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The Ordinary Operations of Nature

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June 1823

Dear Sir:

I write with the sincere purpose of speaking with Yourself as such a Natural Philosopher for whom my work might hold some Interest. I have enclosed with this letter a set of Curious Stones from the great cliffs near my home in Lyme Regis as a hope that these Specimens will bring some measure of credibility to my Inquiries, as I am a young Girl and do not have such Letters or Merit as you have.

Enclosed also find my Description of these specimens - their curved shells with their many Chambers may be of some interest, as they resemble modern forms but are not of those forms. I hope that you can provide Advice or pass on my Letter to others such as yourself who may provide some insight. I have also enclosed my description of the Rocks from which these Specimens were extracted. My Mother says I am blessed by Divine Will to have some small knowledge of the Sea and the Cliffs beside our Home. I do not pretend to Divine favor but hope that in my pursuits some little piece of the Good Lord’s Providence is made clearer. Perhaps you might provide some reassurance of my Assessment of these Specimens and their Circumstances.

Respectfully Yours,

Miss Mary Anning

Lyme Regis

 

 

October 1823

Dear Mr. Lyell,

Your letter indeed finds me in good Health and hale enough to continue my pursuits even as the world tips toward Winter. Our little town, its Cliffs and its refreshing Waters, holds some interest to fine gentlemen and gentlewomen come from the City, though as Winter draws closer, less journey who might prove Audience for my small Wares. It is indeed cold upon the cliffs but they Call to me nonetheless, and I must Answer.

I know myself to not be deserving of your flattery or your time in reviewing my meager descriptions. My Assessment of those Specimens, the ammonites as you remind me of their proper name, does not pretend to your expertise and experience, nor do I possess your smooth facility with language, though I find I have some small Knack for finding and describing Fossils and their surroundings. Should you be amenable to further Correspondence, I would not lack for Specimens to describe nor speculation as to these peculiarities’ origin. The Lord in his Providence has given us few material Riches but a wealth of Treasures to uncover. I think myself fortunate to be close to such Mysteries.

Respectfully yours,

Miss Mary Anning

 

 

November 1823

Charles,

Do not think me bold in addressing you so. Your letter has filled me with the most tremendous Excitement - my fossils, my Specimens, will be known in London and across the Channel, to Places that exist only in Maps! Such wonders, Charles, that we live in a time where a humble Girl’s meager Works are met with such enthusiasm!

My mother does not approve of these Sales, no more than she approves of our journeying to the Cliffs. She fears the dangers of a turned Ankle or my being lost to the Waves of the Sea. But I feel as though I must - the Divine has blessed me with some sense of these things, and I must do my part to reveal what the Creator has given us, that through hammer and chisel we might search for the evidence of Things not yet seen.

Please do forward me the inquiries from these various gentlemen requesting Sales and Specimens. I trust you will arrange these Financial matters as best you see fit, but it should prove edifying to know their Names and their Titles. Forgive a young Girl’s silly flights of fancy, but it will be a Boon to my spirits to see their Credentials in your steady hand.

Gratefully,

Mary Anning

 

 

December 1823

Charles,

I have found a great Creature, Charles! A creature like none I have seen before - one that is like a Whale or a Fish or a Great Lizard, though not like any of these - a form that is not of this World or at least not of this Present World. Perhaps this is the Lord’s great Fish that swallowed Jonah - or perhaps some creature entirely New. Charles, I am fit to burst with my excitement. We have uncovered only its Head and its shoulder girdle and its great Fins, but I suspect a long, heavy body like that of a Dolphin or perhaps a great flat tail - or perhaps some extraordinary admixture of the Known and the Unknown.

Oh, I am beset with such urgency - I am to the Cliffs daily, even in the driving rain, though my Mother says it is unladylike to go about so, tromping in the mud and with my dog as my constant companion. I try to be a dutiful Daughter, but my ears shutter at her Admonishments - there is such work to be done! Such extraordinary work! I am to uncover these things that are unknown to Natural Philosophy, even to such better Gentlemen such as yourself and I -

Forgive me my enthusiasms, Charles. I find that I cannot find the correct words to communicate my excitement, only that I am daily occupied with our mutual Obsession. Please find my sketches of the Creature enclosed. I know I have as little gift for Sketching as I do for Language, so hope that the glamor of the New will smooth some of my jaggeder lines and fill the gaps of my limited hand. Your opinions and inputs are, as always, my greatest treasure.

Yours,

Mary

 

 

January 1824

Charles,

The cliffs have become my home, my work, my place of continual toil, of movement guided by His hand. We have unearthed much of my Friend, as I have taken to calling him - for he seems as close a companion as Dog or the Sea, something familiar and dear. He is soon revealed, at least his skull and vertebrae, the great fine bones of his fins, delicate as a fish’s bones at their tips, yet joined like a human hand. It will take a team of men with their carts and mules and heaves-ho to remove him from his Earthly home.

I confess he has wearied me, has my fine good Friend, as much as he has excited me. My feet ache, my hands blister, my back smarts where I bend to apply my little brush, a thousand little pains that evaporate as I work upon the cliffs by day only to condense and fall upon me at night. But oh, I should not trouble you with my prattling. Know this, Charles - our friend has slumbered for eons, for millennia, perhaps as old as the fifth Day of Creation, when our Lord filled the seas and skies with his creatures. He has rested, waited, sojourned. It will take more than a blistered forefinger for him to remain so entombed.

Yours,

Mary

 

 

March 1824

Charles,

It is night. Forgive my unsteady hand and my brevity, though I find myself a poor correspondent these days. I have taken a chill, Charles, venturing to the Cliffs daily, and my mother fears my cough will rattle the thin walls of our house to pieces. It is late - too late for writing, but I cannot find the release of Sleep either.

There is wind in the house, always, wind from the Cliffs, a high wind like a Call. It robs me of my Peace, Charles, Calling as if it knows my Name. It is foolish to walk the Cliffs at night - beyond foolish, a risk beyond risks, the Sea as unforgiving as Judgment. But I must confess that, even at this late hour, my Obsession rises in me like a Thing I cannot contain.

Oh, Charles, some men are Gamblers and some are for the Drink and I care none for these Temptations, but there is an Obsession in me, some Devil’s suggestion that my Work must not cease - must never cease. Forgive me, Charles - I cannot even bear these thoughts in Daylight, but Night and the honesty of candlelight and silence, and the wind from the Cliffs, has driven my Hand even beyond my Will. Perhaps this is madness, some Girl’s mere imaginings, nothing that the Lord cannot remove if I beseech him, as nothing is beyond His power or Grace.

But I do not wish to Change, Charles, or perhaps wish to Change, but to become something other than what the Lord made me. I know this is blasphemy, to write it, to think it, but I must confess to you I do not care. My hands are rough and hard as these rocks, my feet made only to carry me over the Cliffs, my eyes for finding new Creatures, and my arms for unearthing them. The townsfolk think me peculiar, strange, an unsexed women, some creature belonging to neither the masculine nor feminine sphere. I hear their Whispers as I walk past, but the wind from the Cliffs blocks their noise, and I long only to hear its Calls.

Yours,

Mary

 

 

April 1824

Charles,

Your concerns for my health are truly kind, but I find myself imbued with a sudden new Light. I am cured my illness, the cough leaving me as swiftly as it arrived. Now I am a swift, that little denizen of the cliffs, diving and swooping as I was Made to do.

We found another Marvelous Creature today, dog and I did, drawn to its site as if I was Summoned. It is not an Ammonite or an Ichthyosaur or any of the other creatures we’ve conferred about - instead something Marvelous, a beast unlike any the Lord has made. It Called to me, Charles, like singing from beneath the Rocks, Called until I unearthed it, my pick and my hammer and my little shovel and brush its tools of Liberation. Some fossils want to be found, positioned as they are so that even the most casual Observer can arrive home from the Baths with some token of the Lord’s Majesty.

But some Fossils are more circumspect, whispering, whispering, waiting, and I feel Blessed to have been Called by this Marvelous Creature, anointed as its Liberator, as if it waits to unfurl and unbend and show itself to the World. It is Majestic - a chimera, as you would call it, a great Unknown Creature, a snake, a lion, an eagle, but none of these entirely. Something New and at once Old. Perhaps Older than Eden itself, some relic from a forgotten universe. I long to know its Name, Charles, to hear it Spoken.

If I should prove a poor correspondent, Charles, know that it is because I am in the Presence of some Thing greater than myself, greater perhaps than all our Selves. I do not pretend to understand it, only to chip chip chip away at its encasement, and watch my new Great Friend, like a caddisfly shedding its larval sheath, shed the rocks that have Buried it and spread its great Dark Wings.

Yours,

Mary

 

 

May 1824

Charles,

Your concerns for my Health are touching, Charles, but I confess that since my Father has joined his Maker, I am less of the Girl I should be, and not prone to such Fits and Spells that are the privileges of Ladies finer than myself. I am filled with Spirit and good Cheer.

The Cliffs call to me, day, night, in my Dreams and as I Wake. Their singing is more beautiful than a thousand Hymns. Each day, we unearth more of the Specimen. It calls, it sings, it longs for its Freedom. Dog does not like the singing, and stays closer to the ocean, though I fear he will be carried out on a demanding tide. Still, I toil. This Specimen will be my masterwork, the crowning achievement of my daily struggle against the wind and the water and the townsfolks’ whispers.

He is more Free now, my Great Friend, his head and his shoulders and Wings, the narrow staircase of his spine, the graceful sharp curves of his ribs. He is lovely, so lovely, beyond my words, beyond perhaps any language that I have, perhaps beyond language itself.

You believe the world is old, Charles, older than Eden, older perhaps than these facile New Gods that rule us - I believe He is Old as the hill he is buried in, older still, like the Earth was formed around him, before the sky and the sea were separated, before perhaps even the light and the dark were rent apart. Since before such false division as sleep and wake, day and night. When the world was one, singular, and not ruled by dissemblers who say that it is one thing or another.

As it was before, so shall it be now, where everything is whole and One. He will Return, Charles, my Friend will Return and bring with him such an Age. He will Return.

Mary

 

 

June 1824

Charles,

Forgive the unsteadiness of my hand, my letters formed more poorly than even my poor standard. I slashed my palm on a rock this morning, the blood welling up and trickling onto the Specimen like rain, soaking into the Rock. This Fossil, my dear Friend, accepted this offering, my blood sinking into the sediment like an offering and I ...

Apologies, my dear Charles, it seems I have nodded off. My mother says it was not sleep that took me, for she says I keen and hum and sing, but I have no memory of such a thing. My dreams, though, in my dreams, I fly with my Fossil, my great winged Friend, over the Cliffs and beyond the Channel, to a great rolling Land, a place where He will be King and I His most Faithful Servant. Oh, he sings to me in my sleep, he sings, he hums, he buzzes, he screams. I long to make him Free. We will be Free, together, my Friend and I.

But I have removed the last of the rocks that held him, or the near last, one more day’s labor remaining between the great One being Returned and I -

 

 

June 1824

Charles,

You have done an unkind thing, Charles. My Mother has no money for the Sanitarium and I no desire to be so far from the Sea. Why am I encased here, in this soft bed, in this room locked as my Beloved is locked into his rocky Prison, the streak of clouds past my window my only clock. We are friends, Charles, dear friends, and it is with great unkindness that you have sent me to this Place, so far from my Work.

You believe the world to be very old, the planet governed now as it was long ago, and yet there must be room for Change, as the great paddling Plesiosaur has gone and the Ichtyosaur has swum to its Maker and the Ammonites no longer play their many-chambered Songs into the Sea.

Why, then, must you resist these many Changes? Why then must you see the Earth as little more than a farm, the subtle irrigations of water, the rise and senescence of crops, a steady world? You mock Catastrophism as a false pretender to Natural Philosophy - and in doing so deny what must be evident to anyone that has spent their life excavating the Earth. That it can and must Change. That the world is no more fixed and static in its continents and sediments than it is on its axes.

Why must I be made static, then, Charles? As if my confinement will delay the coming of my King? He has waited so many years. We are a blink to him, a breath, the lives of men as Dust. You can no more stop his rising than the rising of the Mountains from the plains, the upthrust of new ranges and ridges. You are seeking to cap a volcano with a tea cup, Charles. A fool’s errand.

Still, my work has taught me Patience, and I shall be patient still.

Yours in friendship,

Mary

 

 

August 1824

Charles,

I am home now, Charles, home and healthy, my spirit and my strength returned to me. You have done me a kindness, Sir, one that I will struggle to repay, no matter how many of my Specimens and Shells I sell to fine good upstanding men such as yourself at my little stand by the shore.

Mother says I am much improved and even Dog no longer growls and yips when I come and go. The cliffs do not call any longer, and the only song I hear is the crash of the waves of the sea against them, reminding me of the constancy and majesty of the Lord’s Grace.

I have retired from my fossil hunting, save my Ammonites and Trilobites, such small trinkets of the Almighty’s Creation. My little pick and shovel serve me as well as my needles - mother says I have a Gift for Embroidery and other proper Womanly things. I spend many a warm Summer night, hoop at my lap, watching the stars and planets in their firmament, fixed and yet unfixed, a testament to the Lord’s steady hand.

You are right to advocate for gradualism, that steady slow change from one state to another, as deep and solemn as a breath. I have put away my childish things, my adze and my drills, and my childish belief that catastrophe has shaped the Earth and its forms. Surely as God is Good, the world will not suffer again from such fires and floods and Cataclysm.

Your humble servant and grateful friend,

Mary

 

 

September 1824

Charles,

I have received news that should fill me with the greatest Elation, but instead only drives into me a despair. The world has not been kind to me, Charles. I have received news of the publication of my Ichthyosaur, in a fine journal read by such Learned Men as yourself.

In naming this great new Species, the article has neglected to name myself as its discoverer. I understand, Charles, the world as it is. That for all your argument for Change, there are some things that will remain Unchanged - that while I may toil with pick and shovel, these toils shall not earn me a place among the fine and Learned men, no matter how my hands might ache or my back smart from unearthing their Discoveries.

Surely, it is a cruelty to work for no acknowledgement of my work, and though you have been my advocate and intercessor, I find I have waning patience for such meager mentions as you have been able to wring out from those who would put their names to my Specimens and Descriptions.

I know you are not the source of my complaints, Charles - and that I should find Christian Patience and Gratitude for what little acknowledgment has come for my work. Do not think me ungrateful for your correspondence, your advocacy, your Friendship. Know that, were it not for these, I would be even less regarded than I am presently. Forgive a girl’s arrogance in thinking her Works merited mention.

Yours,

Mary

 

 

October 1824

Charles,

With all my trials, I have missed an important anniversary, Charles! The year of our Friendship. Please find enclosed such as Specimen as to mark the occasion of our acquaintanceship and correspondence. It is perhaps a little larger and more impressive than the humble Stones that have been my primary quarry; I had vowed to Mother and Dog and You that I would not again seek such Impressive stones as my Great Friend as my previous project, but I suspect you will indulge my bending these strictures for such an Occasion.

These Specimens are from a deep stratum, a layer in the rocks separated by a dark curious deposit of compacted ash. The creatures here are Strange with such unusual symmetries and segments, New to me and perhaps to you and perhaps to Science. A fitting gift, then, to celebrate our Friendship.

Yours, affectionately,

Mary

 

 

November 1824

Charles,

My hands itched to return to the Cliffs, today, Charles, as a drunkard’s must itch for wine. I endeavor to teetotal, yet have made my home near the finest alehouse, the great beautiful Cliffs that call and call and call. I must not listen. I will plug my ears with hymns and sing only the Lord’s song.

Forgive my brevity, Charles, as I find I cannot clasp a pen or balance an inkpot with my shaking. I will join my hands in prayer now, and stray no more.

Yours, faithfully,

Mary

 

 

December 1824

Charles,

It is cold upon my beloved Cliffs now, the wind from the sea an icy slap, cold enough that Mother worries I will take a Chill and be returned to God’s loving hands. (And that I will no longer be able to peddle my Specimens to keep food on the table and the Collectors at bay.) The wind and the rain and the salt spray are my normal weather, but perhaps my Trials of this past year have returned me to my natural state of womanly Weakness.

Which is to say, Charles, that it was Necessary to seek shelter in a hollow in the Cliffs, a little place carved out among the rocks. It was, I confess, near in its location to my Great Good Friend, though I have ceased his excavation, save a little clarifying of his fine hand bones. I did not think it right to leave them so unfinished.

It was warm there, in my little Hollow, unseasonably, and there was a faint glow of light from its encasement, unearthly, like that of the stars on the calm night sea. I confess I sojourned there for what I thought to be only a moment, feeling a great rest come over me, like being cradled by my beloved Cliffs, held safe in their protection. It was only for a moment, but I awoke hours later from my reverie to Dog’s insistent barks and found myself groggy in my return to Mother and Home.

We have assumed, Charles, that time and the Earth move forward on a constant tick, the advance of the universe set by our Lord’s unvarying watch. That as surely as he made Heaven and Earth and the Land and the Sea, he has crafted Time.

But if your thesis argues that all of these have Gradually Changed - that the great plates of the Earth have moved, that the Oceans have risen and drained and risen again - then why do we suppose Time has not altered so? Did my great Ichthyosaur swim under the same sky? Set his clock for twenty-four hours, his calendar to the same number of days? Surely, these are constructs, Man’s feeble attempts to bring order to God’s unknowable Plan.

Perhaps I shall return to my little Hollow, that place of peace, and perform an Experiment, though I know myself not to be worthy of such a title as Natural Philosopher. Indulge now a Woman’s curiosity, Charles, as you have so many times before.

Yours,

Mary

 

 

December 1824

Charles,

I have ventured into my little hollow with a pocket watch, and returned with outstanding Proof that it is some fold in the normal tick of time, the seconds progressing as slow as sugar syrup while the Earth spins through its regular motions.

And not just a slower place, but a wider one as well! For my Cliffs, with perhaps the assistance of my Great Friend, have shown me a path through the maze of rocks into something greater. What I perceived to be a little Hollow is an entrance way, the start of a maze carving through the Cliffs and Sediments, perhaps through Time itself. I do not know the nature of this Cave and it is remarkable that in my many Excursions on my Cliffs that such as system has not been evident to me - but perhaps it has Waited, as my Friend has Waited, to reveal itself in due time to some Adventurer worthy of its passages.

I admit I have tarried there, exploring its many branched hallways, its porticoes held aloft by rocky column, the strange beautiful glow of its walls lighting my way. It leads to some place greater than my little Town, so full of whispers, so eroded by the wind and the sea. It is as I imagine a city to be, laid out so that pedestrians can sense a widening street before it becomes visible, some grand avenue just around the next corner. I long to see its entirety.

But unlike a city, every step I take is the first step taken down these pathways - of this I am certain, that my every footprint in the soft earth is the first dig of human heel and toe. That I am a Discoverer of the New, as surely as Magellan saw seas never before sailed or Cook the outline of the Great Southern Antarctic.

Should I not return, Charles, should I cease our dear Correspondence, know that it is because I am not Lost, for my Great Fossil will guide my Navigation as surely as the stars guided Cook. He is my compass, my sextant, my Way through Unknowable places. I have revealed his hands from their rocky shackles and in doing so, revealed his plans - not to rule over this Earth, this paltry spinning rock, but an Escape to some Place greater.

Oh, there are things in heaven and earth beyond even the realm of dreams and he shall go there, and I shall accompany him! If I should not return, Charles, know that I am not Dead but finally Living! He has opened a doorway into another World, a world beyond this World, a place of infinite Possibilities, a place for Eternal Adventure.

Do not think me arrogant for my selection, my appointment, as my Friend’s emissary to a distant wonderful Land. I know it is difficult to imagine a less-worthy ambassador from this world to the Other, not being made Titled or Wealthy or Male. But I will carry on, nonetheless, into this impossible wonderful place.

Yours, as ever,

Mary

 

 

December 1824

Charles,

You have been a dear Friend, Charles, a wonderful correspondent, a true Advocate. But I fear this will be our last letter, our dialog drawing to a close as the year does. The world is cold, not just the wind whipping from ocean to Cliff, but the cold cruelty of another publication.

This time, it is my plesiosaur, my beloved paddling friend who will be put into the cold block of regular type and sent in publication to men who take in its discovery without inquiring the name of its discoverer. As if it sprung fully formed from these cliffs as Athena from the head of Zeus, without the chip chip chip of slow and meticulous work. Oh, these soft-handed men! These tourists!

My anger is, at least, a warm broth, filling me with such motivation as carries me further into my passageways each day. I have discovered the source of the glow, Charles, that faint light growing brighter as I near it. A crack, a fissure, a rip in Time or Space - another doorway, this one leading to some distant Place, so beyond the small indignities of this world. My Friend will be with me - his Earthly bones only a placeholder for his True Form. I can hear him, like a voice on the other side of a thin wall. He Calls, Charles, and I must answer.

Do not think me Lost, Charles, or without true path. Know that my feet will carry me further into this Great New World as they have carried me with surety over the Cliffs each day. When I am gone, do not think me dead but Deathless - a Title beyond the Peerage, beyond such fripperies as men grant each other.

Wish me many happy travels, Charles, as I have thought of you in your voyages! Do not beg for my return as you did in your last letter, or send men with cart and horse to take me to some barred sanitarium. Such efforts will be for naught as, when you have received this, I will already be gone!

If it does not trouble you, send a bit of money to Mother for her rent and her table, and a little for Dog as well, for it would worry me to see him turned out in the cold like some cur after all his fine companionship.

If you must think of me, think of this and this only - that I have gone to some place better than this dull, restricted world. Should the world Change, Charles, pray that such change is not only that of sea and sediment, but of the sentiments that fill men’s hearts. That there will come a day when a humble Girl from a small town by the Sea will have her name ring out - that I shall not be just a set of hands and a shovel, but as a Natural Philosopher and peer to other great Men. Until such a day arrives, Charles, think of me often, as I will think of you in my new adventure.

Yours, truly,

Mary