The Chambered Nautilus
"Build thee more stately mansions...."

As a part of my course work in the arts and sciences class that I am teaching my two grandchildren, they have learned a large number of paintings along with many fossils. Jack can easily identify 50-famous paintings and the artists, and he is five years old. When it comes to fossils, Owen can pick out dinosaur coprolite, which he calls dinosaur poop, and he is three.

Description: Owen examining a fossil

Owen is smelling the fossilized dinosaur poop.

Description: Jack looking at the fossil

Jack knows everything about trilobites. Additionally, I have made every effort to relate the various art forms to geology.

However, I have recently added a number of new fossils to their collection. One piece that interested both of them was a three-inch fossil of an ammonite. This fossil was a precursor of what we call the chambered nautilus.

When I was in high school, I hated having to memorize several hundred lines of prose or poetry each semester for those four years. Nonetheless, never a day goes by that I do not mention or write about some quotation, which I had memorized. Fifty years ago, I knew every word. However, in some cases, I still will be able to recall three-fourths of what I recited for my English teachers. Case in point, The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes. This is the last stanza of the poem. I remember almost the entire stanza.

However, having memorized The Chambered Nautilus fifty years ago, I finally get its complete message. Holmes' poem was more than merely telling a seashell to continue growing.

Today, I understand Holmes' poem more fully due to being 72-years of old and having danced with death twice. Additionally, I have two young grandchildren who have just begun the process of building their "more stately mansions" as they have toddled into preschoolers. Holmes calls on nautiluses and all of us to build and not shrink the task of maturing. The poem tells all to be of courage and filled with determination in their life's journey.

Therefore, I opened the arts and science class for Jack and Owen dealing with the fossil of a precursor of the chambered nautilus.

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Then we went from the fossil to the present-day by showing them a picture of the shell and an actual live nautilus.

Chambered nautilus' shell Chambered nautilus in the wild

It was not long before we talked about the chambers and the process of growing via the chambers. It is like them growing taller; the chambered nautilus grows chambers as it gets older.


A bisected chambered nautilus

Once Jack and Owen understood the fossil, we went to the last stanza of The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which I recited for them.

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

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It was fun for me to watch them process seeing the fossil, seeing the shell, and seeing what a living chambered nautilus looks like. They understood Holmes' poem as a metaphor for them. Jack is coloring in the various chambers of a chambered nautilus. Then Owen and I would count the chambers.

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Having finished learning about the chambered nautilus, Owen is beginning to take out fossils of interest from their collection.