Chalk talk

This is in memoriam for coccolithophores – all the little planktonic creatures whose remains have made the Chalk. It’s based on Dr. Rory Mortimore’s explanation on the beach at Peacehaven in September 1999.


Please step gently on the chalk when you go out for a walk,
And consider what a marvel we have made.
We are there, beneath your feet, though our bodies aren’t complete,
For our softer parts have long ago decayed.

We were algae, really tiny creatures drifting in the briny;
But we made a major impact by creating
Round our bodies, like a mitten, to protect from being bitten,
Multi-sided coccospheric armour plating.

Ca-plus and CO3 we extracted from the sea
And persuaded, in an algal sort of way,
Both those ions to coalesce; and we did it, more or less,
Every minute, every hour of every day.

We secreted calcite disks which you’ll know as ‘coccoliths’
(Not an easy word to make a decent rhyme with).
Then we sank to the sea floor, joining those who’d gone before,
And whom we would be spending quite some time with . . .

When the mighty Alps were moulded we got rather squashed and folded,
Uplifted and exposed to wind and rain.
Then erosion’s rude ablating carved the Weald by relocating
A squillion tons of chalk to sea again.

And the process isn’t over, so, from Seaford Head to Dover,
Chunks of chalk cliff still collapse onto the shore.
And geologists assemble with their hammers all a-tremble,
Seeking fossils no-one’s ever seen before.

Go on, spend your summer hols taking healthy Downland strolls,
For there’s nowhere else quite like it, that’s our claim.
But, as you stride along full of jollity and song,
Spare a thought for what we went through ere you came.

[Photomicrograph: geologyshop.co.uk ‘after singleton birch’]
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