Had there been only one level at which fossilized stumps were found, a young-earth flood geologist might have been able to make the claim that these trees represented those that were growing at the time of the Deluge, and that they were entombed right where they were growing during the opening days of the calamity. (Although this claim could have been shown to be erroneous on the basis of other fossils, not to mention the problem of having to account for the origin of the thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks below the lower-most forest horizon.)
But at Joggins, there is not just one forest level, there are as many as 60 horizons on which erect fossil trees occur. The creationist explanation is that the trees were carried into the Joggins area by rising flood waters, and as the trees became water-logged and sank, they retained their vertical orientation as sediments piled up around them. The fatal flaw in this argument is that the stumps at Joggins are not randomly distributed throughout the vertical expanse of sedimentary rock. Rather, the exposed stumps are clustered into far fewer distinct forest horizons. How would waterlogged trees know to settle out of the floodwaters in a series of coordinated drops?
Furthermore, all the trees are preserved right side up. In addition to which, the vast majority preserve their root system within the sediments in which they were growing. If the single flood hypothesis were correct, then I would expect some of the trees to have been entombed upside down. To my knowledge, no fossilized tree at Joggins has ever been found upside down!
The take-home message for me was that there was no possible way that these stumps had drifted into Joggins during a single, worldwide, Mount St. Helens-like catastrophe. All the stumps on one level represented the remnants of a forest that was drowned when it became flooded as sediments accumulated in this vast depositional basin. Following this rapid sedimentary deposition, and the return of dry ground, a new forest had taken root. In time, it, too, was flooded and killed by a ‘catastrophic’ accumulation of sediment. The cycle repeated itself many times.
I recall discussing the implications of these multiple forest levels with my wife, right there on the beach. As if the tree stumps were not enough, over the surface of a huge slab of sandstone that had fallen from the cliff I was able to trace the fossilized trackway of perhaps the largest terrestrial invertebrate living on earth at that time, a giant, millipede-like arthropod known as Arthropleura.
I learned later that in 1894, Sir William Dawson had published a review of the different kinds of fossil footprints known from Joggins and elsewhere in Nova Scotia. The fossilized trackways at different levels within these strata were, for the most part, made when the land was not flooded. The varied composition of the sediments at Joggins attested to deposition under a wide variety of conditions, over a lengthy period of time. The non-random distribution of the stumps in the sedimentary rocks, the fact that no stump was preserved in an inverted position, and the presence of footprint fossils convinced me that this vast expanse of rock had not been deposited by one global flood.
After we had traveled southward across the peninsula to Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, and viewed the collection of trace fossils assembled by Eldon George, a local fossil hound and proprietor of the Parrsboro Rock and Fossil Shop, I had to conclude that we were in a place where trace fossils were truly abundant.
By this time, I was so disillusioned by the claims of young-earthers that I rejoiced in the forceful simplicity of the conclusions to which I had come. Up until this point, I, like any good young-earth creationist, did not believe in the ability of geochemists to determine the age of the earth using radioactive isotopes. However, once footprint fossils stepped into my life, I was willing to cut geochemists a lot of slack because I did not need to be persuaded by radioactive dating that the earth was an ancient body. Trace fossils had done that.
Trace fossils enabled me, for the first time, to know something because I had seen it with my own eyes, not because someone with impressive credentials believed it, nor because I was told I had to believe it, and not even because I had read it. Footprint fossils spoke to me personally as silent witnesses to the great antiquity of this planet.
Shortly afterwards, I attended a weekend creationist conference at the Word of Life Bible Institute in Schroon Lake, New York, led by John Morris. By this time I was ready for a fight with any young-earther. During the question and answer period, the gloves came off. My wife, mother-in-law, and mother, who had all accompanied me, looked genuinely sorry that they had taken their seats next to mine. I believe they were shocked at the intensity with which I was rocking the creationist boat—if not chopping away at it. Nowadays I find that a calm, rational approach proves much more effective. But at the time, I was indignant.
In addition to objecting to what I knew could no longer be true, I was distressed that on the one hand, creationists in general would highlight scientific discoveries when they suited their agenda, yet on the other hand they heaped scorn on the same scientific endeavor and were filled with contempt when scientific findings did not mesh precisely with their expectations. I found this disturbing because I had greater expectations of those who were “of the faith.” Science is like a two-edged sword; it cuts both ways. One must always be open to the possibility that a cherished hypothesis will be shown to be wrong and no longer worth clinging to. The young-earth dilemma was that a cherished hypothesis had become linked to a theological dogma, making it doubly difficult to discard. How truly fortunate I was that those fossilized footprints in Kansas had gotten in my way.