An amateur fossil hunter’s life work has exposed ancient impressions in stone that open a window in time when the world was inventive.
The place is Nymboida, in the Clarence Valley, where thin coal seams come close to the surface and where pale coal shale lying above hides exquisite imprints of fossilised ferns.
Retired North Coast dairy farmer Keith Holmes scientifically recorded his findings, showing how plants returned from the dead after an epic holocaust which decimated the entire world. In fact, this a time 20 million years after the disastrous global extinction event of 250 million years ago.
Together, with his wife Heidi, the pair have rigorously published 10 scientific papers describing more than 100 different species of fossil plants, many of them never previously named. They include liverworts, ferns, seed-ferns (now extinct), cycads, ginkgo (ancestor of the Maiden Hair Tree) and various conifers. All the named and illustrated specimens are housed in the fossil collections of the Australian Museum in Sydney.
Flowering plants had not yet evolved and Keith and Heidi were able to name new genera and species from their collection, for example Nymbolaria, Nymbiella, and a new fern-like leaf named after the Nymboida quarryman Brian Foley, Nymbopteron foleyi.
As a young boy Keith Holmes grew up on his parents’ dairy farm at Berowra, just north of Hornsby, where the family produced and delivered raw, bulk milk to their local customers. He had a fascination with all things in the natural world. Father encouraged son and allowed him the use of an old poultry shed as his own museum, soon housing horse, cow and snake skeletons, rocks and pressed plants.
Keith’s principal at the one-teacher Berowra school, “Pop” Dawson, shared this interest in nature and showed the 30 odd students five different native orchids growing in the school grounds. From his own collections he gave Keith some special mineral specimens for his museum.
“When I grew up I wanted to be either a botanist or a geologist,” admitted Keith from his present home at Dorrigo. As it turned out he remained a farmer but his life-long fascination with fossil plants and becoming an amateur palaeobotanist dovetailed the two disciplines.
Even when the green belts surrounding Sydney became full of houses he and his brother Rod remained focused on dairy and their Australian Illawarra Shorthorn stud. When their father asked them, one day, if they wanted to remain farmers or become land developers they chose the former and so the family sold the Berowra farm and moved up the coast.
They bought “The Meadows” on North Bank Road beside the Bellinger River at Raleigh. A few years later Keith married Felicity Gowing and moved to "Hampden Hall", across the Macleay River from Kempsey. This land was very productive, even after the major 1950 flood which deposited so much sand and silt that fences on the flat were covered.
In between milkings Keith heard word from a Nambucca Heads collector about two quarries at Nymboida, in the upper Clarence Valley, that yielded wonderful fossil ferns and leaves from primitive trees, like the Ginkgo – which continues to grow today. These treasures were exposed every time an articulated loader scoured the blasted quarry face. The coal shale with its imprinted legacies, were taken to burn at the South Grafton brickworks. For more than forty years Keith and his family visited the working quarries and with the help of quarry operator, Brian Foley, collected several thousand specimens of fossil plants – many of which were new and thus of great interest to the geological, and botanical, scientific community.
Nymboida is interesting for the fact that ancient layers of sediment, washing down from a youthful and towering great dividing range to the west, repeatedly covered what was a middle Triassic flood plain growing ancient forests and rush swamps. The quarries are now abandoned and wind and rain have eroded all evidence of historical time. Without fresh cuts to the quarry face there is little hope of finding well-preserved fossils.
In 1998 Keith lost his first wife Felicity and retired from farming to spend more time searching for fossils and writing papers on his findings.
While in South Africa, visiting the Pretoria Botanic Gardens, he met again another fossil plant scientist - Heidi, a lady of Swiss origin whom he eventually married and brought back to Australia and Dorrigo. They now work together in describing the Nymboida specimens that had been safely stored on the family farm "Noonee Nyrang" near Wellington and now at "Claremont" at Larras Lee in central-west NSW.
Keith says the middle Triassic was a time of great biological diversity; an evolutionary experimentation following the globally disastrous Permian era, at the end of which 90 per cent of all living things perished in what is assumed to be a choking cloud of dust.
“It took 20 million years for plants and animals to mutate and repopulate,” he said. “And the commercial coal measures at Nymboida provide the earliest fossils from that middle Triassic era.”