Nov 17, 2022

From the Editor at Large: Memento Mori

Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,

The hour before dawn is one I generally associate with moving towards my favorite things. Be it a duck blind, an early visit over breakfast with a friend, or a surf break emptied by winter’s approaching chill, I find a simple sublimity in driving in the fall’s early morning gloam. I sip coffee and listen to the radio, usually the BBC. British broadcasters issue the news from a stiff upper lip, an approach I find admirably less frenetic than our own, and it pairs well with back roads bathed in my headlights.

On a recent morning, I heard the story of an effort ongoing in Oslo, Norway. In 2014, a Scottish artist named Katie Paterson planted saplings for a forest. Starting that year, she’s commissioned a book from a different author for each of the past eight years. She or a representative will do so for the next ninety-two. Save the authors, no living person will read the one-hundred books until 2114, when the matured saplings will be pulped to print at least 1,000 copies of each of them. For me, it’s a fascinating nod to deferred gratification, mortality, and the way we engage the world around us.

If you’ve given me even half of your attention for the year and a half I’ve been writing you, it’s of no surprise that I spend a fair bit of my time in contemplation of its passing. “Memento Mori,” say the Stoics, “Remember you will die”. Perhaps that explains my fascination with a project explicitly designed to surpass the life of the woman implementing it. It may also explain my love of bones and shark’s teeth and shed antlers found in situ. They offer silent testimony that something amazing was here; that there was, somehow, a time when something was alive and thriving without a single thought of me.

My fascination with tokens of the past took my wife, daughter, and I to Palmetto Fossil Excursions in Summerville, South Carolina to dig for fossils under the tutelage of “Mako” Matt Basak. Matt holds the World Record for finding the largest recorded Megalodon tooth, a terrifying 6.45 inches of serrated triangle, just one of what would have been hundreds in the mouth of a school bus sized shark. I’ve long sought a “Meg” tooth of my own. To mark my passage of half a century my family agreed to patiently endure six hours of digging to try and find one.

As I scraped and shoveled, Matt was kind enough to call me over to “find” a fragment of one he uncovered. It was fun to pull it from the earth, but I’ve never liked reeling in a fish hooked by a guide. I wanted to find one on my own and returned to my efforts only partially satisfied. Hours later, Matt put me to work sifting a pile of dirt. As I lifted a shovelful onto the sifting screen to wash it down and reveal what hid within, I looked into the hole left by the shovel’s blade and saw in stark relief the coal black vee of a meg tooth against sandy brown clay. Though but a fragment of a relatively small tooth, it was too big to be anything else and I shouted like a treasure hunter on its realization.

Holding something hidden for the past 20 million years is both an ecstatic feeling and a sober reminder that we are all just a tiny part of a system larger than most of our comprehension. Now the tooth sits on my desk next to my great-grandfather’s Zippo lighter, both reminders to, “Memento Mori”. Rather than a morbid harangue, it’s a reminder to live in such a way as to consciously honor the amazing gifts that are our finite moments. Perhaps that’s an odd message. But for me, it’s absolutely at the heart of the thanks I will give this year as I celebrate the improbable wonder of being given another day. May you find your own.

Yours,

Russell Worth Parker

Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe