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I NEVER HAD SEEN anything quite like it.

Before me stretched a vast moonscape. Acres of gray marl were broken only by a few grassy hillocks and widely scattered auto tires. The tires marred the landscape, but they also gave me an almost necessary connection to our world. If it had not been for them, I could have been on another planet.

We had walked down across an open field, stepped over a tiny creek on flat stones and made our way up a rise to look out over this bizarre setting. The broad plain before us tilted down to the north toward Rush Creek, which was hidden a quarter mile away behind a second growth woodlot. I was with Jerry Bastedo's Buffalo Museum of Science field geology class on this visit to the Penn-Dixie Quarry in Hamburg.

My companions took their pails and hammers first to the uppermost level, a shale and limestone outcropping fringed at the top with thickets of red osier dogwood. There they searched for fossils in the loose rubble, quickly finding evidence of life forms embedded here for millennia.

For many years, this remarkable area was mined for cement-making materials. When the Penn-Dixie Cement Co. moved on, the title for much of it reverted to the Town of Hamburg. Enter Bastedo and others interested in its preservation. They persuaded the Town Council to allow the newly formed Hamburg Natural History Society to take responsibility for the quarry. Council Member Mark Cavalcoli played a pivotal role in this transition.

As class members worked their way down across the exposed strata, I stood for a moment trying to make sense of the 380 million-year-old formation. This area was covered by a shallow sea at a time when continental plates still were crashing about like amusement park bumper cars. Almost 200 million years would pass before North America separated for the last time from the other continents of Pangea. Another 50 million years would go by before the earliest dinosaurs evolved. The first humans were recorded only 2 million years ago. Compared with these ages, glaciers covered this region almost in the present.

The fossils here are tropical: when they settled into sea-bottom sediments, what is now New York was 20 degrees south of the equator.

Class members shared a few of them with me. Delicate little brachiopods are fan-shaped like today's cockleshells. A short screw-shaped cone is a horn coral. A black pencil of rock is plant material being processed into coal. Shards of broken glass turn out to be calcites. There are several spiral snail shells and many of those strange trilobites, some perfectly preserved. They look like something between centipedes and horseshoe crabs. Clearly there are enough fossils here to excite professional and amateur paleontologists for years to come.

The Natural History Society is moving rapidly to turn this area, including the ponds and woodland at the bottom of the slope, into a nature preserve. It even plans an educational center. But first it must restore the area.

Saturday, a massive, well-organized effort will tackle cleanup tasks. Volunteers will gather at 9 a.m. to receive morning assignments. The afternoon then may be spent fossilizing under the guidance of society members. Parking will be available on Jeffrey Boulevard, off Bayview Road, in Hamburg. Bayview runs between Lake Shore Road and South Park Avenue, a mile southwest of Thruway Exit 56.

Here is an opportunity to help establish a fine community resource. Bring work gloves, a shovel and a bag lunch.

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