystical. It's not all dry equations. They're motivated by wonder and passion. I'm getting that now."

Mehrtens, who helped install the exhibit, feels much the same way. "Yes, the 'we are all stardust' may sound 'touchy-feely,'" she writes in an email, "but, from a science perspective, it's very true. You, your dog Spot and your houseplant are really just 'carbon reservoirs' waiting to recycle your carbon back to the system. Your carbon has been lots of places within the Earth's carbon reservoir before it became you."

Fitch and the ILMPT have already started reaching out to school superintendents all over the state and have contacted curriculum developers at the Vermont Agency of Education. "Down the road," Fitch says, "we will have the capacity to do in-service training, particularly for primary-school teachers. We're really looking to be a significant educational resource."

The Trust may get the chance to do just that. In a recent email to Fitch, the exhibit's current owner indicated that he was so satisfied with Goodsell Ridge as a venue, he would formally transfer ownership of "A Walk Through Time" to the ILMPT. Though the transfer is still in the works, Fitch is delighted, saying that it would make "a spectacular gift." The half-billion-year-old reef and fossils of Goodsell Ridge suggest that Isle La Motte is indeed a suitable place for just about anything looking for a permanent home.

"A Walk Through Time" grand opening. Sunday, June 22, 1 p.m, at Goodsell Ridge Preserve in Isle La Motte. Free.