Illness of a Friend
I just heard this week that a friend is very ill. This friend has not been “in robust health” for a quite some time, but still had been managing in an “I’m alright, really” sort of way. Now it seems that there has been a sudden turn for the worse, and I am fearful about my friend’s future. We have not heard anything about it being terminal, but still, the prognosis is far from favourable.
This news has made me think about our relationship; I guess I have tended to take this friend too much for granted. But we have had such conversations in the many happy hours we have spent together … such wonderful conversations! For you see, my friend is very old, quite remarkably old. My friend has memories going all the way back to the 1840s, back to a time before there was even a country of Canada. And since those memories started, my friend has been everywhere across the northern half of this continent. Literally everywhere, to many places I have not even heard of. And every place holds some special precise recollection of our nation’s distant and historic pasts. I have listened carefully while my friend has told me about the life forms of ancient tropical seas, and about the almost superhuman scientists who traversed this country before the days of paved roads and airplanes.
I’m sure you are more than aware by now that the friend I write of is not human. This friend is a collection, the National Type Fossil Collection and the bulk fossil collections of the Geological Survey of Canada. This collection is one of the most remarkable and little-known institutions of this country: a huge assemblage of fossils that has been built up through the work of many superb scientists over the past 170 years or so! It not only represents a physical record of geological field research in this country and a reference for those wishing to understand past work; it is also a fantastic resource for scientists, both at present and in the future. This collection forms an immense body of raw material for scientific study, painstakingly assembled at what would be, cumulatively, a tremendous cost.
I worry about this collection because news has just come down that the Federal Government’s current round of budget cuts will be affecting its curatorial staffing. And that is a serious concern. Certainly much of the collection is in good shape, so perhaps it may look to some managers as though they should be able to just close the door, opening it occasionally to allow access to trusted scientists. But a collection is a living, breathing organism that requires constant care and feeding; you cannot simply assume that it will be fine on its own for a while. It will deteriorate: specimens will become separated from their labels, boxes will fall apart, entries in the catalogue may no longer have corresponding fossils in the drawers. Without care over a longer term it might become useless, a candidate for the Ottawa landfills.
This collection has been built on trust, with each generation’s new collections being added to the existing body, and all of it passed down to the future. At a time when our government is focused on the discovery of new resources, and when biostratigraphy (the time -significance of fossils) is useful for finding really practical things like sediment-hosted base metal deposits, it would be extremely sad to see this wonderful reference library of geological objects fall slow victim to entropy, dermestids, and decay.