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Essays & Reviews

Baby Bones

I'm not fond of mummies — the dry, dusty kind, not the milk-and-cookies kind. This may seem a bit odd, since I write a good deal about death, the dead, and even the dead who resist death (and what is a mummy, or a vampire, but a strenuous effort to refuse that particular finality?). So what's the problem?

I'm not afraid of a mummy doing anything to me (let's face it, they don't do much), or even of being what they are — creaky corpses of the long-dead — and I am just as inclined as anyone else to empathize with the story of a long-lost life concluded. Let me offer some evidence: I saw a play called Mnemonic in New York some years ago, and that was a whole evening's meditation on the mummified "Iceman" of the Alps (with huge projected slides of the subject and even an intensely evocative impersonation of the Iceman's glacial mummy "performed" by a folding chair and four puppeteer-attendants). I loved the show and would gladly go see it again if I could.

No, my usual anti-mummy response is an aesthetic thing: the dried-up, gape-mouthed, yellow-toothed dead are so damned ugly!

And they make you think of death. Your own. Inevitable. I mean, they are a vivid reminder that death must come, and that it has far more horrible, painful ways to approach than it has peaceful, comfortable ways. All this, coupled with knowledge of history, ancient or modern, leads to very uncomfortable thoughts --the more imaginative you are — and I am, by trade — the more uncomfortable.

So, when I go on an archaeological dig (as I've done three times over the past 40 years) I choose one unlikely to bring me into intimate contact with dessicated or otherwise preserved dead folks. So, no Middle-East, no Peruvian highlands, no Arctic freezer-graves or body-tanning bogs for me.

So: in August of 2001 I was as an eager volunteer on team IV of the ninth year of the ongoing excavation of Arbeia, a large Roman fort located at the eastern end of Hadrian's wall, in the middle of a town called South Shields, at the mouth of the river Tyne, England. The fort was established by Imperial Romans troops sometime in the first or second century CE as an outpost against the northern barbarians of the future Scotland. Roman military authorities later turned the fort into a supply depot for the Centurions manning Hadrian's wall; reduced its garrison again as the Empire shrank; and abandoned the fort entirely when the troops packed up and went home for good, around the end of the fourth century CE (except, they very sensibly think now, for some who had married and had families in the area, and who chose to stay).

The ruins were discovered near the top of Lawe Head (the bluff on which South Shields is situated, overlooking the Tyne mouth) beneath a swathe of decrepit 19th C houses when these were torn down in the 1870's. Since 1991 the fort, named for the Arab conscripts who last manned it for Rome, has been the subject of an on-going excavation and reconstruction effort run out of the local Tyne and Wear museums.

Pretty safe, you'd think, as far as the long, long-dead are concerned; ancient Egyptian tunnels it's not, and the weather isn't exactly conducive to the preservation of human remains. It rains, it storms, it sogs and slogs, and has done for many centuries since Roman times (although that summer the weather was unusually bright and dry; my husband and I came home with nice British tans).

We'd signed on the previous spring through Earthwatch, an international clearing house for volunteers who work for short periods on scientific projects around the world. The job was to help finish digging out the lowest Roman level of the fort, dating back to the second century. Lower than that, you're in the prehistoric layer, uncovering nothing much but traces of the post-holes left by the roof supports of round stone huts, not rare enough to garner much attention.

So there I was on Day One, a Monday in early August to be exact, hoping to turn up some Roman coins, or a bronze brooch, or some such. Within twenty minutes, I was standing in Room Two of the remains of a barracks block and looking down at a funny little mess of minuscule lumps and knobs encased in a small pedestal of damp earth and saying to Linda, one of our more experienced local volunteers, "What's that? Looks like a bunch of petrified worms."

Linda looked, said "Oh dear," and hurried away to consult with the professional archaeologists running the dig. When she came back she said, "It's an infant burial, and you're going to excavate it."

I was staring at the flattened skeleton of a baby, a very ancient, very dead, very decayed baby, with which I was destined to become extremely intimate over the next week or so. That very Monday morning I had spent scraping down a thin layer of clay all around a roundish stub of earth capped by a flat stone. Finally, after lunch, Linda had said I could take down the the stub itself at last; and I'd pointed and said, What, you mean dig out what's under that rock? and she'd said, Yes, under that rock, and flipped the flat stone over.

And there were the bones, a nest of small, smooth, curved shapes as brown as the dirt into which they'd been pressed by the stone on top of them.

The way it works is, what you find you are responsible for dealing with, until the point at which the recorders and packers-away in the Small Finds room take over (I asked, at a later point, what was the opposite of "small finds", which turns out to be not "huge finds" but "bulk finds", ie a batch of somethings rather than just one thing at a time; a lifesized statue still counts as a small find, unless there are half a dozen statues together).

So, after everybody came over to look and exclaim and take pictures of the bones, I spent that first afternoon hunched over the spot with Linda, picking away the dirt packed among the bones in order to expose them all and clarify their extent and their disposition, before going on to record what we'd found on paper before actually lifting and removing the bones.

Archaeology is peculiar in that what it consists of is literally, physically, deconstructing remnants of the past to be stored away and studied, so that anything you find is something it's your job to destroy. When you're done, whatever it was just isn't there any more. It's somewhere else, of course — these people never throw anything away — but nobody can come around and look at it as it was when it was found, unless you get funded to go back and reconstruct it.

Even then, you can only reconstruct one level of it, so the other hundred layers — you take the earth down a half inch at a time, if that much — are still gone forever, their dirt piled up in a spoil bank to be used for something else, all the finds boxed up and tucked away for later study. In this case, while we were digging down another crew was reconstructing an officer's house and a barrack-block close by — although not in their original situations, since that would have interfered with other reconstruction and stabilization on the site.

Those guys — and they were mostly skin-headed and multi-pierced men of young to mature years — turned out to have been sentenced to community service for various infractions of the law such as drunk driving or drunk fighting etc. Drinking is a large presence in the social life of that part of England, and jobs are scarce. Building a Roman reconstruction is not just a punitive sentence, it's work, with a tangible outcome too, which I imagine is welcome to at least some of the briefly condemned.

Anyway, back to us volunteers scattered along the south end of the dig, below a 7 or 8 foot cut that shows just how deep the excavation had gone over the years since 1991. Using what I think were dental tools (and scooping up all the dug-out dirt into special buckets for later examination in case we missed any wandering skeletal bits or, say a diamond tiara buried with the child), Linda and I exposed as much of the skeleton as we could without actually displacing the bones.

Then Linda and Natalie (another local volunteer) helped me to plot the position of the burial on a map of our part of the fort (the next-to-end room of a barracks block that had housed not only Roman cavalrymen but their mounts in the second century — the smell must have been terrific). We used surveyors' equipment to mark the bones' level in the earth (against sea level) as well.

This required dealing with meters and fractions of meters, which I did not take to. I like feet. Feet, as measurements, are human in origin and human in feel, and a mere human like me can deal with them pretty well.

Meters are — well, they're French; as in abstract but elegant and therefore imposed on everybody willy-nilly, even where this makes more problems than it solves, because someone with a lofty brow and an education at the Polytechnique has decided that meters are convenient for him; so they can be assumed to be good for you, whether you think so or not.

Metric strikes me as an airy system perfectly suited to scientific measurement — just not to the measurement of ordinary things like quarts of milk, bolts of cloth, and cords of wood. Nevertheless, an establishment of the Queen's was written up in the local news as coming under the gun of Euro-justice for continuing to sell off extra timber from the local grounds in measures of feet instead of metric, as many of the customers are older folk unfamiliar and uncomfortable with one-inhuman-sized-system-fits-hardly-anybody, ie Metrics.

So, we have come to this? Yup. The Europeans have, at any rate, and they're welcome to it. America has proven more stubborn and, to my mind, more sensible (for probably the only time in modern history): metrics for engineering, inches and feet and quarts and cords for mercantile and other common measures.

What's wrong with two systems, anyway, if they are used to measure different sorts of things? Many nations get along with more than one spoken language, don't they? Belgium, anyone? Switzerland, for crying out loud? Mind you, I could see that a teensy scale of measurements that are more or less infinitely divisible into teensier ones has distinct advantages on a dig — for example in locating coordinates for objects a quarter of an inch from each other in depth, say.

Different strokes.

While it took a lot of help, I did get the baby all plotted out in the prescribed metric manner and listed in the finds book back at the supervisors' office, numbered and measured and pinned down with all the accuracy that anyone would wish.

Er; except for my drawing, actually.

Before getting down to digging the bones out, first I had to draw them on graphed paper, showing more or less accurately how they lay in relation to the square of ground we were digging and to each other in their small, round-walled pit. You know those squiggly outlines you see on diagrams that illustrate papers on digs? A lot of those drawings are made by unskilled hands like mine. The neat, realistic looking ones are of course made by the pros and pros-in-training and can be quite impressive, in an austere way. I saw dozens of these sheets of heavy tracing paper with clean, clear line-drawings on them stacked up in order of creation in a loose-leaf notebook to which additions were made daily. It was a beautiful artifact in itself.

Peculiarly low-tech, you say? Yes; but although photos are also taken, they simply don't show things as clearly as a drawing can (well, brown bones lying almost flat and shadowless in brown earth — not much going for you there as a photographer). You use tracing paper taped down over a graphed sheet that's fastened in turn to a small, easily portable drawing board.

So next morning, Tuesday, under a bit of pressure (it looked like rain, and Linda said, "These bones have got to come up today!"), I drew the bones. Perhaps overly exuberant because a bit of my old art training returned for the occasion and made using the graph paper very easy, I drew them at double or triple scale by mistake (those damned metrics again).

Luckily Linda said she could correct the scale when transferring the image to the computer. I'm not sorry for the mistake, though. Rendering the skeleton in large, as it were, struck me as more respectful somehow, allowing for more detail, as if detail still meant something to the small person whose bones they were.

Later that afternoon I finally, carefully, dug the little brown objects out one by one and put them in my finds-tray (a shallow brown plastic box, numbered to identify and sequester all the stuff coming out of the same square of ground in the same layer of clay).

Linda, who had once extricated the bones of another infant from another barracks, helped by lifting most of the skull out; this was flattened down to a wad of thin, fractured, compressed plates overlapping each other that I had trouble distinguishing at all from the surrounding soil. Among these shards she kept turning up tiny, jagged brown bits that she recognized as tooth-buds, and she showed me what the undeveloped vertebrae looked like (spongy-looking cowrie shells). There were a surprising number (to me) of these incredibly delicate, fully-formed vertebrae, strung in a curve around the central tangle of ribs.

After a time I began to develop a feeling for the different tactile impressions made by pebble, hardened clay crumb, and bone; but I remain astonished by the eagle-vision of more experienced people, who could spot a minuscule bone amid the lumpy rubble of my digging and identify it as "rodent" (or not) with just one glance.

I had to pretty much lie on the ground to see what I was doing. This was an intimate job. Luckily, my initial fears of clumsily breaking the fragile-looking skeleton fragments proved completely unfounded. The bones lifted out whole, smooth, beautiful in their miniature perfection, and undoubtedly tough, to have survived for 1600 years in the earth, flattened under the lid of stone that had also protected them.

Sixteen hundred years, not eighteen hundred; it turns out that over 90 similar infant burials have been found in Roman ruins in Britain, all (so far) dating to the fourth century when things were falling apart for the Roman occupiers. This baby had been curled into a small burial pit sunk, by fourth century Roman soldiers (or fourth century somebody), deep down into the second century layer of the old barracks floor that we were in fact excavatiing.

The soldiers, it turns out, dumped everything on the floors — animal bones from their meals, broken tools and pots and ornaments, the works — and when the mess became unbearable, they just spread a new layer of clay and stomped that down into a fresh flooring. Did I say the smell must have been terrible? What's the use of taking all those baths in the baths if you live on an enclosed midden? Think of it: over 300 years' worth of soldiers, blithely living on top of their own and their predecessors' compressed garbage.


Nice for us, though; the prizes in the rubbish, I mean. Old lamb bones turn a smooth, beautiful, polished black, like obsidian with an odd yielding softness, that makes you want to run your fingers over them again and again. Other nifty things occasionally turn up too, largely because these guys were too lazy or unconcerned or maybe (comparative to the locals) too rich to bother leaning down to look around for dropped items when they rolled under the bed.

The babies, though, are something else: not dropped in a moment of inattention, not casually mislaid or left lying about. This is something focused and purposeful; you have to wonder.

No one knows what they signify (no reference to them has been found in any ancient literature). Predictably, the early discoverers of such Roman burials assumed secretive midnight stashings of illegitimate offspring by grieving, shame-faced, or even murderous wives or, more deliciously, slave girls (well, Victorian gents and their paid laborers did the initial digging; what can you expect?).

Graeme Stobbs, one of the principal investigators who was in charge of our section of the barrack block, gave me a copy of an excellent paper by Eleanor Scott on these infant burials (thanks again, Graeme; fascinating stuff). She points out in delightfully crisp terms that it is ridiculous (not to mention deeply sexist) to project upon a society of over 1500 years ago the stunted mores of 19th century Western Europe.

She offers as an example of a different value-concept for such a child burial: a more modern custom found in Ethiopia of burying a stillborn or deceased infant under the floor of a house in order to insure that the next child born there will survive. Perhaps my skeletal baby, too, served as a benign guardian spirit, or as a bribe toward better luck next time.

A local custom of infant sacrifice, for general luck, health, and/or prosperity has also been proposed. But given the high infant mortality rates of ancient times, sacrificial murder is pretty far-fetched, so you can stop thinking those lurid, Hollywood-style thoughts about villainous ritual infanticide (although of course it could have been just that — we simply don't know).

At any rate, there was I trying to find a comfortable position on my foam rubber kneeling-mat from which to work out these elegant little bones (some of the surrounding dirt was surprisingly hard to pry loose even when softened first with water), with my face a couple of inches from the work; counting up the long bones to get an idea of what was still missing (upper arm bones here, lower ones here, but where are the lower leg and foot bones of that drawn-up leg?), and hoping I could finish in time — our digging day went from 9 am to 4:30 (except for an earlier finish on Fridays).

At the end of Monday, when the bones had been literally uncovered, we had carefully covered them up again with overlapping plastic bags from the Small Finds room and then with loose dirt piled lightly on top to disguise the find's presence, temporarily reburying the baby. We didn't want to have to do this again Tuesday night, when the bones ought to be safely extracted and locked up in the Small Finds room.

The Arbeia fort is an open air site with work in progress: a wide, windy hillside surrounded on all sides by the terraced houses of South Shields. Several times a week we might see the towering white superstructure of a cargo ship gliding past above the rooftops on the northern boundary of the site, moving down the Tyne to the sea. All of us volunteers were put up at local bed and breakfasts in nearby streets. We walked 4 or 5 blocks to our work every weekday morning (and back to the site again on several evenings when the supervising archaeologists gave lectures on the overall history of the wall, the fort, and Roman finds in general).

So Arbeia is no hidden spot that you have to find with a secret treasure map, but a place where if you don't happen to like the bag lunch you've been provided with at "home", you can pop over to the combination corner store and post-office a hundred yards away and buy a cheese or meat pasty, and get it heated up in a microwave under the counter what's more. Not far away, up one hill and down another, lies the main street of the town, crammed with shops and restaurants.

That's one reason Steve and I had chosen this particular dig. We're old enough to like being in known territory when we travel; not having to drive or be driven from our lodgings to the site and back every day was a huge plus.

But the convenient location also meant that groups of visitors came wandering through the fort all day, guided by staff people (sometimes one of our own principal investigators) or just on their own. They came to see the massive, reconstructed West Gate, the small museum of finds dug up in the fort, and the layout of the Roman buildings and streets themselves, marked by excavated and stabilized bits of wall and paving.

As Tuesday was relatively fine, every now and then people ambled by looking curiously at our work, though I don't think they could tell what was going on, exactly, at my spot, from beyond the ropes that marked off our work-area.

Still, there's no harm in caution. At night all the gates in the iron rail fence surrounding the fort are locked, but why take a chance on tempting people into trying to get inside for a better look or a souvenir, even? I was relieved when the baby (or most of it) did, in fact, come up entirely on that second afternoon, to be safely stored overnight. Later, when I excavated the fill-dirt in the little burial pit I found the missing lower leg bones.

On Wednesday, while other diggers continued turning up things like a handsome bronze brooch, a spearhead, lumps of rusty corrosion containing Roman nails or other iron hardware, and the segments of a broken knife blade, I went indoors to the Small Finds room to do the next step on the baby. This involved sitting at a long table at which a working space was cleared beside an orderly clutter of finds-trays full of items sorted, cleaned, labeled, and put into plastic sandwich bags.

There I spent my time dipping each small bone from my finds-tray into a basin of warm water, rubbing off the bits of clinging earth, and then putting the cleaned bones in a shallow cardboard box to dry. Quiet, mindful work.

Behind me, on the other side of another table similarly laden, Anne and Eithne (two more volunteers) sat at another table labeling each retrieved and washed bit of pot or bone or metal with a number in black ink, so the object could be put away for the scientists who will eventually retrieve, evaluate, and set it in context.

Administration had wisely decreed that there would be no music on the dig - a good way to avoid dissention over what constitutes "music," and what's loud noise designed to drive adult humans crazy. Apparently digs supplied with staff primarily through universities rather than through Earthwatch (the latter gets older people for the most part) usually have radios blaring everywhere.

Our work room, housed in an old school building on the western edge of the site, was blessedly calm. There was no disturbance except for the running of water in the deep sink where a local volunteer was washing items, and the occasional soft conversation between the labelers.

Anne, 84, had more than 13 digs under her belt, and Eithne, a school-teacher, lived in nearby Newcastle and commuted every day to the dig by car.

The next afternoon it rained; most of the team went off to the reconstructed officer's house where they washed potsherds under the warmth (in that clammy space) of heat lamps, the same way I was washing bones. My husband, who had been digging in another part of our barracks room, joined me at my table in the Small Finds room. We continued washing the baby together, quietly singing all that we remembered of every song we knew containing the word "baby".

As we were both in our sixties, that meant such immortal tunes as "Baby, it's cold outside" and "Walking my Baby back home". I did get as modern as the Cat Stevens favorite, "Oh, Baby, Baby, it's a wild world". We kept it very soft and nobody complained (that we knew of), so I guess it's possible on a dig to have music, of a sort, that nobody will mind.

Sometimes people would wander in to watch for a bit, or to tell us it was time for the morning tea-break (or the afternoon one; the English are very civilized people) or lunch. Several people remarked on the pathos of these small, dirt-brown bones.

This struck me as a bit sentimental, since regardless of its fate or its age, this ancient little person would still be dead, dead, dead, in year 2001 CE no matter what. But then, I am generally unsentimental about infants, finding them uninteresting until they become capable of speech. Well, I'm a word-person, remember? By inclination and by trade. A lullabye is about my speed. But I will confess to having felt a great admiration for the small scale elegance of those bones as I handled them, one by miniature one.

And admiration for the skills of people like Nick Hodgson, another of the professional archaeologists, who walked in one day, looked at the mess of fill-dirt in the box, and at once picked out a bitty thing that was another stray finger-bone (Natalie had done that too; they made me feel completely blind).

Amazing, how many bones there were, and how small and fine they could be, yet how sturdy the long bones of the limbs looked (thanks to a diagram of a baby skeleton to work from, I could place some of what I was handling). Natalie stood by for a while pressing some of the fill-dirt through the top layer of a four-tray sieve. She told me that infants are very largely cartilage, much less bony altogether than adults, which is why they are so floppy. So I was surprised by how much firm, assertive bone there was to this little corpse ("I may have been mostly cartilage, but I was here, however briefly, and my bones prove it").

I can't really describe the peacefulness of working on those bones, with or without company. Even when I was digging them out of the earth, the job was so absorbing that I forgot that I had propped myself on the ground in a very unnatural position (to get at an overlapped bit, or just to obtain the leverage needed to scrape out a particularly hard crust of clay) and I would get up after an hour or two surprised to find myself half crippled.

Didn't mind, though. The physical nature of the job, the close concentration coupled with very simple and direct thought, were exactly what I had hoped for in signing up for an Earthwatch dig. I think Steve felt the same. We are both mind-workers (a lawyer and a fiction author), and both of us had deliberately avoided including any professional component in our travel plans, precisely to make the most of this radical break in our normal work routines.

He had no appointments to meet with English counterparts or to do legal research or see the British legal system at work. I hadn't arranged any book-signings or even a call on my British publisher. We were in retreat from all that, looking for the relief of doing predominantly physical rather than mental labor, mostly outside, on the orders of experts, and in the company of a previously unknown, mixed bag of fellow-volunteers and local staff.

I had written on my Earthwatch information questionnaire that I am an author, but nothing about my work. As the dig staff are overburdened and often don't get to read those pages until pretty late in the day, nobody paid any attention. This was entirely as it should be and as it would have remained, except that a young man working at the sink in the Small Finds room turned out to be the son of a local journalist and an avid SF reader himself.

He caught my name and blew my cover.

Not that I really had a cover, but thanks to Euen spotting me it wasn't long before Graeme showed up with a printout of material from my home page in his hand. Everybody seemed very gratifyingly impressed; so all the work I'd done the previous year on putting together a professional net presence wasn't a complete waste.

The next thing you know, a local paper called to request an interview. In the end, three or four newspapers sent people to talk with me and take pictures (Selena, one of our fellow diggers, said I should have kept my hat on for the photos - a floppy cloth hat with a wide brim - because it made me look cute, like Paddington Bear; alas, I think she's right).

Fortunately, I've had enough public exposure in the course of my career not to mind interviews and to expect a certain amount of misquotation ("She says she likes digging for Roman garbage". What I had said was that it was fun and exciting to dig through what was essentially Roman garbage for the occasional treasure to be found therein).

The neat thing was to be able to talk up the dig with local press people, who invariably remarked that they lived in the area but had never before visited Arbeia (although one of the photographers said with great enthusiasm that he had been out some years ago to take pictures). Judging by the resulting news coverage, with very little effort I was able to bring what the news editors must have regarded as a fresh, newsworthy slant to what had come to seem, after nine seasons of of excavation, an old story.

Which is not to say that the press had neglected the project: a half dozen earlier articles were posted inside the old schoolhouse/admin building. But precisely because of that earlier coverage, as Graeme explained, it's tough to bring the press running just by calling them up and saying, "Hey, we found a gorgeous bronze brooch!" when there are half a dozen or more gorgeous bronze brooches in the Arbeia museum already.

But if someone calls to report the presence of a "famous American sci-fi author" out there every weekday for two weeks on her knees with a trowel in her hand and a finds-tray full of baby bones by her knee, well, on a slow news-day that must sound like a story! So I got called off the dig several times, over my two weeks, to chat and pose for pictures and talk about what a great holiday it was for me and my husband to be part of this sizeable, exciting, and well-established historical project.

I didn't like to be singled out from everyone else, though, and I did have a passing concern that this singling-out might create a divide between me and the rest of our team. Not to worry: these people, from 16 to 84, were grown ups, and the feeling on the team was a comfortable and lively one from first to last. I think some members even got a kick out of the presence of a "famous author", making the team special among the summer's teams (although I should point out that every one of the archaeologists in charge is a many-times published author, from Paul Bidwell on down).

At any rate everybody seemed pleased by these developments on the publicity front, and I got to see myself presented in the papers as a best-selling author of twenty-four books! How on earth that happened I have no idea, unless no distinction was noticed between the titles of books and the titles of stories on my bibliography. I've really got only a dozen books to my credit, but it was nice to be so prolific - and famous! - for a while there: long enough to enjoy it, not long enough to get spoiled.

In the second week I went to the Small Finds Room to add a few late bits, and there sat Alyx, the potsherd specialist (Alyx, I hope I've spelled your name right!), with a cardboard box already neatly layered with small plastic bags containing little batches of baby bones.

"Just putting the baby to bed," she said cheerfully, and, being called away to the telephone, made way for me to get down to washing the last bits to come up out of the burial pit, and to first sieve down and then wash out all of the dirt that had come with them. Several of the carefully stored plastic bags held the powdery residue from the bottom of the sieve, what for I can't imagine - some kind of chemical testing not yet invented, I suppose.

Linda says the baby is one of the best sets they have (meaning most complete and well preserved) and that we won't know whether it was a girl or a boy until the experts have a look at it; which could be years from now.

But there's no great rush. The baby's been found, cleaned, and put to bed, after all these centuries.

All the perspectives on a dig like this are long, long, long; which is just what many of the volunteers who come have signed on for - a refreshing detachment, however temporary, from our modern culture of rush, noise, and instant everything. We come for a slow, dreamy swim in the peaceful waters of deep time that has already passed.

SMC, September 4, 2001