11 The Tree Stumps Lined Up

What made this paradigm shift most difficult was that, in my mind, matters of eternal importance were on the line. After all, the paradigm was based on the explicit statement that the truth of the entire Bible hinged on the scientific accuracy of a literal rendering of the first chapters of Genesis. I had to suspend firm belief on a number of critical issues.

When asked at church functions how, as a paleontologist, I had worked my way through the creation/evolution debate, I had very little to say.   I was disappointed with God, and angry with young-earthers, for overlooking a physical fact so simple, yet so compelling and far-reaching in its implications, as the existence of trace fossils.

I no longer felt that I had to defend a young age for the earth. At this point in my life, I likened time to the width of a river. My narrow creationist river of 10,000 years had broken its banks and time was spreading far, far out over the flood plain. There was no telling how far the water would go. All of a sudden it didn’t matter how old the earth was! What a remarkable sense of freedom. I now had the opportunity to sort out other problems.

These discoveries had very little impact on my research, which focused on the skeletal anatomy of a Mississippian-period tetrapod, Greererpeton, a one-meter-long, salamander-like animal whose fossils are found in West Virginia.

A skeletal restoration of the Paleozoic tetrapod Greererpeton burkemorani, in dorsal and left lateral views. The length of the tail remains unknown. The scale bar is approximately four inches. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

There was virtually no impact at the time because my research was not concerned with the age of the earth, nor was it dealing directly with the mechanisms of evolution. However, one aspect of my doctoral work would later have a great impact. Greererpeton is very similar to forms known from Mississippian and Pennsylvanian rocks in the British Isles and Ohio.  The importance and significance of this observation—that very similar forms generally occur close together chronologically or temporally within the geologic timescale—only became clear to me much later. These implications will be discussed in future posts.

The following summer, I went off to explore a number of classic Carboniferous localities in Nova Scotia with my wife Chrystal and Ingrid Birker, the Redpath Museum’s paleo-technician. Some of these sites had been yielding important vertebrate fossils for over 100 years. Much of the early paleontological work had been carried out by Sir John William Dawson in the late 19th century.

It was important for me to visit these fossil outcrops because some of the fossilized animals in Nova Scotia were similar to Greererpeton. Furthermore, these sites remain important to our understanding of the flora and fauna that characterized sediments deposited during this Paleozoic period. One of our goals was to collect vertebrate fossils (essentially animals with bony skeletons), but we came away empty-handed. (Expeditions in subsequent years were much more successful.) But in spite of that disappointment, because of something else I saw there, I returned to McGill with heightened confidence in the veracity and implications of the observations I had made in Garnet, Kansas.

Our first stop was Joggins, Nova Scotia, where part of a series of sea cliffs is exposed along 40 miles of Chignecto Bay at the head of the Bay of Fundy. This site preserves some approximately 14,000 feet of late Mississippian through to middle Pennsylvanian strata. The initial interest in Joggins was economic. The coal seams there were mined extensively during the 19th and early 20th century. The presence of coal ensured that these rocks were mapped and studied in great detail.

But for paleontologists, Joggins was and still is an exciting place to explore because the bones of ancient amphibians and the oldest known reptiles are most often preserved inside the fossilized stumps of prehistoric trees. The preservation of tetrapods within these once-hollow stumps is most unusual. Only at Joggins and Florence, Nova Scotia, have fossilized animals ever been found within upright fossilized stumps.

As I walked along the rocky beach at Joggins one foggy afternoon, I began to spot the stumps of several extinct types of plants standing upright in the sediments.

An upright fossilized tree stump exposed at the base of the sea cliffs at Joggins. This photo was taken in 1987, several years after my first visit there, when a fellow McGill paleontology graduate student and I returned to explore. We had a collecting permit issued by the Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, and we did not remove the stump. Photo by I. Birker.

This, in addition to the vastness of the sedimentary accumulation, was very impressive. Although I was looking for bones, ironically the discovery I made was an observation of much greater importance to me at that time.

Some young-earth creationists, like Harold Coffin, whom I went to hear years later, were claiming that places like Joggins, where fossilized trees were seen to pass upright through the surrounding sedimentary rocks, provided powerful evidence that the world had been overtaken suddenly by a global flood. I had once believed this to be true.

However, after visiting Joggins, I knew first hand that it could not be. The fossilized stumps were not randomly distributed in various positions throughout the now-tilted strata, as they would have been if they’d been caught up in a gigantic flood and dumped there. Rather, they were seen to occur at distinct horizons. The tree stumps lined up along clearly visible, once-horizontal, beds.

How we’d expect the stumps to look if they’d been swept in by a flood.
How the stumps actually look. Illustrations by S. Godfrey.

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