Category Archives: Paleontology

Your grandchildren will ask

Your grandchildren will ask
how we could possibly have been so blind.

Your grandchildren will ask
what it must have been like
to live in a world with tigers,
sea turtles, to live in a world
where the tide line wrack
was made of wood and kelp.

Your grandchildren will ask
what the hell we were all thinking.

Your grandchildren will ask
why we didn’t just shut
the coal plants down,
what we were doing
with all that electricity
we bought with their future.

Your grandchildren will ask
why we put potatoes and oranges
in plastic bags.

Your grandchildren will ask
what it was like
to walk into a wild landscape
and not see the other side.

Your grandchildren will ask
what the fuck was wrong with us.

Your grandchildren will ask
how we could possibly have thought
it was ever a good idea
to bring their parents into the world.


My friend Derek passes along a clip regarding a possible thylacine sighting. The thylacine, a marsupial carnivore native to Tasmania that once ranged as far north as New Guinea, has been considered extinct since the last one died in the Hobart Zoo in the 1930s. Here’s some re-mastered films of thylacines in that zoo, including a lot of footage of “Ben,” the last (known) living thylacine, a female despite the name.

Thylacines strongly resembled dogs — one common name for them was “Tasmanian wolf” — but they were no more closely related to dogs than are opossums or kangaroos. As mentioned above, they were marsupials. They bore non-viable live young that crawled to an external pouch to suckle until ready to face the outside world. The resemblance to dogs is an example of convergent evolution: certain body forms work well for certain tasks. If you’re a cursorial predator of small animals, a dog-like body is a good thing to have, whether you’re a thylacine, a wolf, or a hyena.

Watching those films makes me feel sick to my stomach. They were beautiful animals, graceful and social and sleek. I feel cheated that I’ll never get to see one. It’s one thing to wish you could see a live Triceratops or Uintathere: those left a long time ago, and it seems a mild shame that we can’t watch them walk across the plains.

But thylacines winked out only yesterday. Nephew Liam is half Australian: his great grandparents may have had the opportunity to see Ben in the Hobart Zoo. My father was alive when Ben died.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the German tourists referred to in the first link above saw a living thylacine or not. It doesn’t matter if I see one. Thylacine habitat is gone, and if there are still a couple out in the Tassie bush only heroic measures will save the species. Gene bnks are for crop plants: species are nothing without their habitat.

Still I would have liked to have said goodbye. I was robbed.

Credit where due

You might have seen those little icons next to individual blog comments on other blogs — I had them here for a while, and may well again if I ever figure out how to work the CSS formatting so that they work the way I want them to. They’re called gravatars, and they’re free, and you can get one too if you so desire.

I’ve been using a head-shot of a short-faced bear as mine for a while. The short-faced bear, Arctodus simus, was the largest, nastiest carnivore in North America up until about ten thousand years ago, when it went extinct.

I cropped my gravatar image from the painting you see here (click the thumbnail for a larger view.) And there’s no easy way to provide credit information in a gravatar without messing up the design with little hard-to-read text, so I’m doing it here. The painting is the work of Carl Dennis Buell, a regular commenter here (with the handle OGeorge). Carl, aside from being a hell of a guy, is an insanely talented illustrator whose work has appeared all over the place, in books by Carl Zimmer, Ernest Callenbach, even John Muir (in reprint, silly.) He’s also in a recent issue of Earth Island Journal.

Carl’s a busy guy these days, which has meant a delay in an art and writing blog he’s wanted to put together for some time. I can’t wait, myself. In the meantime, we his fans can check out more of his work in the rotating upper left corner of PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula — and in PZ’s gravatar. Thanks, Carl, for letting me use the bear.

The Litany

Beth posted a list a few days ago of things for which she was grateful. And as much as I like to complain about life (see previous 85 posts for examples), I have to admit that list has been rolling around in my mind, encouraging me to think of things for whose presence in my life I am thankful. Also there’s a holiday coming up Thursday and stuff. So here goes.

1) For these words and all others, for the writers who use them, for Nabhan and Felger and Solnit, Childs and Tempest-Williams and Berry and Oliver and Quammen and Lopez and Zwinger, and all who have inspired me, thank you. For those no longer writing, Ed and Wally and Ellen and Stephen J.  and Joe Krutch and Cousin Henry, thankful tears. For my paltry ability to share in the pursuit of shaping words into story, no thanks are sufficient.

2) For Lila Downs, for whom I would walk barefoot across a mile of broken lava in the desert just to wash her car with my tongue, thank you.

3) While we’re at it, for Rokia Traore, Aster Aweke, Amalia Rodrigues, Susanna Baca, Gillian Welch, Iris Dement, Julie Miller, Kate Wolf and her buddy Nina Gerber, Cesaria Evora and Daniela Mercury and Picaflor de los Andes and Quentin Howard and Joan Baez when she isn’t being condescending, which face it is approximately never, and for this world that has the female voice in it. Thank you.

4) For musicians of the weaker sex: Regis Gisavo, D’Gary, John Hyatt, Julie Miller’s husband Buddy, Tom Robinson even though his lovely paranoid political punk from the 1970s has mainly come true, the Clash (especially Sandinista), Charlie King,  Arlo and his dad and that kid from Hibbing, Dave Lippman, Tito Paris, Duy Khanh, John Doe and Billy Zoom and Dave Alvin, Merle and Willie and Tom T.,  thank you.

5) For Vietnamese wedding banquets where two hundred fifty guests crack crab as the uncle of the bride mounts the stage and belts out three drop-dead gorgeous Saigon torch songs, gives a shy wave, and sits down to eat steamed rock cod, thank you.

6) For trucks with burritos, and tiny shops with pupusas for sale therein, for pho and banh mi, for Becky’s curry, for oysters that travel four feet from Tomales Bay to my gullet, for tamales from the produce stand around the corner and Tandoori Chicken USA in the old Foster’s Freeze on San Pablo Dam Road, for papas a la huancaina and carapulcra and deep-fried squid and salt and pepper fish, for roasted kid in chile colorado, thank you.

7) For Becky, who completes me, and without whom I would be naught — if I were to say thank you a thousand times a day for a million years, it would not begin to cover the depth of my gratitude for even just the moments spent together saying nothing.

8) For my friends from the blog world, for dear sweet Anne and for Dave and Siona, for Rana who writes inspiring, fiery, funny things I wish I’d written and for Beth who writes deeply thoughtful things I never could have, for Chris Rieder and Tom Montag, for elck and Dale who keep me on my toes, for Pica and Numenius who got me into this mess, for Doc Rock who I will drag to Cima Dome someday, for Lisa Thompson and the oysters from Tomales Bay, for Jarrett who I’ll meet on the trail before the New Year, and Caitlin and Susurra and dear Miguel and all who’ve left thoughtful and provocative comments, a million thanks.

9) For online friends in general, for the People With No Lives and those who may or may not be without head coverings, for the cafeinds and the afuisti and the racsers, thank you.

10) For friends I have left behind, the classmates and fellow travelers, old housemates and old flames, spread from Taos to Olympia to Asheville, Canberra to Karachi, thank you.

11) For those who passed through my life on their way out, Bill Stack and Pete Valentic and Herb Hauer, Judi Bari and Dave Brower, Jake Kramer and Charlie Haynie and Al Ricciuti and Ed Powell, Nina Neudorfer and Madeleine Page and You Know Who, I touch my brow to the floor in thanks.

12) For friends of long standing, Greg Lester and Ron and Joe and Meester Matthew, Berna my heart of hearts, Mike Ketterer and Elena Gellert and Dave Roycroft, and for your profound patience over the decades, deepest thanks.

13) For Becky’s family, and (oh all right) for mine, thank you.

14) For dinner Thursday with bright-eyed nephew Liam and devastating femme fatale niece Sophie, just shy of her first birthday, and for the chance to watch them grow, and for all my dear and far-flung and incredibly gorgeous nieces and nephew making their marks on the world, some of them in indelible ink on the new paint, Allison and Grace and Meghan and Emily and Lissa, and for Carolyn and James who I need to visit someday, thank you.

15) For the world; for Corvus corax and Uintatherium, for three-day-old calochortus blossoms against Ramalina lichen, for my muse Yucca brevifolia and all her consorts, for the shifting crustal plates that shape my homeland and the rain that washes it to the sea, for the Pleiades and Luna and the Galilean moons, canyon wrens and coyotes, for the spiders with whom I shower and the mice in the compost, for the dog and the rabbit and the guinea pig and all their commensals, for all the tangled tree of shared ancestry and its mineral substrate: I thank you.

Chicken Point

I feel as though I’m hiking among friends. All along the trail today, the plants are of species I have planted in my front garden. Nolina microcarpa, Penstemon eatonii, Agave parryi, prickly pear opuntia, and various others. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the flagstone leading up to our front door is of a rock called “Sedona red” by the quarry. Was I unconsciously aiming for congruence with a landscape I’d only driven through before?

Even a plant or two I wouldn’t have expected: at the bottom of a plunge pool in Marg’s Draw, ten feet down beneath a thick slab of Schnebly Hill Formation red rock, a hedge of Muhlenbergia rigens — a bunchgrass common in California — grows prettily in the relative wet. It’s about the same size as the Muhlenbergia hedge atop the retaining wall in our front yard.

Becky tells people that our front garden is designed according to a plan she describes as “the inside of Chris’ brain.” No rows of little uniform plants there —  aside from the Muhlenbergia. To tell the truth, the garden did not start with any particular plan, other than a list of plants I owned, some others I liked, and a general arid intention.

But once work started, certain themes emerged despite my lack of planning. For instance: without intending to, I gradually found myself curating a burgeoning collection of plants in the agave and (closely related) nolina families. I’d plant a cactus, and then later would plant a semiwoody shrub nearby, and a few weeks after that would realize I had set into motion a set of circumstances that resulted in the recreation of a common desert floral interaction: the nurse plant phenomenon. Cacti and other delicate plants cannot withstand full sun when young, and they thus are often found growing within the partial shade of a hearty shrub. I didn’t intend for the Great Basin sagebrush to shelter the golden barrel cactus, or for my giant island coreopsis to serve as nurseplant for the Trichocereus spachianus, but the plants seemed almost to grow toward one another.

None of those plants, to my knowledge, grow together in the wild. Some of the stuff in the garden, like my chiranthofremontia, doesn’t grow anywhere in the wild. I’ve assembled plants from the Northeastern US and Peru and Chile, Australia and Mexico and Sedona, and of course a number of local natives. Membership requirements: do not grow so fast that you get out of hand — so far, that’s only violated by the California natives — and do not expect me to water you more than once per summer after you’re established. The garden plan, as I see it: if it makes sense to me, it can go in.

And not just to me. There’s a plant growing there now that will, if it survives, eventually dominate the yard, and in fact the neighborhood. It’s a two-year-old live oak, planted by a squirrel the year we tore the lawn out. It will grow. It will shade out the agaves and the puya and the kangaroo paws, be sculpted by the prevailing wind off the ridge to the west, shelter its planter’s great-grandsquirrels and spit out acorns to grow in the gutters and lawns of the children of the people who buy our neighbors’ homes.

A Steller’s jay wakes me from my reverie. I come all the way out here to Sedona to hike, and I spend my time thinking of my front yard? I pull myself up, head further up the trail, past a copse of Nolina microcarpa, just like the one in my yard.

There are remarkably few hikers on the trail. A couple with their college-aged daughter, another couple at around retirement age muttering that the trail was too much for them. I figure they’ll be all right: their muttering comes through broad smiles. I appreciate their being there: everyone else in the hills today has come up on a Pink Jeep: like Jesus, they have come into the country on their asses. A broad gray scrape marks the jeeps’ path across the slickrock. Passengers pile out at Submarine Rock and Chicken Point, the official visitor vistas on the Chicken Point Road. The desert is a thrill ride to them: one hears their whoops from across the ridge. I calm my nerves. They’re staying to the road, I tell myself. Nothing wrong with enjoying a ride. Looks like fun: I might like to try it myself.

Lies, all lies.

My trail converges with theirs at Submarine Rock, and I stride out onto the gray scrape. I recognize the looks I get: it’s the Yosemite Valley Tourists seeing the week-long backpackers coming down past Nevada Fall. “How long have you been walking?” One relatively buffed, 30-ish Jeep rider asks.

I’m somewhat reluctant to disappoint him with the truth: It’s only about three and a half miles back to my truck. “Three and a half miles! How long did that take you? And you have to walk all the way back?”

I shrug. “I go for lots longer hikes in the Bay Area suburbs every week. This is nothing.” My comfortable smug is restored. I press on, arriving at Chicken Point well ahead of the Jeepsters — not hard considering they drive at about five per, on average. The retiree hikers are there, and I congratulate them on making it.

I’m not ready to turn back, but I’m afraid that I’ll run out of water too soon if I hike any farther. No sooner does the dilemma present itself than a solution occurs to me: I ask a Pink Jeep driver if I can fill my Nalgene from his cooler. He’s glad to help out. I temporarily revise my opinion of the whole Jeep tourism idea. But still: I’m sixty pounds overweight, I’ve been back at hiking for maybe two months, and this pathetic little walk is nonetheless more hiking than most of the Jeep riders will do in a year. How much more seriously would they take this land if they got here on their own power? Hiking, they might take pride in having gotten here, as those older folks did: a little surprised at their capacity, and pleased as hell at their accomplishment. That’s the kind of experience that generates love for land: getting here by passenging might as likely inspire a desire to see the road straightened.

Also: if fat old yours truly can accidentally find himself in the top percentile of active Americans, then this society is doomed.

The red rock of Sedona is divided into two parts. There’s the Hermit Shale, a soft crumbly fossiliferous layer about 275 million years old, and the Schnebly Hill Formation, named for a hill that was named for Sedona Schnebly. The Schnebly Hill Formation is harder and about 8-10 million years younger. There are other rocks in Sedona, but those are the red ones. Both are built of sand dunes, parts of an immense beach hundreds of miles wide that fronted a sea to the west, its coastline at the edge of the present-day Mojave.

The rocks are too old to have been laid down during the Permian extinction — that wouldn’t happen for another twenty million years, when sea levels had dropped and the ocean had retreated to the approximate location of Barstow. But you can see a mirror of that extinction in these rocks. The Middle Permian’s atmosphere had a remarkably high concentration of oxygen, created by the huge forests that had reached their peak in the Carboniferous. The atmosphere was nearly one third oxygen in those days: a high enough concentration that holding a lit match to a two-by-four would have caused the timber to burst into flame, enough that free iron rusted in short order, even if locked inside a sand grain.

Some theorize that the Permian extinction occurred when sea levels dropped, exposing vast stretches of formerly submerged sediment. Undersea sediment is anoxic: it lacks oxygen. Once exposed, it combines greedily with oxygen. Near my home, this results in the subsidence of former freshwater marshes, as organic soil once protected by water literally burns off bit by bit, bonding with atmospheric oxygen and turning into carbon dioxide. When sea levels dropped in the late Permian, the sediments sucked up so much oxygen that animals suffocated. Fossil evidence shows that at the end of the Permian, rivers that once ran straight and swift were suddenly choked with sediment, turning nearly overnight into braided, meandering sloughs. Why?  Land plants, which need oxygen just as much as we animals do despite their ability to create it, died off wholesale. No longer held in place by forests’ roots, Late Permian soil eroded away, filling the riverbeds. Or so one theory has it.

As the Permian ended and the Triassic began, those uncovered sediments captured as much as half the oxygen in the air. Red rocks created when there was a surplus of oxygen were covered by red rocks that sucked that surplus dry. Triassic rocks around the world show that characteristic red color. It was millions of years before biodiversity recovered and the dinosaurs began their reign.

I just can’t get away from that extinction obsession, despite having driven 900 miles from my desk, my files, my connection to the Net that brings me a daily crop of bad news. In Tucson the other day, a guy told me of visiting a wild cave near here somewhere, finding a mummified teratorn, whose intact, ten-thousand-year-old feathers turned to dust at a mere touch.

That metaphor works as well as any. These days, all around me, I see ghosts of animals that disappeared just yesterday, or that will as soon as tomorrow. Pronghorn fast enough to escape the extinct North American cheetah, agaves flowering for dwindling bats, ripe saguaro fruit fourteen feet up, waiting for titanic browsing animals that vanished when Death Valley was still a lake. They disappeared so quickly that their shadows still haunt the land.

A line from that Peter D. Ward piece that brought me into this funk has stuck in my mind like a metal sliver. Ward quotes James Kirchner and Ann Weil, authors of a paper on the rate of biodiversity recovery from mass extinctions:

“Even if Homo sapiens survives several million more years, it is unlikely that any of our species will see biodiversity recover from today’s extinctions.”

For years, I’d harbored the notion that somehow all this would work out, that I’d be able as a tottering old man to stumble out into the woods and see thriving populations of wolves and bears. Perhaps we wouldn’t restore the massive flocks of passenger pigeons from the DNA in mounted museum specimens, but certainly we’d see the error of our ways and stop the damage, let it heal. Maybe it would take a hundred years, or two. If that’s what it would take, then so be it.

Kirchner and Weil put the time to recovery at at least ten million years, assuming humans stop doing their damage.

I cruise down the far slope from the ridge beneath Chicken Point, and before I know it I’m at the road to Oak Creek. I turn, and the ridge seems surprisingly far away. I start back with a big-ass grin on my face: hours more hiking!

But it’s uphill, and this is mile six, and it’s warm. I stop beneath a juniper, sit in mid-trail, drink some water.

There’s a live oak seedling across the trail.

I take another drink. Red Hermit Shale dust lies in a thin layer on the rim of the bottle: I feel it on my lips. It marks my pack, my feet and calves, and I assume elsewhere, as I’m sitting in a big pile of red gravel. I’m covered with Permian sand dune, reground into sand for the first time since trilobites were still alive.

A cubical piece of rock about a centimeter on a side sits in mid-trail. I pick it up, look at it. Tears well up. It’s a meeting across the divide: sand laid down before the mother of extinctions meets a son of those who repopulated the earth.

The perils of living too closely in the present are well known. It leads to foolish behavior. Liquidate your assets with no regard for the next fiscal year; clear-cut the timbered slope without thinking of the next rainy season; spend the rent money on booze. Some people actually think that the way we lived in 2002 is the normal and by rights eternal condition of mankind. Tell them there were once deep-sea fishes thriving in Nevada, and they curse you for a heretic.

But there are perils in the longer view as well. Much I’ve said here about the Permian may prove, tomorrow, to be false. The further back into the past one reaches, the thicker the mists become. And the future is far more impenetrable. My garden’s live oak seedling stands a good chance of dying in the next twenty years, but perhaps it won’t. I could twist my ankle on these rocks and die of thirst. Only the most immediate predictions are at all safe. I can confidently predict that this little rock will hit the trail in less than a second when I drop it, but beyond that: who knows?

And see, even there I’m wrong: the rock doesn’t hit the trail at all, but falls right into my pocket. I rub its edges as I hike back toward Chicken Point.

Profit and loss

Nights lately have been marked by waiting. It has been weeks since that familiar, comforting clicking has cascaded past our open bedroom window. I scan the sky for the telltale outline, the soft white wingbeat. The nesting palm across the street is disturbingly silent. West Nile has come to California, and owls are high on the list of potential victims.

Tonight, I watch until I cannot stand it anymore, then turn to other tasks. Almost immediately a reassuring screech fills the air.

Good news, but for how long? How many more days before the wrong mosquito penetrates that snowy down, inoculates the owl? How many more days before scar tissue forms in those marvelously efficient lungs, before encephalitis dulls — and then extinguishes — that bright aural map behind her eyes?

As an environmental writer, bad news like this pays my mortgage. If no emerging diseases threatened wildlife, if flame retardants and pharmaceuticals did not accumulate in the tissues of sturgeon, and no bark beetles razed western forests, I would be out of a job. In dying, therefore, the owl will simply be doing its part to boost those employment figures. There is reason for optimism everywhere: you need but seek it.

Indeed, I read not long ago an argument that those very owl lungs, far more efficient than mine at extracting oxygen from the air, may owe their efficiency to an episode of breathtakingly bad news. At the end of the Permian, 230 million years ago, goes the story, sea level dropped dramatically. Sediments that had lain beneath the surface were exposed to air and started to oxidize: the new soil sucked the oxygen out of the air. Ninety percent of the species then living on the Earth went extinct. A human at the elevation of Lake Tahoe would have died in a few minutes.

In this new, nearly airless world, a few animals prospered relative to their contemporaries. They may have been alpine species, adapted to low oxygen levels, who migrated to lower elevations in search of air and found a world newly vacated. Or they may have evolved efficient lungs in a spectacular hurry. Either way, they replenished the earth, and their offspring were dinosaurs, whose offspring were owls and other birds.

Peter D. Ward, in whose book Gorgon I read this story a few months ago, is one of maybe a dozen leading scholars of the Permian extinction. Despite being an able popularizer, always anathema to scientists who cannot write, he is a sober-sided and careful researcher, and a meticulous theorist. His colleague Luann Becker hit the papers lately with claims that an asteroid collision was responsible for the Permian extinction, and Ward methodically pointed out the pesky evidence contrary to her impact hypothesis.

And so it hit me rather hard when I read, this morning, an essay in which Ward suggests that the wave of extinctions currently in progress may be the worst one the world has ever known, if you count the number of species being eradicated.

Worse than the one that killed the dinosaurs and the ammonites, worse than the Ordovician, Triassic and Devonian extinctions, worse than the Permian, in which life was almost eradicated from the planet. Worse, perhaps, than all of them put together: Ward conjectures that “the absolute number of species (or other categories) that have already gone extinct in the last million years may be more than the total of the other mass extinctions combined.”

That’s “species that have already gone extinct.” He’s not talking about the California condor, hanging on to survival with one talon. Or the pika, whose range recedes upward with a warming climate, to the vanishing point at the summits of its mountain habitat. Or the tiger salamander whose range is disappearing beneath Californian tract homes, or even the ivory-billed woodpecker, whose place in the extinction roster is qualified with an asterisk based on alleged recent sightings. White rhinos and orangutans and polar bears and Hawaiian silver swords and snail darters and tui chub: not counted. Just the ones we’ve already done in, more species wiped out than in all other mass extinctions in the history of the earth, combined.

That’s the kind of hyperbole you couldn’t pay most environmentalists to utter. And here a renowned paleontologist soberly, in the pages of an academic journal, makes a suggestion to suck the air from your lungs.

How does that make you feel?

Statistically speaking, it very likely does not make you feel at all.

The environmental literature, after all, is replete with such stories, from Silent Spring and Last of the Curlews to more recent tomes on vanishing amphibians and seabirds and fish stocks and old growth forests and mangroves. You have heard it over and over. You could write such a story now without thinking, I’m betting, picking descriptives off the rack. “Plight,” “beleaguered,” “devastation,” “endangered.” Blah, blah, blah.

Surely there’s another side to the story. Surely some more moderate voice will pop up to say something reassuring so that you can go on with your life. The Citizens’ Council for Responsible Mass Extinction, or somesuch. Besides, the starlings and grackles and fox squirrels and pigeons that constitute your entire experience of wildlife seem to be doing just fine. Why on earth would I bother you with this tinfoil hat handwaving?

But should Ward’s hypothesis prick your conscience, against all sober logic and sensible consideration, extreme caution is in order. Should you be the kind of person who has actually met individual pikas and tiger salamanders and pallid manzanitas, or who hasn’t but wishes to someday, and who feels her life would be diminished were they to die out, you are well advised to keep it to yourself.

To protest would be shrill, and no one likes shrill.

They will call you an activist, and forget about asking what, logically, that makes everyone else. They will call you an extremist over your reluctance to change the world irrevocably for a moment’s idle convenience. They will call you a pessimist, because while whole branches of the planet’s evolutionary heritage are being snuffed out so that we might continue to drive our 4Runners, some people are using those 4Runners to carry trees — which they will plant somewhere nice. They will call you “well-intentioned.” They will, at best, listen politely and change the subject. If you don’t change the subject, they will shoot your dog and burn your house.

To express an opinion in these matters, you see, is to exclude your point of view from serious consideration. A person who prefers a world with tiger salamanders in it sits at one end of the table, and a person who wants to be allowed to gain millions of dollars by bulldozing tiger salamander habitat sits at the other. Clearly, both positions are equally self-interested.

The only really acceptable stance is not to give a shit. Fretting about the yellow-billed cuckoo just isn’t edgy. They went so far as to post a cutting comment about Bush on your blog: I just don’t see how much more you can reasonably ask them to do. They’re only human.

Ethylene glycol

When my dot-com died I decided to spend my meager accumulated savings traveling the Northern Rockies. Packed the truck, made arrangements to hunt fossils near Kemmerer and to sleep one night at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone, obtained detailed maps of the Wind Rivers and Beartooth Absaroka, and then decided to add three more weeks to the trip to allow trips to Lolo Pass and Glacier and who knows, maybe Yellowknife.

I made it as far as Wells the first day, and spent the evening drinking local beer in the shadow of the Ruby Mountains. Flew east across the salt flats the next morning, trying to keep the rising sun behind the Stansbury range.

Come the afternoon and Parley’s Canyon grinding up towards Wyoming, and my trusty old truck was overheating. I stopped halfway up the grade to check the coolant — in sufficient supply, as it turned out. I nursed the pickup up the hill to Evanston and checked again. No shortage there.

Thirty-five miles per hour on deserted sagebrush roads brought me to Kemmerer: gateway to the Eocene Green River Formation and home, that day, to one operating gas station. The mechanic pops the hood, grabs a rag, opens the radiator cap, peers at the boiling green inside. “Well, it’s not the radiator. It’s probably your thermostat. I could order one for you from Rock Springs, get here in a day or two. Or I could disconnect the one you’ve got in there, and you replace it when you get where you’re going.”

Where I was going was up several hundred thousand cumulative feet of grade, but I decided to wait until the next day to decide. My truck ached down the road to a motel, where I fell into a fever sleep with bare wires exposed near the bedside and the television permanently tuned to JAG.

The next morning was better. I pulled a few dozen 50-million-year-old herrings from the rock and then pointed my truck in the direction of Little America, reasoning that a busy garage on the interstate would very likely 1) take all my money but b) fix my truck.

The Little America mechanic opened the hood, opened the radiator and peered inside. “Well, it’s not the radiator. It’s probably your thermostat.” He offered to order a new one from Rock Springs. It would take most of a day to arrive on the Greyhound. I got a room.

The next morning I went to pick up the truck, ready to head to Dubois and Fiddler Lake, and then on to Yellowstone. The clerk at the garage looked at me pityingly. “They put in the new thermostat, but it’s still heating up. He says he thinks it’s your head gasket.” I was sufficiently distracted by the flurry of winged dollar bills around my head that I forgot to ask how a cracked head gasket could overheat the engine without draining coolant.

“But we have an idea. We have this stuff that’s kind of like Fix-A-Flat for head gaskets. You pour it into a hot engine, rev for a while, and it seals any cracks that might be there. We can do that for $75.00.”

Then came the bad news.

“We’ll have to let the truck sit without starting it for two days after we put the stuff in.”

I went back to my room. There was very little chance I’d make my reservation at Fishing Bridge. I called to cancel it while I could still get my money back.

I should say that Little America is not without its amenities. There are bison burgers in the cafeteria. There’s a good strong signal from the Wyoming Public Radio station. There’s a swimming pool. Um, I think that’s it.

On the afternoon of the third day, the thunderstorms rolled in. Desperate to escape the manicured, fake New England confines of the motel, I walked out into the steppe beyond. Rusted, unidentifiable pieces of metal littered the ground, increasingly dotted by fat raindrops. There were openings in the sagebrush, paths trod by deer and pronghorn. I followed one until it ended, a mile into the desert. It was a cul-de-sac: a rounded, trampled spot with copious pronghorn scat.

The lightning got closer. I was the tallest thing for miles. My hair was wet. I headed back, stood on the motel lawn watching the storm approach from the south. Behind the dark gray band of rain, a patch of sun lit brilliant red cliffs: Flaming Gorge, forty or so miles away. A gasp arose from behind me, and I turned to agree.

It wasn’t the scenery that had prompted my neighbors to gasp. It was the pronghorn, two of them standing ten feet away from me, watching the lightning with me on the open lawn. They got nervous once I noticed them. They sidled away.

My room phone rang the next morning. It was the mechanic. “She’s working fine, come on and pick’er up.” I paid my various tabs and headed toward the road that would take me north to Yellowstone. Five miles along, the temperature gauge started to climb. Fast.

I spent the rest of that day driving, heater blasting to cool the engine, through rush hour traffic in Salt Lake. Across the Bonneville Salt Flats. Up steep grades and past desolate desert in Northern Nevada. In July. On a day that was already blisteringly hot. Night fell as I reached Reno, and I made it over Donner Pass without problem as the air cooled.

Two days later I got a phone call from my primary car physician in Berkeley, an hour after I’d dropped the truck off.

“It’s the radiator. I’m putting in a new one. Ninety bucks. Pick it up at four-thirty.”

I’ve been thinking about going back.


I used to try to walk atop the snow when I was young. It got harder as I got older. Still, if a warm day and cold night had melted and refrozen the top eighth-inch of rime, I could occasionally will myself to cross a drifted field, coming into contact with the surface only just enough to keep moving, and look back to see white unsullied by footprints.

The tide was out this morning. I walked a good quarter mile from the shore, past clamshells and tires and rocks washed down the creek from the hills, to a bar where sanderlings had just been flitting back and forth. When I turned, there were no impressions to mark where I had walked across the muck.

Out on the open water, three white pelicans swam east in no particular hurry. A dozen crows sought garbage in the flats. They made noises as I passed. A Forster’s tern flew up the creek in search of steelhead or stickleback, and down again, and up.

In 1960, I came screaming, bloodied, and angry from out of the womb of one Rita Xavier, a bright naïve newlywed about to reach the twentieth anniversary of her own whelping, from out of Madelin Turo Xavier. Flossie Olds begat Madelin, and Rosalind Nichols Olds begat Flossie, and Anne Jane Hauser Nichols begat Rosalind, and a long, increasingly forgotten string of women before them each brought daughters into the world.

Follow the trunk of this tree of women back toward its root, and the women change shape as you go. A thousand generations back, and my grandmothers look pretty much the same. But retreat another hundred thousand whelpings, or two hundred thousand, and they start to look very different. Still, despite their rough appearance, this is a distinguished family: an unbroken string of daughters and mothers reaching back to Eomaia, whose name means “Mother of the Dawn”, and on beyond her, for an unimaginable length of forgotten time, back to the very first female.

This morning, my family stood on a lawn in New York State and lowered my grandmother’s ashes into a grave next to my grandfather’s. I didn’t go. Instead, 2700 miles from the cemetery, I went down to San Pablo Bay. I walked out on the mud and back again, sat on a bench and watched the tide roll out even farther.

And felt another door close, the penultimate link between me, Anne Jane Hauser Nichols, Lucy, and Eomaia severed. Alone, and longing for some family to be silent there with.

A barn swallow swept past, faltered, looked me in the eye and sang. The Forster’s tern came back down the creek again, detoured, came by to get a good look at me sitting on the bench.

Thirty years ago my uncle was plowing a field a handful of miles from my grandparents’ house, and found an odd rock the size of a medicine ball. It was gray and roughly spherical, with ropy black inclusions. Five years ago paleontologists from Cornell found a few more, and the story made CNN. They were the fossils of glass sponges, which lived in the shallow Devonian sea whose sediments became the bedrock of Seneca County.

Trace my line of mothers back to the Devonian, and you meet the first terrestrial vertebrates, fish who neglected to stay in the water. When the fragile shale that is now my Grandmother’s eternal home was formed, our ancestors then living were also the ancestors of frogs and snakes.

Watching the cargo ships down from Sacramento, I imagine a crucial clutch of eggs some millions of years after the Devonian, one of my ancestral grandmothers guarding it. I imagine two eggs side by side, hatching, two daughters emerging. One is the next in the lineage of my grandmothers. The other is the ancestress of all the reptiles, all the dinosaurs, all the birds. They look the same, for all that destiny laid upon them, and their offspring do too, for at least a few dozen generations.

It’s fancy on my part. Who knows whether Great Grandma even guarded her nests? Or whether she laid more than one egg at a time? Not me. Still, she certainly existed, and gave birth to every member of three great domains of modern creatures.

And her family survives.

I sometimes wonder about my desire not to leave tracks. Told all my life to strive for making a mark on the world, there seems something rebellious about gliding imperceptibly atop a snow bank, along an estuary bar. But my grandmother is mourned by a hundred people today, and a century from now, she will further removed from her descendants than my Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Anne Jane is from me. A century after that, she’ll might as well have been a contemporary of the Devonian rocks that cradle her ashes today, and I will be a forgotten pile of calcium in some desert canyon, a minor footnote in some unread scholar’s roster of obscure editors who once worked with some niche writer who became moderately famous among her colleagues after her death.

At least I hope so. At least today. Carefully sculpting a set of footprints keeps you from looking at the horizon. The sanderlings are back, and they fly in formation back and forth along the encroaching water line, a hundred yards away. Moving in unison, they blaze white as they turn their bellies toward me, then turn on edge and disappear nearly from view. Not one of them stands out, these my cousins.

Sand dollar

My poor wife is up late sewing costumes for a school play. Hours of labor spent for kids who won’t appreciate it, whose parents couldn’t be bothered. She’s complaining, but in vain, because that’s the kind of person she is: reflexively selfless.

Last year she and my brother Craig and I were fossil hunting south of here. Craig was having a rough week. We were trying to distract him, and fossil hunting is one of those things he and I do when we’re looking for distraction. It’s an activity replete with metaphor: searching the rubble, the worthless shards of soft and crumbling rock for some hint of something that might once have been alive.

The outcrop we were working is late Miocene, a silty Briones Formation sandstone laid down in shallow water about 15 million years ago. The Union Pacific runs through the site: we found that day a partial skeleton of a fawn that apparently didn’t get off the tracks in time. Its skull now sunbathes on our front porch, its jaw in a box of school supplies for when Becky teaches some subject to which deer bones are relevant.

The rock holds clams and scallops not much different from the ones in San Francisco and Tomales bays, sea snails still curled around pockets of sand grains, russet stains of iron ore running through the rock. Where tree roots penetrate into the rock, water and humic acid soon turn the moderately solid rock to gelatin. There are ticks and poison oak and the occasional fawn-killing train speeding around the blind curve. It’s a happy place.

The slope, an apron of scree well above the angle of repose, resisted our attempts to climb, and the fossils often crumbled as we pried them from the cliff. But before too long we had a few pockets full of the usual clams and scallops and snails, rescued from the next rock-crumbling storm. And then a coup: Becky found what is surely the coolest fossil anyone has pulled out of that cliff: a sand dollar, still pink and about an inch across.

My brother and I, being not only brothers but more to the point male, have this little competitive thing we do when fossil hunting. Well, not just when fossil hunting, but let’s not get into the rest right now. We scan the ground, the talus pile, the outcrop above, looking for petrified exoskeletons and leaf impressions and pterodactyl wing imprints and the like. And we each find interesting things pretty reliably. We’ve been doing this for 35 years and you get to know when a certain rock will hold a fossil on the underside. One of us finds, oh I dunno, a dimetrodon tooth and says “hey COOL, look what I just found,” and the other comes over and admires it, and we are both sincere in our admiration of the other’s fossil. But it’s better to be the one who finds, because that proves coolness, which springs from happening to notice something first just because the other guy headed in a different direction. There is a certain amount of preening that takes place. Imprecations are hurled, and aspersions cast on the eyesight and intelligence of one’s rival. Good times.

Unfortunately, Craig usually finds the better stuff, which is like so totally unfair. And so I overcompensate when I find something worth showing off. I am reasonably certain I would have been insufferable had I found that sand dollar, thrusting it into Craig’s face, my gloat flecked all over with little sparkly bits of hubris as he admired it — which he would have, because he did. I would feel myself lifted up slightly by the grudging admiration from my brother for having been in the right place at the right time, and managing not to be distracted by something shiny.

This past weekend, Becky told me her first thought on finding the sand dollar was to run to Craig and show him. Oddly, however, there was no gloating involved. “This will cheer him up,” she thought. “I’ve got to show it to him right now.”

Reflexively selfless.