• Elanna Herbert and Fiona Dyer

On Elanna Herbert, The Yass Fossils

The poem I’m reading tonight by local short story writer and poet Elanna Herbert is entitled ‘The Yass Fossils’. While it tells a very personal journey, in which science and the language of science are at its core, it resonated with me in a number of ways. It reminds me of my very first science project, looking for fossils on my grandfather’s farm in western Victoria. Fossils that told of a very different world: a world in which his farm was well under water. Fossils that told of life over millennia; of species that no longer exist. Fossils that leave a record in the rocks on which we live today.

Fossils were used by my science teachers to put humans into perspective. We’ve existed for such a short time, on a geological time scale. We too might disappear, only to be discovered by the geological footprint that we leave. At the time, as a child, I thought this was rather fanciful. Now as an ecologist, I’m not so sure.

I moved on from fossils rather quickly. I was a lucky young woman whose parents supported my interest in science, and these days I use my science to try to help us manage our natural resources, so that humans and the rest of the world can coexist in a better way.

I’m fascinated by Elanna’s account of science, as something that is exciting and mysterious. For children, science is exciting; it’s about mystery and discovery, storytelling and, most importantly for me, language. Such wonderful words with a rhythm of their own, words that roll off your tongue and ignite the imagination. As a scientist, these days I’m required to ‘write in plain English’, use non-technical words, and leave many wonderful science words behind. It’s in poetry that there’s a chance for those fabulous words to come to the fore again.

Fiona Dyer



The Yass Fossils

i am holding time
sifting silted silence
weighed down by memory
synapsed. my thought
processes stumble
through Yass, in the EK Holden

and the fossils. that summer (1969)
i  wrote  magic  names  only  we  could
understand:     trilobites,    brachiopods
Derringullen creek, Grabben Gullen
under a railway bridge and
Shearsby’s Wallpaper at the top

of someone’s paddock. i remember worrying
about the cliff, the scattered points of quartz
stones and finding amethyst. its clarity near
the desiccated corpse of a fallen cow (i kicked
at bones)
things you don’t find in books. being with Dad

in the year i discover Science, things new
exciting, close. i became important, almost
a real thing, when he took me and the boy
next door to visit Science. we saw a moon rock

crowded by people looking to drink the future
but all i found was a forlorn thing at the centre
of a crowd — no gracious lunar bead — irregular, quite
dull, insignificant. there Dad bought me a book

with a booted footprint stepping down onto grey
dust. a thing of the moon. of Science. after Dad
is gone there is no one to ask why we did that
summer of fossil hunting. just this thought now

dug up – laid bare – this must have been
it. that moment he decided i was enough
to substitute for the unborn son — so he showed me
things he couldn’t understand
and i believed him.            now i Google rocks

rocks kept locked in a pink painted
box — stigmaria ficoides, a club moss root
— spinella brachiopod — odontopleura
trilobite1 hear. these. names. Science names
(never our names) things of stone things

of plant of shell the chitin fallen
to mud carbon to stone. they never were
                                     the skins of dinosaurs.


Elanna Herbert





End notes

  • 1. 1 Fossilsaustralia.com