I Will Not Die By Dinosaur

A friend of mine sent me this comic a few years ago:

https://xkcd.com/87/

Not that I, like, take it seriously or anything but in my little casita, where I am alone at night, the only person in a desert(ed) park named for it’s abundance of fossilized things, there are eight R.E.P.s. Nine if you include under the bed. Not that I include under the bed. That would be ludicrous; everyone knows that VRs are too big to fit under a bed.

As you may have guessed by now, I have just the teensiest fear of dinosaurs. I’m also afraid of ladybugs though so I think ornithoscelidaphobia is one of my more rational fears. I mean, serious question: do you trust future scientists to heed the warnings of Jurassic Park? I, for one, do not. Humans are arrogant as hell. So every night in this desert park where you can’t so much as sneeze without unearthing a two hundred million year old bone, I have to tell myself firmly and rationally that the science does not yet exist for me to be eaten by a raptor tonight. I will not die by dinosaur, I will not die by dinosaur, I will not die by dinosaur.

I can only chalk it up to a fit of lunacy that I signed up to go on a fossil dig today. I am a person who likes new experiences but surely that has a limit. Just because the park has an extensive paleontology department, and most of the bones here are from the Triassic period, not the Jurassic, that doesn’t mean I have to have to be the one to uncover them. Yet somehow, as if in a recurring nightmare (not that I’m familiar with those), I found myself signing a waiver that if anything bad happened to me on the dig it wasn’t the park’s fault. I will not die by dinosaur, I will not die by dinosaur, I will not die by dinosaur.

That morning, I put on the dino earrings (one brontosaurus and one t-rex) that my friend Kelly gave me to help me concur my fear. I have to wear them so their tiny metal mouths face away from my little flesh face but other than that I really think it’s working.

The drive to the dig site was nuts. The torrential rains yesterday had left one road muddy, one of the dirt roads had completely disappeared, the trucks were slipping and sliding and we came close to spinning out a handful of times. Twelve of us set to work right away uncovering the layer of mud that had accumulated on top of the site. Adam, one of the lead Paleontologists, asked where I wanted to set up. “I’m pretty attached to the area I dug the mud out of.” I said. “Fair enough,” he said, and he handed me two brushes, a screwdrivery thing, and an Eswing, which I had thought up until then was a Star Wars reference but it’s a rock hammer. I settled in at my spot next to Candace, a summer intern, and Matt, a visiting Paleontologist who used to work at the park.

Within twenty minutes Brian- another summer intern- had found a big fossil belonging to a Metoposaur, a gigantic, flat-headed, carnivorous amphibian. There were hearty congratulations and “Aww, Brian!”’s going around seeing as the Metoposaur is Brian’s specialty, this was the first they’d uncovered all summer, and today was his last dig. Aww!!!

Ten minutes later I hit bone. It was the skull of the Metoposaur. Um…what? Half an hour into my first paleontological dig and I’d uncovered a fossilized skull? As you might imagine, I promptly went about avoiding the skull out of fear of a) damaging it and b) not damaging it enough that no DNA could ever be extracted from it ever ever ever. I dug around it looking for other things like, I don’t know, plant fossils? Those seemed safe to uncover. But by early afternoon there was no putting it off; I set to work digging up the skull.

It’s meditative work, really, only hotter. There’s really no such thing as a shady outcrop here in the desert. “Paleontologists hate plants” said Bill Parker, head of the paleontology department. “People ask why the rocks are more colorful out west and I say, they aren’t, they’re just as colorful on the East Coast, they’re just covered in plants. Which makes it harder to find anything interesting. Adam, what do paleontologists hate?” he calls across the dig site. “Plants!” says Adam.

I, who love nothing more than a good, dense forest, bit my tongue and kept working on my “professional t-shirt tan.” As we dug, brushed, and Eswinged out way through the day, Matt, the visiting paleontologist, told me about a paleo museum conference he’d been to in Berlin where one of the speakers gave a talk about Green Museums. “The guy was saying that we need to practice what we preach,” Matt said. “That museums should be the height of ethical living rather than printing out hundreds of paper packets for every scientist and curator at the conference.” This story sprang from a discussion of scientific collection ethics and the morality of killing animals for documentation purposes that, on the one hand, allow scientists to accurately study how a particular area changes over time, and on the other hand, allows for the capture and killing of a number of living creatures. If there is a philosophical conversation to be had in the middle of the desert, I will find it.

Candace quickly moved the conversation over to paleo grad schools and our little corner of the site passed a pleasant afternoon breathing in millions of years old dust and building a drainage ditch around the skull, which was still embedded in the earth at the end of the day, not that that was a relief or anything.

I have to admit, I’m curious to see what the skull will look like above ground. And personal fear of science induced dinosaur reincarnation aside, the paleontologists’ daily ethics rating is at, like, 100%. No lizards in bags, no birds in nets, no electroshocked fish. I think back on my conversation with Matt. If there are creatures to fear in the world, they’re not the ones buried beneath millions of years of bentonite clay.