Newfoundland knows time. We have so many “oldests” in North America it’s a tourism industry unto itself: the Colony of Avalon founded in 1621; the 11th century Viking settlement at L’anse aux Meadows; The St John’s Regatta is the oldest annual sporting event – and I think I ate the oldest living hotdog there in 2015.
The gneisses of Gros Morne were formed and then transformed over 1,000 million years ago. We know old. But our newest “old” requires a far deeper understanding of time. Mistaken Point, along the southern shore of the Avalon peninsula, a jut of land between Trepassey and Cape Race, was named this year as Newfoundland and Labradors’ fourth Unesco World Heritage Site (out of 18 total in Canada; 1052 total worldwide).
It has always been here, but now the world has been invited to see it. Though younger than the outcrops at Gros Morne, the depths of Mistaken Point’s age can be harder to fathom as it holds its time in life. Growth, reproduction, death, and evolution (though not yet predation) existed here so long ago that it is a time we normally picture inanimately in charts or mountain ranges.
Two flat rocks, each the size of an enviable dining room, located a mere scramble from the grassy sward above, and a large wave away from the ocean below, offer up one of the world’s greatest pieces of evolutionary history. This giant siltstone platter is covered in minutely detailed fossils, sized canapé to party sub, of the first complex organisms on earth (565 million years ago).
This is not our history. This is life’s history. It is beyond history. It is so far before written records, before species who documented themselves, it is before imagination began. The site is a visceral call to stretch ourselves to these lengths of time.
Imagine dinosaurs. Those awesome scaled and feathered beasts from before mammalian ascendency. Now imagine life forms ten times older than that: ten times more removed from the familiar. Imagine exponential differences from the flesh we know. Imagine life unfamiliar. Differences so thorough that the kingdom of many of the fossils identified is in dispute. Animal? Vegetable? Jagon?
The fossils at Mistaken Point are as easy to see with an untrained eye as they are difficult to categorize with a trained one. They are mysterious and crystal clear at once. They are beautiful. They are frond-y, fern-like, cabbage-y, imperfect soft bodied fractals. They are treasures for scientists and wonders for all of us.
They were a dream realized to see and, most wrenchingly, to touch. Yes. In that maddening and heartening Newfoundland spirit of offering up the best of the island in an offhand manner as simply the participation prize for anyone who whets their flesh on our weather and distance, the tour to Mistaken Point culminates with a walk right across the D and E surfaces.
The provincial Department of Conservation guides will hand you a pair of felt booties, a magnifying glass and a “treasure hunt” sheet with the names and pictures of a dozen of the Ediacaran fossils at your feet and… then you go to it. You walk and crouch and run your land born Holocene fingers over Proterozoic sea floors.