As seen on news-journal.com, Longview, TX:
Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 4:00 am | Updated: 7:38 am, Tue Sep 13, 2011.
By Frank T. Pool FrankTPool@gmail.com
For the past two summers I have been inspired by a remarkable book, John McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World.” It is simultaneously a travel book, a series of character sketches of geologists and a geological history of North America.
This year I wanted to visit paleontological and geological sites, to get outside of printed words and to see for myself the record of the planet’s past.
My first encounter with dinosaurs came as I drove through Woodland Park, Colo., and happened upon the Dinosaur Resource Center. This is a private institution devoted to reassembling, preparing and making replicas of dinosaur fossils for museums and other institutions.
Visitors can observe the staff at work on various restoration projects. Actual fossils are on work tables, and multiple projects happen simultaneously in a very busy environment.
On the Colorado-Utah border, just south of Wyoming, is Dinosaur National Monument. One morning I hiked one of the most beautiful trails I have ever seen, out to a point overlooking the canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers. Ten million years ago, both rivers meandered over a flat plain, but a geologic uplift caused them to stay in their beds and slice downward, creating sheer, sinuous canyons.
At the Utah entrance to the park I took a trail and saw dinosaur bones. Uplifts have turned the alluvial deposits so they are almost vertical. I was able to run my hands across what was likely the radius bone of a sauropod, about four feet long, embedded in the rock.
In Wyoming I went to Fossil Butte National Monument, which is an ancient lake bed from Eocene times, about 50 million years ago. Fish, turtles, and freshwater rays are preserved in the limestone. I also met a man who digs fossils on private property for his rock shop in Evanston. Together we pulled blocks of limestone from the quarry face and split them with hammer and chisel, revealing the fossils inside. I also used a power drill, like a dentist drill, to finish preparing a specimen.
At John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon I interviewed the head paleontologist, who took me into the work area and showed me the skeleton of a Miohippus, a small ancestral horse that lived 30 million years ago. This particular specimen was covered in protective plaster and burlap and had been lifted by helicopter from a precarious cliff face in the park.
The horse evolved in North America, migrated across the Bering Land Bridge, and then went extinct in this continent within the past 10 thousand years, a sneeze in geological time. I stopped at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho, where more than 200 complete skeletons of extinct North American horses have been excavated.
I gained three insights from this trip. First, the evidence in the fossil record for evolution is overwhelming. Second, after interviewing a geologist and a paleontologist, I came to understand how mass extinctions can be caused by climate change. Third, I sensed the scale of deep time, of the age of this planet and the ways it changed before we humans existed.
Walking alone on western trails, as clouds scudded across the sky. I thought of time, and how 50 or a 100 million years ago, the winds sighed the same, the sun set slowly, the streams still gurgled among stones in the twilight. Venus and the moonrise looked much like they do today, but the constellations were utterly different. An ancient fish jumping in a pond made exactly the same sound. We are latecomers to the world.
— Frank Thomas Pool is a poet and English teach er working in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in South Longview and graduated from Longview High School. Email him at FrankTPool@gmail.com.