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Shark teeth

Visiting Montauk beach at Calvert Cliffs, a family member had one mission: to find a shark tooth. Millions of years ago, this part of Chesapeake was warmer and mostly under water. Many a shark dropped a tooth or a hundred during that time; today, they tend to drift to the shore with some regularity.

Searching for a speck of black in a tapestry of white-gray brought to mind Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, more specifically the chapter about learning to see, and yet even more specifically, her discovering praying mantis egg cases This is a longer blog post from The Examined Life about writers and insects; scroll down for the Pilgrim… excerpt. everywhere she looked, once she learned what one looks like.

My own learning-to-see training started with watching birds — not organized or consistent enough to be called birdwatching — and realizing in short order that not every brown-gray bird smaller than a robin is a sparrow, that blue jays, cardinals, and woodpeckers are actually quite abundant even in urban areas, and that those blue jays, as magnificent as they are, usually sound like nails on a chalkboard. The beach makes for even better training grounds. For novices like us there are mermaid’s purses and loggerhead turtle tracks — we saw both during our Outer Banks excursion — things alien enough to immediately be recognized as something. The mental exercise consists of discovering what that something is.

Not so with shark teeth, especially not with the small ones you are more likely to come across during a daytime summer stroll, as opposed to a planned break-of-dawn winter expedition. Is it a spiky piece of iron ore? A fossilized crab claw? Tooth of a mammal? Who knows!? Short of finding a 6-inch dental behemoth, casual beachgoers like us will come up with a million reasons why this black triangle isn’t an actual tooth, and why this other may be, without ever knowing if they are correct. Annie Dillard could put that insect egg casing in a jar and see dozens of tiny praying mantisses scuttle out and devour each other. I can put my black triangle in a dish and look at it until the Sun implodes, and it will continue being that same black triangle, possibly melted.

Unless, of course, we find an expert to tell us why these ridges here mean that it comes from a shark’s jaw, or why this dent over there means it is actually part of a crab. And, knowing that, we will know with certainty — conditional on us trusting the expert — what those two particular artifacts are, but could hardly extrapolate to other pieces of black material found on the beach, and most certainly not to those nestled on the forest floor, or buried in the desert sands, or hiding under the carpet of a 3-story walk-up.

This is in fact very much how medicine works: sometimes, the symptoms are clear enough and occur often enough that you may know as well as an MD that there is a urinary tract infection brewing. But too often — most of the time, in fact — the problems are subtle and chronic and may not develop into something recognizable until it is too late — in which case you better find an expert — or, maybe, never amount to much of anything — in which case you need that expert even more, the most valuable part of medical expertise consisting of the knowledge and experience needed to muster the confidence to say that something is just a piece of rock.

Update: Two months later, we went back and found some.

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