Forever in Amber

Artwork © Lauren Delora Sears.

Today’s song is a chillin’ Amber from 311.

I sat and watched, hands held in front of my face waiting for the inevitable. One thing’s for sure. When a Saint Bernard’s head swivels furiously, the jowls flap and contort as the edges on the outside can’t keep pace with the skin closer to the muzzle. Huge globs of frothy spit threaten to hurl themselves off at any moment. You never quite know where they will land, only that, eventually, they will.

Long-haired Saint Bernards have an added bonus. They have clumps of hair, scrunched and matted in the gathering gel, that give it texture, substance and stickability. Finally, one sailed past me and adhered itself to the wall about a metre above my head.

“Phew safe”, I thought. For now.

Funny as it seems now, I miss those dodge-the-bullet games. I can’t believe it was so long ago. She’s gone, now, of course. Her name was Amber.

We named her as an eight week old puppy and I was made aware of a controversial book, written by Kathleen Winsor some forty years earlier, called Forever Amber. It caused a furore back then, and for some time after, and spawned a whole generation of girls to be named after the main character – Amber St Clare. The story was less well known by the time we named our pup but it intrigued me why you would want to name your daughter after such a woman.

Since then I have always thought of both of those Ambers whenever I hear the word.

In recent times, though, I have come to think more about the other kind. Just the other day I read about a team of Otago scientists who have discovered many new species of insects, spiders and roundworms embedded in 25 million year old amber. It’s a first for New Zealand since the only other southern hemisphere discoveries of that type have been in Australia.

Kauri gum is a resin which oozes from trees. It’s generally called copal while amber is fossil resin. Because it is so sticky the likelihood of things being found inside it is high. The idea of inclusions is common in geology. Quite a few things can become trapped inside a mineral – other minerals, gases, water or other fluids. In the case of amber they are small, once-living bodies, perfectly preserved.

In the northern hemisphere amber has been a prized gem since the Mesolithic period, around 8000-2700BC. Most of it has come from the Baltic coast, which lies between Central Europe and Scandinavia, and it continues to supply the majority of world. A whole room full of ornate amber panels was installed in Catherine Place in the 1760s. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it through the second world war unscathed but it has since been rebuilt and was completed in 2003.

Here in New Zealand, the stories of the gum diggers are legendary. They worked in the late 1800s, often in swamps, to retrieve the precious gum but it stopped in 1905 when trees were becoming too damaged.

Amber is often associated with lignite coal deposits and that’s exactly where the researchers found it. Kauri forest used to grow in the south and a number of its inhabitants are now encapsulated in the golden resin. Scientists will be able to directly examine a small part, of the the biodiversity contained within those forests, millions of years after their demise. What an amazing thought!