National Geographic : 2015 Jun
102 national geographic • June 2015 By McKenzie Funk Photographs by Peter Essick A century ago on the flanks of Mount Field in Canada’s Yoho National Park, Charles Doolittle Walcott, then secretary of the Smithsonian and one of the most famous paleontolo- gists of his day, found two life-changing things. The first discovery was what is arguably the world’s premier fossil bed, a quarry that now bears his name. The sec- ond discovery was his third wife, Mary Vaux, after whose family he would soon name a genus of fossilized sponges, Vauxia. It is natural that modern visitors to this most sublime and overlooked of the Canadian Rockies parks would focus on the first of these discoveries. The Burgess Shale formation that encompasses the Walcott Quarry was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. A few years later, in the best-selling book Wonderful Life, the evo- lutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called the Burgess Shale “the most precious and impor- tant of all fossil localities.” It’s a trove of per- fectly preserved Cambrian sea creatures—more than 200,000 weird-looking specimens found, with countless others still to be discovered. Yet most Burgess Shale life-forms—from spike- and armor-covered Wiwaxia to Opabinia, a soft-bodied bottom-feeder with five eyes and a claw at the end of an elephant-like trunk— appeared to Gould and others to be evolution- ary dead ends, with no modern descendants. Gould used the explosion of Cambrian life and subsequent disappearance of most evolutionary lineages to argue that “survival of the fittest” has an important counterpart: luck of the draw. Is evolution partly a lottery? Is natural histo- ry governed by chance? A scientific debate has raged ever since—but most of it far outside the borders of the national park. To understand the allure of Yoho itself, it’s better to focus on the remarkable woman who was also on that moun- tainside, Mary Vaux, whose family has its own story of how serendipity can look like destiny. On a sunny but cold August day, I woke up in Field, British Columbia, the 150-person town that houses Yoho park headquarters plus one hotel, one café, one restaurant, one post office, and one elementary school, and I set out by car for the nearby Yoho Valley. Around 1900, Mary, the eldest child in a prominent Quaker family from Philadelphia, was the first white woman to visit the valley. “It is to me the loveliest spot to be found, and it always quickens my blood when I hear and speak of it,” she later wrote in a letter to Walcott. “I can imagine no greater delight than camping there away from the tourist, and the noise of the iron horse.” On my way there, I passed the Honda SUV of her grandnephew, Henry Vaux, Jr., which was parked outside a guesthouse, then crossed the McKenzie Funk is author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming. Photog- rapher Peter Essick is a regular contributor.