Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Footprints on the sands

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The contributor of this unsigned piece appears in the Once a Week account book as "Mrs. Taylor."


There are few amongst us, having the most ordinary habits of observation, who can fail to have had their attention arrested by the fact of the very impressible nature of the sands of our sea-washed coasts and larger rivers. The contemplative habits induced by wandering along the beaches left by a receding tide, divert the mind from its accustomed active exercise, and lead us into trains of thought which seem scarcely to belong to our daily life.

Placed on a level with the works of nature, how easily is the mind awakened to sources of contemplation and pleasure, which in the more busy moments of life would be dismissed as irrelevant and out of harmony. Yet what can be more absorbing than the history of the sand on the seashore?

There are volumes here whose closely-written pages, although not yet fully opened, describe a state of things at a period so remote, that the mind can receive it but as a part of the past eternity, and which, silently calling us to attention, invite us to unwonted meditation.

One of these volumes is that great depository of the secrets of creation lying underneath the coal measures, and now called the Old Red Sandstone—once the sand of an ancient shore, or the bed of a deep ocean; and the historian, whose never-failing accuracy conducts us to its margin, relates that he was present at the scenes described. The language in which he writes is that of nature, his story was indited at the moment when the occurrences took place, and it gives in a few simple terms its own wonderful testimony. Amongst other marvels, it records the tale of an impression on the sand, and tells the story of a footprint. There is a graceful solemnity in the words of the American poet, who says:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time—
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwreck’d brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

The sands of time—we would rather say, the sands of eternity—carry us back into the deep recesses of the past, oppressing us with an overwhelming sense of its remoteness. We can conceive of the period which has elapsed since the creation of man; we may imagine the long and dreary epoch of the later tertiary formation, when the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the hyena, the tiger, and the bear, were the master existences—even in this country—of the plains and the forests; or that middle tertiary era, when the huge Dinotherium, one of the largest quadrupeds that ever stalked this earth, satisfied its gigantic appetite with the roots that it upturned by means of its pickaxe-like tusks; we may stretch back to a preceding era, countless ages before those animals were created, and when a vast ocean, in which was formed by slow degrees our beds of chalk, was peopled for untold eras by corallines or shells; or we may strain our attention to that still earlier series of creations, when reptiles, and reptile-fishes, and flying-dragons of strange shape, had dominion over the earth and the sea and the air, and yet we have not reached these sands of a much earlier date where footprints and ripple markings reveal the impressive fact, that there were seas, shores, and sands, winds, waves, clouds, sunshine, and shade, at a period long anterior to human tradition, and out of reach of all history, save that recorded in the great and eloquent book of nature.

On those shores and those sandstones, as well as on the rocks of other formations, now raised in many parts of the world thousands of feet above the level of the sea, we find on slabs of hardened stone—clearly and definitely impressed—footprints, ripple markings, worm-borings, rain-drops, and sun-dried cracks refilled with sand,—carrying us back to a time when huge reptiles or great birds haunted in crowds the margins of seas or lakes, and there lived and died, leaving in memoriam their footprints on the sands. Throughout the great Silurian system, which preceded that of the Old Red Sandstone, we find the borings of worms or annelides; in the Old Red Sandstone itself there are the ridges and furrows that were once ploughed by the waves, with every mark as distinct as if it were but the work of a few hours since; and in the sandstones of the United States, we trace the foot-tracks of the alligator of ancient rivers. We find also the foot-marks of an animal resembling a frog, but of no less size than an ox, and every step which this large batrachian reptile took on the sands, then moistened by the receding tide, is engraven on the now dried slab. At the time that this occurred there was a storm of rain with high wind, for the big drops blown by the tempest have fallen aslant on the sands, and there left their impression. On the same slab are the ripple-marks of the ebbing tide indicating its direction.

On a slab of the same formation, there is a double track of footprints of the right and left foot of a frog-like animal having a tail. As the marks of the feet are distinct, so is the groove formed by the tail. Where the animal laid down to rest is the mark of its body, and again, as it rose to its feet, sprawling ere it commenced its walk, are the curves on the sand indicating its motion. There are tracks of small crustacea, together with those of tortoises, and also of marine animals, when these sands were at the bottom of the sea.

In the Red Sandstone of the valley of the Connecticut, there are the footprints of a bird whose size would be equal to that of the largest horse, standing from eleven to twelve feet high; it belonged to the order of the Cranes and Herons, and it is somewhat remarkable that we find no trace of its bones in a fossil state, nothing remaining but the footprints on the sand. These, however, afford sufficient data for us to calculate their size, their order, their habits, and even the food they required, and though the very species has vanished from creation, we can study the zoology of these ancient formations with as much accuracy, and classify the races that tenanted their shores with as much precision, as if we had the organisms before us, although nothing indeed remains to us but footprints on the sand.