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Salterella dodged between the icebergs. While the small boat bucked and tossed, I hung over its side, peering down into the clear Arctic waters. I had not known that there could be such density of life. This frigid sea was a speckled mass of organisms. Tiny copepod crustaceans, looking like so many animated peas, beat their way in their thousands through the surface waters, feeding on plankton that I knew must be there, but which could not be seen without a microscope. There were jellyfish of every size: white, gently pulsing discs as delicate as spun glass; small pink barrage balloons decked with beating cilia, which appeared to be solid--but became gelatinous and impalpable if grasped from the water; an occasional orange monster with tentacles that promised evil stings for fish or mammal. They drifted in their millions, swirling and beating against the dumb tides, concealing purpose in contractions as instinctive as breathing, like protoplasmic lungs dilating and constricting in primitive obedience to the prompting of the currents. Behind the nearest iceberg arctic terns beat and hung in the air, peering down as I was, but with so much more precision, then darting to retrieve some living morsel from the sea. The ice floes were stained pink with their droppings.
Salterella was tackling a stretch of sea, Hinlopenstretet, between the islands of Spitsbergen and Nordauslandet far beyond the Arctic Circle at 80 degrees north. Ice floes had melted in the summer thaw, sculpted by the vagaries of weather into plates or crags, or simulacra of giants. On the waterline they were notched deeply by the sea, lapped by insistent waves, and just occasionally one would teeter into instability, cracking and keeling over with a great resigned splash which sent waves to make our small boat buck and grind against the smaller fragments of ice. It was true: the greater part of an ice floe was always beneath the sea, and you approached too close at your peril. If you looked down, you could see the bluish mass curving down into the deeps, while jellyfish skimmed hidden protuberances with impunity. Little Salterella sought the spaces between the floes. Her wooden construction was designed to cope with ice. Winds herded floes into clots that could become almost impenetrable. Then, suddenly, patches of clear water would allow rapid progress, and the bleat of the motor sent little auks and black guillemots fluttering low across the sea to plunder the rich waters elsewhere. In the distance a mysterious coastline lay low on the horizon. Glaciers ran straight down to the sea. Ice cliffs groaned or barked to signal the inexorable creep of sheets of ancient ice. The boat seemed like an interloper.
I was twenty-one and on my first expedition. Cambridge University had a tradition of sending young geologists to Spitsbergen. For a young naturalist it was very heaven. Here there were birds on every side that had only existed as pictures in bird books. The sea, the profligate sea, was a shimmering textbook of zoology. There seemed nothing to interfere with the joy of observation, no end to knowledge, no possibility that any discovery should be less than astounding.
The boat comprised two crew and several scientists, including myself and Geoff. We had already suffered in the old whaling vessel which had carried us from Norway, a switchback ride across the Barents Sea all the way to Spitsbergen. Few on board could face the whale-meat stew. Our expedition leader was the worst sailor of all, having disappeared below decks just after leaving the Norwegian port of Boda, and only reappearing a week later when we reached the base at Longyearbyen.
Geoff and I were to live together for weeks in a small tent, watching our beards grow from speckled patches to whiskers worthy of a Victorian paterfamilias. Together, we were in search of ancient fossils. An expedition from the previous year had stopped off to replenish their water supplies from a melt stream running off the great glacier of Valhallfonna in this remote and unwelcoming northern part of the archipelago. To everyone's surprise, the crew had picked up lumps of dark limestone on the beach that teemed with fossils: trilobites and brachiopods and many unrecognizable things besides. Nobody knew that fossil remains of such animals existed in this part of Spitsbergen. It was all completely new. But there had been no time to investigate that year because the Arctic night was closing in. Perpetual dusk was soon replaced by perpetual night. The few lumps of rock were brought back to Cambridge, and were studied by the great Professor Whittington, who pronounced them very interesting. Thus it was that two students came to be sitting side by side on Salterella looking at swarming jellyfish, and in such serendipitous ways lives are decided. It was 1967. "All You Need Is Love" was top of the hit parade, and stayed there for the whole expedition.
Expeditions are curious things. They last for weeks or sometimes months, during which time they acquire a life of their own, a structure, like a drama. Members of the expedition get to play roles, and the most curious aspect of all is that it is impossible to predict in advance quite what those roles will be. People have to get on together; there is simply no choice. Even pathological personalities have to survive the whole affair. There is, of course, the leader--well, there has to be--who has managed many of these things before. Of an evening, he recounts tales of blizzards past that make the present one seem tame. He knows stories of Nordenskjold and the other great men, who did it all with pemmican and huskies. He legitimizes the whole experience by accommodating the current namby-pamby lot within a great tradition. If you follow in the footsteps of giants, don't you walk taller yourself?
Then there is the expedition joker. He is not necessarily the wittiest man in the party, but he has a knack of igniting humour. Every member of the expedition likes to have him around in the evening. He has a generous gift of appreciating the humour of others, puffing up a glancing remark into hilarity, keeping flagging conversations alive, massaging morale. It is impossible to recall the humour that keeps an expedition afloat. It is concocted by the joker out of nothing and vanishes once more into nothing, but while it is there it seems to be the best thing in the world. The expedition's Practical Man knows how to fix a paraffin stove, or an engine. He can splice a broken guy rope. He can take out splinters, make splints; he can build machines from bits of wire and bottle tops. He is a wonder, as his ham-fisted friends who rely on him never tire of reiterating. I dare say that in ordinary life in suburbia Practical Man may seem a bit of a dullard, but when the outboard engine is failing among the ice floes he has his moment of glory. My own role, a modest one, was that of chef. Our food was nearly all dried: peas, onions, potatoes, rice, oats. Worst of all was the meat bar, 200 grams of dried protein which had to be reconstituted with hot water and which stayed insipid no matter what ingredients you added. Hours of ingenuity went into spinning these ingredients into something spectacular. I tried meat balls, curry, shepherd's pie, patties, pasties and pastries. I bashed them flat, or stuffed them with onion and peas. I married meat bars with oats. I was left undisturbed to follow my arcane trade, which was good news for one incapable of peering at an engine without exhibiting patent confusion. While Practical Man did his vital stuff, the leader led, and the joker cheered up the bystanders, the cook could be quietly abandoned to try to fabricate an onion souffle with powdered milk, flour, yeast extract and dried shallots.
The oddest role in the expedition is that of the scapegoat. His function is to take the blame for everything that goes wrong. A lost wrench? The scapegoat had it last. A leaking tent? You know who damaged the lining. Unexpected bad weather? Whose turn was it to check the weather forecast? Poor scapegoat. Unlike Practical Man, who can usually be identified in advance, there is no telling who will finish up as scapegoat. However, scapegoats have one thing in common: they never realize they are the scapegoat. They tend to be bumptious and self-confident types, convinced equally of their rectitude and their popularity. The scapegoat's function is, however, vital. He personifies mischance. Rather than curse fate, or wonder whether some god is playing tricks on a despised humanity, the scapegoat domesticates and humanizes misfortune. With the scapegoat there, nothing really bad can happen. And if the choice of scapegoat is as it should be, even he is unaware of the role he is playing. Peter enjoyed his expedition to Spitsbergen enormously, unaware that he was being blamed for everything from metal fatigue to blizzards. In this way an expedition defines its members. The identification of parts ensures the success of the whole, a formal intimacy is established, and the job gets done.
Geoff and I were eventually dropped off on to the shore of Hinlopenstretet, just the two of us, leaving behind our expedition roles, to find the fossils that had excited the previous year's collectors. It did not take long. In a couple of minutes there was a trilobite showing up all black on a white limestone slab. A few moments later there was another, and then another. The place was prolific! We danced around picking up any piece of rock that attracted our attention. Every rock fragment seemed to have something. This was the delight that animated Howard Carter at the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Nobody had ever seen these creatures before. Our eyes were the first to peer at the primeval rocks, to understand something of the ancient cargo they bore, to wonder at the preservation of extinct creatures on a bleak Arctic shore. In that harsh place there must have been something oddly incongruous about these capering enthusiasts.
But the tent had to be pitched. The shoreline was a beach stranded by the last great Ice Age, covered in shingle. The wind never ceased. Our tough tent was called a Whymper after Colonel Whymper, one of the great expeditionists. We tied the guy ropes on to spars that lay on the beach--logs brought in by the North Atlantic Drift to this island far beyond the habitat of any trees except the tiny arctic birch. Then we buried the spars in the shingle. Any gale would have to rip the tree-trunks out from their graves. Air beds and thick, real eiderdown sleeping bags provided such comfort as was to be had. That afternoon even meat bar bonne femme tasted wonderful.
There was no night--we were far too far north for that. But the leader had told us how important it was to keep to a regular pattern of sleep and work. If we failed to do so our minds would spin out of their proper biological rhythms; strange distortions of perception might develop. But sleep did not come easily when just a few yards away lay rocks that had never been explored before, our own personal slice of ancient history. Outside the tent, we could hear the ceaseless suck and rattle of the waves on the strand, the mewing of the gulls and the sharp cries of the terns. We had planted a flag on a pole, which chattered like distant gunfire in the incessant wind. Our minds could play, as we lay there, upon the fearsome polar bear, the isbjorn, who could flatten our tent with a single blow, and break a human leg with a single swipe. We even had rifles (of a sort) against his arrival. My feet were always cold when I climbed into the sleeping bag, and I wriggled deliciously in the warm cocoon until a gentle warmth crept slowly into my toes. Then I waited for the unconsciousness that would, finally, steal over me.
When our alarm clock woke us after the obligatory seven hours, we were into our woollen trousers and double anoraks in a rush, and out on to the rocks. Those pieces we had picked up on the beach must have come from rock outcrops beneath the gravel. Within a few minutes we had discovered where these outcrops were. All along the sea's edge there were low ledges of limestone, stacked one of top of the other, dipping down gently towards the water. The movements of the Earth that had long since elevated our ancient rocks had also tipped them gently. Limestone is a sedimentary rock, one that was built beneath ancient seas by the slow accumulation of sediment, making beds each a few inches to a foot or so thick. The top of each bed was a flatfish bedding plane, every one the surface of a former sea floor. So the beds of rocks we were admiring were like the successive pages of a book that recorded ancient time, logging time itself in limy mud that further time had hardened and transmuted into rock. On the bedding planes we could see shadows of trilobites, occasionally something clearer--a tail, perhaps. These fossils were the shells of animals that had once lived upon the sea floor, trapped, like Time itself, as part of the narrative in stone. As we looked along the shore we could see the rock beds dipping in ranks into the distance. Ice floes had come to rest against some of the thicker ribs of rock as they struck out into the sea like groynes, and mist concealed still more distant rocks in enticing obscurity. How much time might be buried here along this desolate shore?
And it was all ours! This stone diary had never been read before. There could be almost anything here, just waiting to be split from its rocky pages. We were standing near the top of the thickness of piled strata, so the beds that dipped towards us along the shore were progressively older the further away from us they were. We knew that as we tapped our way along the shore, so we also tapped our way back into geological time, exploring an older and older past, seeing what came before, and before that again. This simple method had built the whole elaborate edifice of geological time, the sum of a thousand narratives in stone-stacked order. Ancient seas had preserved their history in rocks. In time those rocks themselves would be preyed upon by newer seas, eroding history away again. But enough would survive to tell of life by then vanished, of the endless cycles of climate change, and of the hidden poetry of our mutable world.
Time, like an ever-rolling strea,
Bears all its sons away ...
In the weeks that followed we broke rock. Every fossil we recovered was logged into its precise place in the historical story. Notebooks were filled, sketches of rock sections were scribbled. Each specimen was wrapped in newspaper and tucked into a canvas collecting bag, and then the bags were collected into the same boxes from which we had taken our food. Out came porridge oats and dried meat, back went fossils. And months later I unwrapped with tremulous hands the little parcels which we had wrapped so laboriously when our fingers had still been stiff with cold.
The tools we used were geological hammers, tough enough to withstand endless battering without splintering, and hand lenses to peer closely at our finds. Some of our finds peered back, because certain trilobites had preserved the oldest eyes--convex, compound eyes, some as large as those of a dragonfly and with myriad polygonal lenses. We looked at one another for the first time, those trilobites and us, though hundreds of millions of years apart, and I understood that there could scarcely be a better metaphor for discovery. We soon found out that these trilobites had to be Ordovician (that is, about 480 million years old) because a few of them had relatives which we recognized from other sites, and some of the limestone beds also contained the fossils of graptolites, a well-known kind of extinct planktonic animal, which changed with every geological period in ways that students had to memorize. How glad we were then that we had drubbed into our brains the litany of species that spelled out geological time. But even with the little we knew we could see that there were types of fossil in these rocks that had never been seen before. We did not know what to call them, so we gave them nicknames--undergraduate-ish names like Mildred and Fred. Some years later they received the blessing of a scientific name, latinate and slightly pompous as they are supposed to be: Cloacaspis or Svalbardites. But the nicknames will be remembered, because they were generated in the hectic enthusiasm of those early days.
Sometimes the weather could no longer be ignored. Spitsbergen seems to be home to all the deepest meteorological depressions. One could imagine some Norse saga peopling its wet and inaccessible shores with carbuncular and bad-tempered trolls. Even in the middle of summer it was swept with squalls and driving drizzle. Specially small musk oxen live on the south of the island, sustained by meagre vegetation which would make the tundra seem lush. The struggle for existence was graven on the shores of Hinlopenstretet, too, where bones of stranded whales seemed to provide the only nourishment for an impoverished flora. Tiny arctic poppies huddled in hollows, and purple saxifrages seemed almost indecently colourful in a monochrome world. We were even too far north for mosquitoes (a blessing). The sheer joy of discovery usually kept the cold at bay: but even thick woollen gloves soon became tattered against the sharp rocks, and as our hair and beards grew we came to look more and more like dervishes belonging to some hermetic sect, especially if we jumped up and down to celebrate an unexpected find.
But a blizzard could not be faced out. We crawled into the tent and into our sleeping bags without even taking off our sweaters, and stayed there for several days. The howling wind mercilessly undid the good work of the summer thaw, plastering snow over rocks that had only just begun to yield up their secrets. This was when we discovered why the leader had recommended bringing War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. We got out of bed only to perform the most vital bodily functions, an unkind compromise between biological necessity and fear of frostbite of the private organs in which decorousness had little part to play.
Back in the feathered haven of my sleeping bag I could hear the sea lashing against the shingle. The waves that broke on the cold, grey arctic stones would have sounded the same in the Ordovician or the Jurassic. The sound was audible proof of the endurance of the sea.
The cauldron of life I had admired from Salterella was a different life--another set of animals, another ecology--from the life we had been hacking out of the rocks for the first time. There were no living trilobites, nor any Ordovician terns. Yet the sea endured. It was one constant in a fickle biosphere. The sea was cradle to the Ordovician animals which we were discovering: it succoured them while they were alive, and ultimately it provided for their entombment. I visualized the trilobite crawling over a soft mud nearly 500 million years earlier. Perhaps it died while it was moulting, overcome by noxious gases emanating from the sulphurous sediment. The hard carapace remained to record the life it had led, an archive of calcium carbonate, a shell for eternity. More fine mud covered the carapace, and as the millennia passed the beds above were slowly accreted. Occasionally, a tempest would dump more mud in a day than had accumulated for a century or more. Eventually, the pile of sediment hardened as its water was pressed out, and then followed the long annealing of geological time, millions of years, not mere thousands, before it became the dark rock I was now exploring. But still it carried its precious cargo. The chances of my making a connection with the fossil were still remote, because a hundred thousand incidents lay between the life of this humble invertebrate and my own--not least, if the hammer had fallen in a slightly different place the fossil might never have told its story. And consider what intervened between the Ordovician and the blizzard raging outside the tent: three ice ages, the deaths of a dozen continents and the birth of a dozen more, earthquakes and earth movements, mountain ranges thrown up and then eroded deep into their roots, the rise of fish and dinosaurs, the dramatic demise of the latter, bombardments of the Earth from space, and all the tangled skein of life winding around the changing terrestrial world like partners in a pas de deux. Chance and the consequences of chance ruled a blow of hammer on rock, arranging an assignation with history.
Fortuitous or not, this trilobite represented one moment in geological time, and within the section of rocks exposed along the Arctic shore a thousand preceding or subsequent moments were recorded. The story of geological time is pieced together from thousands of such fragments; some have been known for 200 years, others were recorded only yesterday. The rocks in Spitsbergen were my own little piece of the story--a doctorate's worth, if you like. The great narrative of geological time is a patchwork, a stitching-together of odd fragments with partial vistas, idiosyncratic, a tale put together by heroes and journeymen. And this narrative has a language of its own, the divisions of geological time that soon trip off the tongue with the ready familiarity of a railway timetable. Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, and so on, up the geological column, each of these again subdivided finely and more finely, the better to approximate history. It is an astonishing story, a tale of more than 3,500 million years. Consider what has happened since the death of Napoleon: the interpretations, the parade of historical facts, the controversies; and it will be obvious that a history more than ten million times as long can never be known, even in outline. And when this history has been stitched together from small pieces taken from rock sections where chance has had a part in the glance of every hammer blow, it will be certain that this history is a poor thing, an approximate story peddled by optimists.
The blizzard was over. We could return to our patient battering of the Ordovician rocks. A routine settled in, as regular as any office worker's. The alarm clock would wake us. A ritual curse about the weather and it was time to make the porridge--breakfast was always porridge. We used water from a melt stream, and would throw in raisins to make it more exciting. (A peculiar thing had happened to our taste buds. We loved the porridge to be very sweet--we poured granulated sugar over it until it was crusted. In civilized conditions it would have made us sick, but in this cold waste our bodies were hungry for calories in the most blatant form and the glutinous stuff tasted good.) We gobbled it down. Then to work. If we were working near by we could come back for lunch; if not, we put a few lifeboat biscuits into our pockets, and a bar of chocolate, and that would have to suffice for the day. Unless the weather was particularly miserable we would spend most of our time collecting the new fossil fauna, systematically, from each successive rock bed. Every so often something new or spectacular would turn up, prompting cries of delight, and then the lucky finder would hold it out for the other to admire. But the incessant wind was troubling. It never seemed to stop sweeping over the naked gravel of the vast, raised beach on which we lived. Although the temperature was above freezing the chill factor was dangerous; even with balaclavas and wind-proof jackets, woollen pullovers and woollen combinations that would have seemed old-fashioned to our grandparents the cold still managed to sneak in. At first we wore wellington boots: we often had to trudge for miles through slushy snow, and it was essential to keep the feet dry. But when we stopped walking a profound iciness would creep into the toes, and once it had taken control it was implacable until we climbed into our sleeping bags at the end of the day. It was a big moment when we discovered the mukluks in our supply boxes. These were a kind of giant canvas boot lined with felt--an Eskimo invention. They trapped the heat wonderfully well. Then it was only the fingers that ached with the chill. We were supplied with tins of Three Castles cigarettes made by W. D. & H. 0. Wills of Bristol, and I would light up, trembling behind whatever bluff I could find, as much for the brief moment of heat as for the nicotine.
From time to time there would be visitors. On the calmest day of all a walrus paid us a visit, cruising up and down the strait, and diving to grub up his favourite clam, the arctic Mya, a good-sized morsel the size of a large mussel. Every time he surfaced he would display his great tusks and blow out a massive, splashy breath, like some old colonel puffing outrage at intrusive strangers. Tiny, albino arctic foxes would appear as if from nowhere. They would eat anything, even our discarded porridge. We were so remote (or they were so hungry) that they seemed to be almost tame, even though their fur was hunted. I suppose their usual diet was the eggs and chicks of birds. They disappeared as quickly as they had come.
There was never a time without birds. They skimmed incessantly along the shore, battling purposefully against the wind: fulmars, effortless and aerodynamically perfect, flirting with the sea surface; terns, more laboured, beating hard sometimes to make progress. Least welcome were the skuas, those unappealing parasites. They lurked on the strand, and then relentlessly pursued some unfortunate gull, harrying and diving at the creature until it regurgitated its meal. The gull's final indignity was to have the contents of its evacuated crop swallowed in mid-air by its tormentor. The rich production of the Arctic sea supported all these animals. They were one with the pulsating jellyfish.
Geoff and I established a kind of working cordiality. With the arbitrariness which is part of an expedition, we had been chosen for our enthusiasm for palaeontology rather than any predictable compatibility. The truth was that we were as different as could be in every regard except for our love of fossils. After the expedition I do not think we ever spoke again. But while we were together we were obliged to share every belch and indiscretion. We evolved strategies. We talked about what we had found, naturally, and what we should collect that day. We talked about what we could do with the meat bars that evening, wondering whether we could perhaps make kebabs if we could only improvise glue out of flour. We speculated about the other members of the expedition. We made comments about the comparative odorousness of our socks. It was an odd, jokey relationship that was proximal without being intimate. I imagine it had the kind of closeness of a moderately successful arranged marriage.
We had chatted only briefly on the long cruise up the Norwegian coast. From the north of Norway we had crossed the Maelstrom together, past the Lofoten Islands to Bear Island, the most forsaken lump of rock in the world. Wild-eyed radio station operators had loomed out of the mist there to take off their supplies, comprising tinned food and whisky in approximately equal parts. A special breed of escapist seeks these places out--men (they are always men) who can only function at the edges of things, in a kind of solitary confinement, men who find the company of others difficult, and move and move again, motivated by a kind of inverse gregariousness, to where they can be almost alone. I was to meet their kind again in the Australian outback. This longing for solitude is apparently a progressive condition. After a while it is no longer enough to man the radio station with others: the committed loner seeks the chance to overwinter in some outstation, absolutely isolated. I met one man who had done just this: he had been confined by cold and darkness at the edge of the world for months. He told me wryly, almost sadly, that he had returned to Norway but found the crowds in Hammerfest, Norway's most northerly town, almost unbearable, and returned to Spitsbergen by the next available boat. Even as he talked to me I could see that his eyes were disengaged, looking out over the pack ice to where seclusion lay.
So Geoff and I developed a relationship which was an expedition relationship. But Geoff was a year my senior--he had completed his finals shortly before we left for the Arctic. Because of this year's difference I was Geoff's assistant, the hired hand--and at first he made the field strategy. But things were to change, because of another stroke of chance that would transform both our lives.
We were finding more and more new species, not just one but dozens. These trilobites were without names, a whole fauna through an uncharted stretch of geological time that had never been known before. As our collections grew, so did the realization that there was a lot of work here, just to make these new animals known. And how did they fit into the Ordovician world? How did they live? Just as, a metre or so away, the sea was profligate with variety, so, it seemed, was the Ordovician one--laid out upon plate after plate of rock before our inquisitive eyes. There were more fossil animals yet: snails and nautili and sponges and curious squiggles that defied our knowledge. Clearly, life in the sea had been a cornucopia of variety hundreds of millions of years before our hammers broke open its hidden plenty.
The excitement of discovery cannot be bought, or faked, or learned from books (although learning always helps). It is an emotion which must have developed from mankind's earliest days as a conscious animal, similar to the feeling when prey had successfully been stalked, or a secret honeycomb located high in a tree. It is one of the most uncomplicated and simple joys, although it soon becomes mired in all that other human business of possessiveness and greed. But the discovery of some beautiful new species laid out on its stony bed provokes a whoop of enthusiasm that can banish frozen fingers from consideration, and make a long day too short. It is not just the feeling that accompanies curiosity satisfied--it is too sharp for that; it arises not from that rational part of the mind that likes to solve crosswords, but from the deep unconscious. It hardly fades with the years. It must lie hidden and unacknowledged beneath the dispassionate prose of a thousand scientific papers, which are, by convention, filleted of emotion. It is the reason why scientists and archaeologists persist in searches which may even be doomed and unacknowledged by their fellows.
The urge to collect is different. It is clearly a deep urge also, because collected objects have been a part of human culture almost from its beginnings. There is even a Grotte du Trilobite, near Les Eyzies in France, a cave in which one of the earliest Europeans secreted a trilobite as a revered relic. Collecting is more than hoarding. Children will collect seashells from the beach, and rigorously sort them into types, by colour and design. They feel it is important, somehow, to get it right and, having done so, to keep the result. This kind of personal museum is part of the way we define ourselves, an archive of self, and is not mere covetousness or "stamp collecting." Children need to classify things in order to get a grasp upon the world. Discrimination and identification have value beyond the obvious separation of edible from poisonous, valuable from worthless, or safe from dangerous. This is a means to gain an appreciation of the richness of the environment and our human place within it. The variety of the world is the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of catastrophes survived, and of ecological expansion. To begin to grasp any of this complexity the first task is to identify and recognize its component parts: for biologists, this means the species of animals and plants, both living and extinct. And to begin to negotiate this astonishing diversity a reference is needed, a sample of one species to compare with the next: in short, a collection. We start to understand our history by seeking to collect and classify.
From the Hardcover edition.