The Conundrum of the Fossils – James Lomax

“A parable, set in the 19th century, in which a naturalist builds a wall to save a forest, but gets little help. Nicely written, wry and fluent.” – Professor Michael Jacobs

January 14th 1884

It is with great ardour that I write these words. At long last, it seems that my plight has been answered. A Mr Jonathan Percival from the Dorset County Council has allowed me to have an audience with the board concerning the fossil problem I have been raising awareness on. I hope my proposal will finally convince them to take action on this issue. In a few days, events may at last go in my favour.

January 18th 1884

The day has been confusing, to say the least, but nevertheless I have achieved my goal. Upon entering the elegant hall that the Council resides in, I was greeted by Mr Percival and the other distinguished gentlemen, who had given me half an hour to detail my ambitions to them. I informed them of the situation of the fossils: how half a century of excavation has left the landscape covered by the remains of creatures from aeons past, how vulnerable these fossils are to weathering and the action of the waves, and how significant, nay essential, they are in revealing more of the rich history of life on our planet. An entire lost ecosystem could be gone forever if these processes continue at the same rate. As I spoke, I tried to weave passion in my words, aiming to rally these gentlemen like a military commander before a major battle.

Mr Percival looked in the direction of his fellows, each gentleman giving a brief nod. “We thank you for your speech,” he told me. “Clearly this is a complicated situation, and we all see that action must be taken. Would you care to enlighten us as to what you have planned?”

I prepared myself to deliver my proposal. “The biggest threat to these fossils is the slow yet continuous rise of the ocean. In a mere few years’ time, they may be lost to the waves, and with them, knowledge of the world before mankind. Therefore, I propose a short wall, further down the beach, which will protect the fossils for another few decades, giving my colleagues enough time to extract them and take them to museums, where they shall be treated with the care they deserve.”

Before consulting the other gentlemen, Mr Percival asked, “This extraction process is expected to last a few decades?” 

“Oh yes,” I answered him. “Great caution must be taken to avoid damage to the fossils. Once one is broken, it can never be fixed.”

“Of course. These fossils must not be damaged. So. What does the board say?” Some gentlemen whispered among themselves. Most simply nodded again. One man raised his voice and asked, “How will this wall change the appearance of the beach?”

“The wall shall be made of rock, taken from elsewhere, in order to blend in with the coast,” I responded.

“Good,” the gentlemen said. “You must understand that tourism is a significant, nay essential, part of the local economy. I would hate to see it sacrificed for the sake of some- for the sake of these valuable remains.”

As there were no further questions, Mr Pervical addressed me again. “It appears we are unanimous. You may build your wall for the sake of these fossils. You must take care, though, to keep it in line with the natural theme of the coast.”

“And now,” he continued as I left, “it has been confirmed that a member of the royal family will soon holiday in our esteemed county. We must ensure that they are given a-”

His voice was drowned out by the frantic speech of the other board members, each eager to be heard above the others. I fear that such a lackadaisical triumph as mine is no triumph at all. Yet, approval was what I desired, and approval was what I received. In the morning I shall begin construction.

January 19th 1884

I enlisted the help of a few locals to help me begin mapping out where the wall would go. Amazingly, none of them were aware of the danger the fossils were in, and all agreed that it was noble of me to do all I could to save them. They did regret to inform me that an innumerable amount of other tasks will prevent them from giving me any further aid, but they wished me all the best in my efforts. I am heartened by the faith people have in me. I do not work at this wall on my own. After all, doing what you love is never truly work.

March 10th 1884

The sea wall approaches completion. My funds are growing thinner, but I have never had to pay any other workers, so my situation could have been far worse. While I have presented a donation box, it is only too understandable that much of the population simply cannot afford to fund me right now, which is why my own fortune is being used to supplement the humble grant given by the Council.

Every morning I walk to my store of rock, and, carrying as much as I can in my trusty wheelbarrow, trudge down to the beach. There, I deposit the wheelbarrow’s contents and begin adding to my barrier. It brings me great joy that it is keeping back some of the weaker waves.

Sometimes I spy a few people watching me work from afar. I am pleased that they are as invested as I am and eager to see the wall being created in order to save these magnificent fossils.

Yet this endless toil is beginning to affect me. There are times when I trundle my wheelbarrow down the beach, and stop and catch sight of the fishermen out on their boats, or the shopkeepers opening for the day. Then I gaze at my wall, a meagre, shallow thing, and the awesome and terrible waves crashing against, spraying the precious fossils with droplets of surf, and for a split second the truth of what is actually happening sinks in. Then I notice somebody watching me and continue walking, anxious for them to see me working away, and secretly hoping that another set of footprints will follow mine down to the shore.

We asked our 2021 and 2020 Orwell Youth Fellows to interview our new 2022 winners and runners up. Below, 2021 winner Jude Leese interviews James Lomax about metaphor and allergorical fiction, and the characters in his story ‘The Conundrum of the Fossils’. You can also read Jude’s 2021 winning poem ‘Work Experience as a Young Campaigner’ here.

  1. With there being an abundance of allegorical fiction out now regarding climate change, why did you decide upon fossils in the 19th century as your metaphor?

I chose fossils in my piece to show how much information and knowledge can be taken from the natural world. The fossils are of animals long dead and gone, but they’re still full of information from the nature of evolution to the nature of extinction. If we can learn this much from life that is no longer around, how much can we learn from life that we still have the chance to save?

  1. How did you plan out the individual features and characters of your parable? Do they all represent specific kinds of people or institutions which you feel are preventing us from saving the planet?

All the characters each represent different attitudes held by different people. The narrator is the one who understands the crisis and wants to do all they can to slow it but finds themselves relatively alone. Mr Percival is the public figure who gives an impression that they care but doesn’t really, at least not as much as about other, less important, issues. The board member that raises a question about tourism represents the kind of person primarily occupied with money first and the environment second. Finally, everyone else represents the general public – they know about the crisis, and some of them care, but it’s not very important and only a minor aspect of their lives overall. When writing this piece, I wanted to exaggerate all these different kinds of people to essentially call them out and make them sound rightfully ridiculous.

  1. The narrator of your piece could be interpreted as either optimistic or naïve. Which do you think it is?

I can’t say they’re optimistically naïve, can I? I wanted to make the narrator quite a pathetic character in their little efforts to do their bit, just to show how much the climate crisis needs many people all working together to combat it, instead of one person who is trying their hardest but probably won’t accomplish much. Their attitude is of one who expects support that will never come and I hope this makes my piece a bit more moving.

Find out more about all our Orwell Youth Fellows here and buy their climate crisis zine, Axial Tilt here.

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