ON A PIECE OF CHALK -
KRISTIAN DEREK BALL & DWIGHT FRIZZELL
for chalk, voices, contra-alto clarinet, live sound and live video projection
The chalk talks, so to speak, when dropped in water. The pops, whistles, fizzes, gurgles, and chortles tell of its origin in the calcareous nanoplankton that blanketed an expansive inland sea in the Cretaceous period. Thomas Huxley’s 1868 address to Norwich chalk miners is used as commentary, and to intermodulate the chalk soundscape. The long and low trancing tones are provided for your own deep-time meditations.
His well-known and classic essay, On a Piece of Chalk, is a masterpiece of clarity and construction. Based on a public lecture to English workers, the essay reconstructs the geological history of Britain from a simple piece of chalk and demonstrates the methods of science as “organized common sense.” The essay, first published in Macmillan’s Magazine (London) in 1868, was handsomely republished in book form by Scribner’s in 1967. (The essay also appears in Huxley’s Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews , which offers a good introduction to some of Huxley's social and political views.)
Globigerinae of every size, from the smallest to the largest, are associated together in the Atlantic mud, and the chambers of many are filled by a soft animal matter. This soft substance is, in fact, the remains of the creature to which the Globigerina shell, or rather skeleton, owes its existence—and which is an animal of the simplest imaginable description. It is, in fact, a mere particle of living jelly, without defined parts of any kind— without a mouth, nerves, muscles, or distinct organs, and only manifesting its vitality to ordinary observation by thrusting out and retracting from all parts of its surface, long filamentous processes, which serve for arms and legs. Yet this amorphous particle, devoid of everything which, in the higher animals, we call organs, is capable of feeding, growing and multiplying; of separating from the ocean the small proportion of carbonate of lime which is dissolved in sea-water; and of building up that substance into a skeleton for itself, according to a pattern which can be imitated by no other known agency.
The reason chalk is so important is that it contains a great chapter of earth's history within its soft layers. As a number of different scientific tests show us, chalk is composed of carbonic acid and quicklime. The process by which these ingredients become chalk and its additional contents buried within are how chalk tells us the story of a time long past.
To the unassisted eye chalk appears to lock like a loose and open stone. Upon further investigation with a microscope chalk is formed from minute granules, embedded with a matrix of innumerable rounded bodies. Some are larger than others, but none of them are more than a hundredth of an inch in diameter. The majority of these look like badly grown raspberries called Globigerina. It is the study of these organisms and buried deposits among them that tells us the important facts of history.