As the subject and site of thesis research, a fossilized reef on the Florida Keys was nothing short of inspired. To drive off the raw, wintry campus in Champaign, Ill., in the predawn hours and step, two days later, into a sunbathed quarry with rock hammer and sampling bag might have been the signature experience of my brief career as a geologist.
The ancient reef, left high and dry when sea levels dropped some 5,000 years ago, is spectacularly exposed on the walls of Windley Key quarry. My research focused on the microscopic textural changes this exposure wrought in the calcitic remains of the reef skeleton. [Editor's note: The original version implied that the quarry existed when sea levels dropped 5000 years ago.]
My thesis failed to make waves in the world of paleontologic research, but it was a respectable piece of work, and a copy of it remains archived at the University of Illinois.
Although earth science did not ultimately become my career, I have thought fondly over the years of the little quarry and the quiet, idyllic days I spent there "doing geology" in the Florida sun.
This past September, my brother Dave asked my mother to join him and his wife on Key West in December while he attended a workshop at the island's naval base.
I shamelessly invited myself to tag along, and we all rendezvoused in Miami just as the first winter storms moved inexorably into our home states of New York and Indiana.
I couldn't have asked for anything more – except perhaps a stop on Windley Key en route to Key West.
I doubted that the modest little quarry, which was already inactive when I'd visited in the 1970s, had survived three decades of development. But I somehow had to know, and at least nod to the foundation of whatever condominium eventually smothered it.
The quarry had indeed been sold by the railway that had owned it and excavated rock for track bed and bridge approaches until the 1960s. The deal was made just a few years after I'd chipped my samples from its quiet walls. The sale slated the site for six multistory condominium buildings and "water features" (read: flooded quarries).
I had yet to learn this as we crossed the small bridge onto Windley Key. I peered with hope out the window for the old turnoff to the quarry, my brother slowing the car.
And there, instead of a nameless dirt track, I saw a developed entryway with a large sign: "Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park." At my impassioned behest, Dave turned into a coral-paved parking lot.
As I stood again under the Florida sun gazing up the quarry walls and back through millenniums at the beautiful reef architecture, I paid silent tribute to one Alison Fahrer, 1,200 other Keys residents, and 25 organizations for successfully petitioning the State to acquire the land and prevent its planned development.
Not only was the reef preserved as a natural geologic laboratory and treasure, there now exists an educational center, marked trails through the wooded "hammock" area surrounding the quarries, and, along the walls, a guidebook to the reef features. (I could have used that in the '70s.)
I came away with a sense of supreme satisfaction as well as a small sample – a cube of rock I purchased at the visitors' center and will never slice for study. It's just good to have and hold this clean solid block of personal and earth history – and to know that its source remains open to the sun and another generation of geologists.