One of Three in a Series on Saratoga Springs, New York
“Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange.”
-Shakespeare, The Tempest
A few years ago, I drove past my childhood home – a 19th century farmhouse in rural Michigan. On my way there, memories came in vivid colors: a hot air balloon landing on golden fields behind our house, my sister finding a nest of cherry-red ladybugs. But when I arrived, the place seemed drained of color. The once yellow house was a dirty white, the formerly green lawn was covered in corroded junk, and if I kept staring, my memories seemed in danger of losing luster as well. I drove away sad and disappointed.
This weekend, Ben had a similar feeling when we first arrived at the Petrified Sea Gardens just outside Saratoga Springs. It was an afterthought on our way back to Syracuse as Ben remembered going there when he was young. He described it as a tour into prehistoric time complete with both petrified and living vegetation. I was envisioning a lively aquarium scene captured in stone. So when we pulled up to a closed gate without signage, we both felt disappointed. The place was abandoned, the only sound a swing-set creaking along with the massive pines in the wind. The gray skies of late March didn’t help the lackluster mood.
Despite our disappointment, we walked into the gardens – passing a concrete foundation where Ben claims a souvenir shop once stood. We noticed a trail head and numbered markers to our left. Without a trail brochure, we had no idea what we were looking at. It became a game: massive moss-covered rocks at exhibit #14 made an outdoor living room. Stones in a circle at exhibit #17 was a squirrel maze. A pitchfork-shaped tree and part of a bathtub were, well, just plain creepy. I hadn’t seen a fossilized anything until we had just about completed the trail’s loop. We began walking on what felt like pavement, then I brushed aside pine needles to reveal a surface of circles, like the sky-spirals in Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. I looked up and saw an entire slab of the mysterious circles. Ben finally recognized where we were from his memories: on the bottom of the sea.
We were standing on 500 million-year-old stromatolites – fossilized blue-green algae growths – that were formed in an ancient Cambrian sea. It was here in 1922 that Robert Ritchie, an amateur geologist, first discovered one of the earliest life forms on Earth. (A 3.46 billion old, two-ton stromatolite was recently found in Virginia.)
Ben and I walked along the fossil bed, hypnotized by the spiraling stromatolites. Unlike my unsettling visit to my childhood home, Ben found this return to his past a little strange but overall rich in rediscovery. I thought about how the more time that passes, the more set in stone my memories become – distinct and sharp like white fossils against dark rock. So it’s unsettling when I visit a place from my memory, and find it altered by a sea-change, washed of anything recognizable. But as I walked on the ancient ocean floor, I didn’t feel sad or disappointed, just in awe of time’s ability to both transform and preserve.
Visit the Petrified Sea Gardens
Well, actually, you should probably visit Lester Park a mile away where you can view ancient stromatolites without trespassing. Here’s why: Although the Petrified Sea Gardens are a National Natural Landmark, it is unfortunately closed to the public and considered private property. I didn’t realize this until researching afterward, as no signs were posted.
The Full Shakespeare Verse from The Tempest
Full fathom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
Those are pearles that were his eies,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.