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Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Love Texas Hearts

To me, Texas Hill Country is a place that is very romantic, in the broadest sense of the word. With its rolling hills, deep wooded ravines, and slow-moving rivers, it seems as mysterious, ancient, and alluring as any rural Mediterranean province in Italy or France.

This romantic sensibility is most profoundly expressed, I think, by the local custom of referring to indigenous clam fossils as “Texas Hearts.” (OK, so fossilized clams might not be the most romantic thing I could have written about in recognition of Valentine’s Day, but the only other thing reminiscent of Texas I could think of would have been something related to beef hearts, to which my wife responded with “Yuck!”)

During the Cretaceous period (c. 145 million to 65 million BCE), the area of south-central Texas that we know today to be profoundly hilly was instead part of a warm, shallow sea, and inhabited, among other things, by a wide variety of now-extinct shellfish. The calcium from the shells of such creatures is what ultimately formed the native limestone that characterizes the area  to a depth of more than 1,000 feet in some places  and over the millennia it was uplifted by geological processes and gradually formed in to the land we know today.

Texas Hearts are, in short, fossilized bivalve clams that date to this extended geological period. And they do, in fact, look very much like actual hearts, and even a little bit like the stylized images that appear on Valentine’s Day cards and are used as used as shorthand for the word “love.”

The term “Texas Hearts” is sometimes also applied to fossilized sand dollars, sea urchins, and other marine organisms, but these do not actually look much like hearts at all, and are more properly referred to in my mind as “Texas Stars.” All such fossilized remains are, in any event, fairly common throughout Texas, from San Antonio to Fort Worth, and are a selling point for visitors.

“If you pay attention to where you walk in these limestone hills, you’re pretty apt to find all sorts of fossils,” the Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau says on its website. “If you are lucky, you may even find what we call a ‘Texas Heart,’ which is a fossilized clam and looks just like a heart. Usually, they are about the size of a large apple.”

“One of the best places to fossil hunt is along the creek and river beds where the water has washed away the soil,” the Bandera CVB advises. “Another good place is along the road where the earth was cut back to build the road.” Anyone who has driven along appropriate roads on nice weekend days has very likely seen people applying this methodology.

And anyone taking an observant walk through Hill Country can find Texas Hearts and other fascinating evidence of its ancient and very different past; beyond the fossilized clams I have discovered over the last year-and-a-half, the most prized treasure I have found is the fossilized tooth of what must have been a gargantuan shark.

Not everyone’s own heart is, of course, stirred by such things … But, if yours is, then you will likely enjoy Texas Hill Country all the more.

Happy Valentine’s Day!