Oldies

Real oldies; the subject matter, not the song or any of the performers.

When I was a tiny sprout I had a bump of paleontology; at the time the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History was only about a fifteen minute drive away (and you could drive downtown, and park, and live to tell the tale). I remember being introduced to some curators who seemed vaguely charmed by the idea of a bespectacled little five-year-old ginger in small corduroy trousers who was fascinated with trilobites and ferns and knew how to tell a brontosaur from a brachiosaur and what a coelacanth was. They were tinkering with an exhibition and someone lifted me up to the seat of a chair so that I could look at the specimens scattered on a high worktable — being cleaned, or relabeled, or rearranged, I can’t remember.

Brontosaurs are passe, by the way. Apparently they were a mistaken classification of a type of apatosaurus. Who knew.

I have cigar boxes (King Edward VII brand) full of things like sharks’ teeth, and a brontotherium vertebra and an Eohippus jaw, though my only trilobite is a jacket pin, not a real casting. I used to sit with big children’s fossil books, half as tall as I was, completely screening me from the room and fantasize about being afloat in a Cambrian ocean, teeming, warm, silent and endless. I’m not sure which species I imagined I was.

So you know I gotta love these guys.

Oh Canada!

Beyond The Pale

My questionable but sprightly engineer friend returned a couple of days ago from a family excursion into the wilds of his ancestral Nebraska, about which there was nothing remarkable but an unexpected side trip to a fossil bed.

That brought back memories — no, I am not really that old — memories, I mean, of being a tiny sprout in the Fifties and Sixties and being dead keen on fossils and prehistoric eras and geological ages and all the rest of it.

I don’t know what other little kids think of (and judging from the way most of them behave, I don’t want to know) but there was a period when my mind was easily lured into contemplation of what it must have been like to be adrift in the Pre-Cambrian seas for countless millennia. I remember thinking: it would have been so peaceful and quiet despite being full of new life. (Ironically, the piece of music that perfectly expresses what I imagined is Rachmaninoff’s Island of the Dead: just imagine that going on for about seven-eighths of Earth’s history.)

No question, I was a gazetteer of dinosaurs in those days, not to mention some late Cretaceous and Tertiary mammals, but the issue that rocked my socks was the colossal age of, well, everything (I have never to this day understood the Bible bozos who seem to think that science takes the glory or soul or whatever out of existence).

So after perusing the post-trip photo album — perfectly preserved whole skeletons of rhinos in the Nebraska plains, and grad students sitting in the field flicking sand away from bones grain by grain with a brush, something I must have imagined for myself at one point in my peculiar childhood — I started hunting around the Net, trying to reconstitute memories. My father’s side of the family actually hails from Nebraska and once, when I was around ten, they took a similar excursion to the Black Hills of South Dakota, which are crummy with fossils. I still have a tiny jawbone, which might be an Eohippus or might be something else.

I never did find any jog to memory of the exact place we came away with that jawbone, but I did find this, and I’ve been gawping at it all evening.

Panthalassic

I’ve been working my way up the “jump to another period” drop menu on this part of the site, from Pre-cambrian to Cambrian to Ordovician to Silurian, goggling at the graphic that depicts the topological contortions of the earth’s land masses through geologic eras, all of them christened with grand and rolling names – Avalonia, Gondwana, Laurentia. It’s damned hard to say “solid ground” with a straight face after reading how bits of Nova Scotia as we now know it peeled off from a supercontinent amalgamating Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica.

I will never understand people who need the book of Genesis — poetic and poignant though it may be — to be truer than this planetary grandeur.

If you want to take a trip to someplace where you can collect fossils, or to a museum full of fossils, or view just about any research, lecture, database, or field guide about prehistory and fossils, this site has got you covered.

I am getting into the Devonian now. Catch you later.