Just Another Day at the Beach: 60 Million Years Too Late

Watching the sun go down over what used to be the ocean

Watching the sun go down over what used to be the ocean

A tuesday, or most any other day in Mrs. Frey’s 4th Grade Classroom, circa 1975
Who could forget the scratchy voice of the announcer with that “when you hear this noise ‘beep’ advance the filmstrip one frame.” Yes, the start of another filmstrip. Like the intoxicating smell of the ditto machine and two-for Tuesday night “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” filmstrips have long passed into oblivion, pulled out only for their baby-boomer/GenX kitsch value and sold at upscale boutiques and online auctions.

In 1975, filmstrips and dittos became my two gateway drugs. Under the guise of being the good and attentive student, I would offer to return the AV cart to the resource room where I could linger, slowly twirling the thin plastic filmstrip back into its shiny plastic container to see how tightly I could wind the film roll (see ma, I had goals) while sniffing an endless supply of freshly pressed ditto sheets.

Years later, while sitting in Asst. Principal Stough’s office trying to rack my addled brain for a better truancy defense than the truth (also known as the navel-gazing-soap-opera-watching-stoner-buying-alcohol-with-a-fake-ID-fleeing-the-scene-defense), I should have pulled out “filmstrips and dittos as gateway” defense.

But as I age and my brainiac children ask me things (expecting a legitimate answer or at least one that doesn’t include “I don’t know, go ask your mother”), I have half a mind to raise my hands in a defensive posture and say “hey, look, I don’t why the sky is blue or the grass is green or the bread is moldy. These things involve science and everything I don’t know about science I learned from filmstrips.”

We had two basic kinds of science filmstrip at Hawthorne Elementary in the ‘70s. The first was the anthropomorphic cartoon filmstrip in which everything in nature had a face and was involved in some capricious epic struggle wrapped in pseudo-religious iconography, and overtly religious themes, like The Little Cloud embedded here:

The second kind was I would now call the “Cartesian reductionist snoozefest” (and I would call it that because I spent a life in the humanities).

The CRS style filmstrip went like this:

photo of a rock
photo of a person in white lab coat dissolving said rock in acid or something. (Always in a laboratory because that’s where science gets done)
photo of the periodic table of elements

That was the trajectory (dare I say the telos?). What we ultimately learned was that the denouement of every great scientific story could be reduced to a grid of properties and redacted into a strange symbolic language. Sounds exciting, right? like Harry Potter or something weird and magical? Yeh, no. By the time the white lab coat dudes showed up on the screen, if you weren’t asleep, you were crawling around on the floor playing army man and shooting spitballs or sneaking over to the pile of papers from the resource room and were in serious ditto-snorting mode.

On top of this, many of the filmstrips came without a record to accompany the strip, but instead arrived with a set of notes which our teacher read to us. It was educational equivalent of a being forced to sit through a bad slideshow of someone’s vacation while they droned on with all the excitement and flat affect of someone who WAS just boring enough to vacation in the Dewey Decimal System, or the metric system, or head out for a breezy family jaunt to an airborne toxic event (gratuitous Don Delillo reference for my fellow English majors).

But on the whole it was dead rocks carried around by dudes in white coats. Blech. I avoided science, especially geology, the rest of my educational life. Had I revisited geology in high school, I might have found a different experience. But I didn’t. Geology, chemistry, and physics were flat-lined pretty early on.

But science has a way of creeping up on you. It’s sneaky, like classical music can be sneaky. One day you’re thrashing to the Ramones and Nine Inch Nails and the next you find yourself in tears in the middle of your living room because you just heard Lazlo Varga play a cello in ways you never thought possible and the strings’ vibrations reached out and bent you into a kind of fetal position of perverse ecstasy.

Recently, we had our neighbors over for dinner. Both of them are geologists. While enjoying a glass of wine on our back porch, one of them took in a view of the rims which is actually pretty stunning from our back porch. She began to wax rather poetically about the formation, about its history, the natural forces that formed it, and how it relates not just to the rest of Montana and Montana history but to U.S. history—how it compares to Galveston for instance, and how it drew the interest of the petroleum industry. How this sandstone prow was once a sandbar just off the coast of current day Bridger, MT (a few miles south) and how one can find all sorts of fish fossils along its trails. How 60 million years ago some of the water receded and this sandbar was a beach.

I was held rapt.

I knew that the rims hold over 18 miles of trails: from technical singletrack to what appears to once have been paved. I’ve seen coyotes, foxes and enough snakes up there to keep me on my toes. I’ve heard of a mountain lion prowling below the rims out near the Mormon Temple and a bobcat making it’s home in a draw just east of my house. But I’ve never run those trails and thought of them as a prehistoric beach. I’ve never stood, as I do this evening, and basked in the geologic history of this formation I stare at every day. I’ve never considered the way time passes and writes itself on these rocks, that they tell a story if we take the time to learn their unique language and pay attention to the marks written across their body.

It is a story that is beginning to replace the jaded one stuck in my head. I hold to it tenaciously as I drop off the “beach,” turn towards home, and watch the sun slide into darkness.

Billings Beach

Billings Beach