An Elaboration of Ever More Perfect Eyes by Gregory Dunn
And that, doubtless, is why the history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen. — Teilhard de Chardin
You could, of course, just go to a northern Michigan gift shop. It will have buckets of Petoskey stones, mottled with their distinctive honeycomb pattern, in all sizes and at any price point. If you like, you can even buy ones that have been carved into whimsical animals or shaped to Michigan’s profile. The cheaper ones are simply sprayed with lacquer, but the best have been hand buffed to a mellow sheen. Yes, you can tell the difference, and you should pay for the quality.
But why do that when it's easy enough to find your own? Look on the beaches that rim the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula from Manistee to Alpena. Go there on a fine day in early June, when the lake breeze ripples the bright blue waters and sways the white pines anchoring the dunes above you.
Don’t try to find them above the water line. When dry, they look like ordinary limestone—dark gray flecked with lighter gray, maybe with fine specks of quartz that glint as you turn it in the light.
So wade on in. Though the shore is usually sandy, the shifting winds and waves uncover stretches of beach rocks, basalt and chert and granite, which glisten all hues when resting under the water’s edge. Those are pleasing enough to distract you, and go ahead and be distracted. Pick up those smooth, oval stones. Turn them over in your hand and slip them into your pocket. But keep sifting through them.
The water reveals the stone’s eyes, and that is what you should look for. Don’t be fooled by the dappled pattern of light cast by the sun shining though the water. When you find one, keep it wet and study it. You’ll see a network of interlocked hexagons about the diameter of a pencil. The center of each hexagon will have an eye, and the eye will be finely dappled, and delicate lines will radiate from the eye to the edge of the hexagon like the rays on a child’s drawing of the sun.
You can polish the stone yourself with some fine grit wet/dry sandpaper. Daubing it with a little mineral oil will have the same effect. Or just keep it as you found it. That would be good, too.
You don’t have to go to the beach. Inland, a quarry will yield them, too. It will take some work, though. You will need stout boots. You will need a rock hammer and a cold chisel.
You may find the quarry disorienting. The place has been, quite literally, turned upside down. The quarry workers cleared the cedar, fir, and spruce trees, scraped off the thin, sandy topsoil, then smashed through the shale overburden to reach the thick band of limestone beneath. They carted away the limestone, but the shale they tumbled behind them in long, parallel rows. The men and their machines are gone now, but the place has not recovered—a barren scar slashed in the face of the earth, full of shards of gray rock.
As you pick your way across the quarry floor, look closely at those rocks and you will see bits of fossils peeking out. When you find one, take your hammer and chisel and start tapping the rock above and below, and farther away than you think you need to. With any luck, it will crack along a stress fracture. Work that crack until it folds away and reveals the fossil inside.
It will be larger and more complete than the fragments you found on the beach, and, since it hasn’t been polished by the waves, it will come to your hand rough and jagged, all its surface features intact. On top, the honeycombs will be deeply pitted, the eyes and rays cast in three dimensions. Flip it over, and you will see where its stem attached to the reef, and how the stem steps out in ridged lines toward its edge.
There is no need to consider how to polish it. Just set in on your desk as it is.
You need only your imagination.
First, consider that the American Midwest was once covered by a shallow and tropical salt water sea. If you like, note that this was about 400 million years ago, during the Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era, but this is not necessary. There will not be a test.
These seas laid down sediments, sometimes as a fine muddy silt, which became shale, and other times as a layer of the skeletons of the sea’s plankton and corals, which became limestone. The fossils you found on the beach and in the quarry came from these sediments.
Consider further that these fossils are smaller parts of a disappeared ecosystem. If you looked carefully on the beach and in the quarry, you found fragments of these other creatures as well.
Now go ahead and imagine that ancient reef spread across the ocean floor. Here and there it is punctuated by large, solitary, horn-shaped corals crowned with delicate fringe. Nearby, a forest of sea lilies undulate in the gentle current, and, at their roots, scuttling trilobites kick up silt. Above them drifts a twenty-foot long armored fish stalking its prey, a school of primitive ray-finned fishes, whose pointed heads and diamond scales flash as they dart back and forth.
The hexagonaria—the name of the creatures that the Petoskey stones were—are clustered together in great mounds there in the reef. Tiny invertebrates flit in and out of each honeycomb eye, filtering the plankton brought to them on the ebb and flow of that ancient ocean’s tides.
It looks nothing like a gift shop stone. It looks like the living creature it once was.