Standing on a beach, I stare at the cliff.
A thin, black layer waxes and wanes in its sedimentary sandwich.
You have to get your eye in, but once you’ve seen it
You can follow this line through the rocks,
Where a catastrophic storm devastated a forest.
Huge trees came crashing down, and were washed downstream
Leaving logjams and debris.
A generation lost, all lost to decay,
Except for this tiny graveline.
I’m here to dig with a dessert spoon
To scoop out some deep time into an airline sick bag,
Plastic-lined to keep the history inside.
When I’ve collected enough
I take my muddy sick bag to a top-spec, spick-and-span lab,
tip it into a bucket
And pour on plenty of hot water,
Breaking down the earth. Oddly enough, the remains look like tea leaves.
Here I am, a fossil plant,
That dinosaurs once foraged on
Now stone-matured and so be warned
Make tea, drink me if you want
But I’m gritty with knowledge.
If hot water isn’t enough
I’ll add a hint of potassium hydroxide
Hydrofluoric acid will clean any rock off the tea-leaves – carefully, this stuff is like Alien blood,
A drop of this would eat straight through my bones,
It dissolves anything except plastic and the precious preserved plants.
I sieve out the fossils and I put them under the microscope.
Sort me. Find the interesting species
In the mess of history. Unweave ginkgo tree
from pine, unwind fragment and debris
From the wholer shape of leaves,
Hold on to these. Lift them free.
Look. You can see a cute little layer
called the cuticle, so waxy and waterproof it’ll
Resist the tooth of time and if you shine
Light through, it’ll still light up for you. Outline
The ancient cells I once used to infuse
Fresh air in my greenness. These holes
I could open and close to control water flow,
Tiny mouths to breathe the air.
Listen. You can almost hear
The petrified whisper of a bygone breeze.
I recognise this ginkgo. There is a living species like this tree, a single survivor.
Cultivated by Buddhist monks for thousands of years,
Since then it’s learned to live a city life, resilient and adaptable.
They’ve had to adjust as we’ve changed their world.
My thin beachrock line made of flash-flooded fossils
Has mountainous brethren: thick coal-beds, colossal
Bogs, woods and forests that lived back when mould
Was outpaced; when plant waste packed up uncontrolled.
Men dug up these graveyards and set them on fire.
Air’s carbon dioxide proportions rose higher
As millions of years of old woodlands were burned;
Meanwhile, the leaves of the ginkgo trees learned
They needed far fewer leaf-mouths to breathe in
The carbon they capture, where Victorian
Samples have holes packed much closer together
A trait most trees share: it’s not new-grown, just clever.
We can take our survivors and grow them in labs, with different kinds of air,
Mapping the precise relationship between carbon and mouths
And comparing this to their fossil brethren
Over deep time, the carbon levels we read from these leaves swoop and fall.
We can tell the story of carbon in many ways,
But the tea-leaves tell us the tale from the plant’s point of view.
They are exquisitely-tuned environmental sensors scattered through time.
You’re incinerating centuries of forests each day,
The living trees above the ground, the dead woods below,
You’ve burned to expand.
Putting us all in hot water,
Adding acid to our oceans,
Stripping away the earth.
Can you learn from the ginkgo
How to moderate your mouth in the face of excess
How to sense the changes around
How to adapt in a balancing act
That roots us in a lineage of millenia?
Because from the fossil point of view
You’ve made this huge mess of life in no time at all
When you haven’t even got your own layer of rock yet.
Susannah Lydon and Robin Lamboll - 2021
Ginkgo Fossil Tea was written as part of a project called Experimental Words (https://experimentalwords.com/), led by Sam Illingworth and Dan Simpson, and funded by Arts Council England. It brought together ten scientists and ten poets, over a few months in early 2021, to produce a “high-energy collision of science and spoken word.”
Susannah and Robin’s poem focuses on plant fossils found within a coal bed near the sea that were brought to a lab to study. The poem goes over the process of separating the fossils from the rock they are found in, using a mixture of hot water and hydrofluoric acid to wash the rock away, hence the title “Gingko Fossil Tea.” Hydrofluoric acid, as alluded to in the poem, is extremely potent, able to burn very quickly and cause a lot of damage if spilled on someone. Susie and Robin compare hydrofluoric acid to the acidic blood found in xenomorphs in the Alien movie franchise. They are right to describe it as such, as this acid is perhaps the most dangerous acid to work with while also having the ability to poison after it burns and cause many different types of illnesses.
After processing the plant fossils, the poem talks about finding a gingko leaf and examining it under a microscope. The scientist in the poem is searching for “tiny mouths” that help with water flow, known scientifically as stomata. Stomata cover plant leaves and allow plants to take in CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) gas and expel excess water vapour and O2 (Oxygen) gas. The poem goes on to describe that as CO2 levels in the air rise from humans burning fossils fuels, plants develop leaves that have less stomata as the higher concentration of CO2 in the air means it is easier to take in. Susie and Robin talk about how this is seen in both modern studies in labs on living plants and in fossil leaves under the microscope.
This poem ends with a warning about preventing and mitigating climate change and points out that the current climate change is happening so fast that, remarkably, there has not been time for it to be present in the geological record so far.
Robin Lamboll researches climate change and human emissions at Imperial College London, and writes poetry on the intersection between the natural and the human. Robin has won the UK, Vogon and Madrid International poetry slam finals, and came second in the World Cup of Slam in 2019. https://linktr.ee/rlamboll
Susie Lydon is Assistant Professor in Plant Science at the University of Nottingham, where she teaches about plants, rocks and science communication. Her background is in Mesozoic palaeobotany, and her passion is explaining to people what fossils tell us about life through deep time, in as many different ways as possible. @susieoftraken
Susannah described how the poem came to be: “Robin and I were paired up. We met up for video chats where I talked about how I study plant cuticle mesofossils and what they can tell us, and Robin, who as well as being a poet works in a different area of climate change science, asked me lots of incisive questions. This is the collaborative poem which emerged. Robin has an infectious sense of fun and I think that comes through in the spoken words of the fossils, even as they challenge our behaviours at the end of the piece. You can read Robin’s reflections on the process on the Bandcamp page itself.”