Near The Burgess Shale

We stopped yesterday in the small town of Field, in Yoho National Park in British Columbia. It's the western side of the Continental Divide from where we were in Banff National Park. Here we are looking north from Field over the Kicking Horse River Valley.


Field, which has a picturesque setting beneath Mount Stephen, below, was built for the construction of the railway and it looks like a model train village today. Railway workers began uncovering unusual fossils in the area. Charles Walcott came in 1908 to explore the trilobite bed near Mount Stephen. A year later, nearly 100 years ago, he discovered the Burgess Shale, which he named after nearby Mount Burgess. Walcott, head of the Smithsonian Institution, spent many years excavating the fossils and returning them to his museum.


The Burgess Shale lies within Yoho National Park but you can only visit there in summer under the direction of licensed guides. We had a look-see in the information center and then headed to Calgary to fly home.

Years ago, I had read Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life and the brief visit to Field made me want to find the book first thing upon returning home.

Gould writes that "the invertebrates of the Burgess Shale…are the world's most important animal fossils. Modern multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record some 570 million years ago." These fossils represent a record of the Cambrian explosion and "they are precious because they preserve in exquisite detail…the soft anatomy of organisms."

Gould writes lyrically:

The animals of the Burgess Shale are holy objects — in the unconventional sense that this word conveys in some cultures. We do not place them on pedestals and worship from afar. We climb mountains and dynamite hillsides to find them. We quarry them, split them, carve them, draw them, and dissect them, struggling to wrest their secrets. … They are grubby little creatures of a sea floor 530 million years old, but we greet them with awe because they are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something.

Since the book was first published in 1989, Gould's interpretation of the evolutionary significance of the Burgess Shale has come under some criticism. (You can read some of the criticism in Amazon's reviews of the book.) Also, other Cambrian fossil sites have been found in Greenland and China. However, you can't mistake Gould's true enthusiasm for the story of the Burgess Shale, and its breakthrough role in helping us understand the history of life on earth.