Our Western Sea
by Sara Sirk
Runestone, volume 4
Wyoming was an ocean, once.
It’s easy to forget. We stand here on the dry plains now, grinding our heels in the dust, watching storms trace snow fences and antelopes scrape their backs on barbed wire. The way wind steals moisture from the air is almost cruel. It is dry here – too dry for the thick clouds above – and we lick our chapped lips at the wind farms while hoping we’ll find that gas station, soon. Wyoming is a place of much land and little fuel, whether it be for people or animals. Everything but fire tends to go hungry.
Those of us who do go forward, propelled across the plains, do so thanks to the tarry, liquidized bodies of the thousands of dead beneath us. Oil is blood the West cannot live without. We burn the bones of hundreds in our gas tanks and motor on. Endless prairies undulate before us, baring bleached animal bones to the sky. The swaying grass courses to the horizon. It runs there, in its waves, and keeps going. The sage sea engulfs all its wanderers.
50 million years ago, our earth bled salt. Wide, flat lakes covered Wyoming, staring at its never-ending sky. Fish swam around the lake sides. Those that didn’t hide in prehistoric reeds found themselves inside another fish’s gut. Ichthyosaurs roamed the depths, their dish eyes grasping the smallest fraction of light. Their bodies twisted over what would become our prairies. Ammonites propelled their candy cane striped shells to different depths. Mosasaurs and Plesiosaurs – those graceful, hungry, toothy faces of marine life in the Cretaceous – cut their long bodies through Wyoming’s waters at the same time our turtles and clams arrived.
The West has always been a source of bloodshed. Generations of sea life crawled, spat, bred, and danced through their native waters. Some struggled into the present day, even as their homes dried beneath them. Others sank their spent carcasses to the bottom. In the end, all individuals died, even if species survived. There is no elixir for immortality. But the lucky dead landed in banks of silt. Wrapped in dirt, their bones petrified themselves into natural treasures that outlived any of their family. An endless sleep.
No one knows if fish dream, especially not extinct ones. What is there to dream of but their halted loop of survival? Even if they could dream, it’s unlikely they dreamt of what came next. Who could foresee the drying of the seas, the recession of the lakes? Wyoming passed the Cambrian. That stage arrived in a bloom of new life before disappearing – the mayfly of prehistoric time. The Devonian period slid by, taking its armored fish with it. A hundred million years fell away with each geological step. There passed the Triassic, birthing dinosaurs onto lake flats and red desert, then the Jurassic. By the Cretaceous, mountains began rising from the sea. Wyoming folded in half, upwards. At a glacial pace, our state consumed itself and shed old skin, shucking off water the same way it has since shucked off stagecoaches.
If any seer among fish could predict the draining of the ocean, they certainly couldn’t predict the advent of humanity. We strode onto the paleolithic scene with a daring to match manifest destiny. Any wide-eyed fish fossil certainly couldn’t predict Laramie. Nor could they predict dreams, the Oregon trail, colonization, and the many slicks of road that cross the plains today. The only aspect they could have understood is the hungry drive to persist. All animals understand that.
Fossils embody the West. They are a symbol of immense progress and survival in this western cataclysm of history. The fossil represents tenacity; represents the hands that dug hours to pull it from rock, and those same hands that gently wrapped it in plaster. Petrified bones tell of Wyoming’s attempt to make someone else’s home into a frontier, the raging against the dying light that followed, and the permanent marks that say, “We lived here.”
A fossil’s forever unpainted skeleton is an endless canvas for imagination, for discovery, for wondering; we reached the coast in 1810 but we eternally need a hinterland. What better place than the West, the endless sea of prairie and horned larks and ghost towns that has forever struggled into the present, always a breath short? Oceans are frontiers. They are the unknown. They are what keeps us wandering from town to town, thought to thought, and what strikes ingenuity and violence into the best of us.
It took 50 million years to deposit our West here. Still, we continue picking at the scars of the past. It’s a hobby of ours to pin the dead against walls and study history. Humanity loves observing the shells of mechanisms long past. We take our children by the hand and lead them to look at what existed before. How many elementary schoolers have jittered in front of the pregnant Ichthyosaur fossil in the University of Wyoming’s geology museum, rubbing their rubber shoe soles into the floor, begging to know more? The fossil can do nothing but stare ahead. It’s been staring ahead for several million years, now.
University of Wyoming
Sara Sirk is a junior at the University of Wyoming majoring in zoology and minoring in creative writing. Both nature and fiction captivate her, and she adores this weird, weird world. This is her third creative publication.