My “travelling companion” embodies time and remembrance – a necklace featuring a shaligram, a sacred stone of a fossilized ammonite from Annapurna, Nepal. A gift from my friend Billie Jean James, who passed away in 2010. The fossil also reminds me of Peter Kahn, my friend and research partner on these fossil cephalopods, who passed away unexpectedly in 2018.
Billie Jean was a teacher, poet, and song-writer, who loved the colours and costumes she brought to her daily life. She was passionate about poetry; her students in Wyoming, Nevada, Maryland, Nebraska, and Saudi Arabia learned from her its gift and value.
Billie Jean and her husband Bill lived modestly in the house they built along the desert highway leading into Las Vegas. Many drivers with broken-down cars must have crossed their low fence looking for help. On this same road, Billie Jean’s only child Charles died when his girlfriend fell asleep driving home from Los Angeles one night.
About 350 million years ago, my spiral cephalopod died and descended to the muddy sediment, eventually hiding in a hard, spherical concretion of fine-grained silt until the ocean bottom was recently boosted to form the Himalayas. The fossil eventually tumbled to the river gorge, where it was split open by human foragers, revealing an intricate complementary pattern of shell and cast. Though these highly evolved and ornamented creatures once were ubiquitous to the world’s oceans, they became extinct when an asteroid smashed the Earth, turning the oceans acidic. Its more ordinary and primitive cousin, the chambered Nautilus, survived and became my object of travel and study with Peter.
Unlike my small, dark, hard, fossil, Billie Jean was expansive, soft, and full of life. Famous for her get-togethers and sing-alongs. An advocate for life; I see her wearing white, defying the blazing Sun and the darkness of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.
I’m now the same age as Billie Jean was when she collapsed and was buried under layers of her costumes. I’m also past the age of Peter in his return to the Earth. When I see this sacred object that has travelled so far, I think of my two fellow pilgrims. I also remember Annapurna, the goddess of food and nourishment in Hinduism, with gratitude for the nourishment I have received.
Stephen Pompea trained as an astronomer.
He is Observatory Scientist at National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, Tucson, Arizona. He is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Leiden and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Arizona.