19 June, 2003

Dino Hunting!

[As originally posted on the MTGN forums at "http://forums.mtgnews.com/showpost.php?p=1642424&postcount=439".]

For nearly two weeks, from June fifth to June eighteenth, I experienced a trip very unlike anything that I'd ever enountered before.

I went dinosaur hunting.

I had never before done anything truly paleontological, though when I was younger I did do a short archaeological stunt in Pensacola, FL, where in the course of building a new highway, they inadvertently dug up an old spanish fort site as well. But that was just kids' stuff; nothing fancy, and nothing major.

But dino hunting? Now this was major hardcore stuff.

Pleasantly, I packed my bags, looking forward to what I thought would be the vacation of a lifetime. This was the real deal: true field work experience, albeit in a field somewhat divergent from my theoretical physics and fundamental mathematical background. To think of it! Actual unadulterated field experience! It was an experience beyond what I had ever accomplished before.

I mean, I've published in a national magazine. I've had a few poems printed in amateur poetry books. I even had done a little prep work for an old professor's then unpublished findings (though my name was not put on the published material, since I had not contributed much to the experimental findings). But I'd never before done anything truly intellectual, that I might be published on, or even that might further the advance of science itself. Instead, all I had done are things that I cannot help but to view as second tier: bland advertisement, perfunctory immature poetry, and 'rip-offs' that deserve no better than a cursory glance by any intelligent reader.

But this... This was the chance of a lifetime. To think of all those preadolescent days when I dreamed of going into xenomacropaleontology (don't ask), and to realize as to just how few people actually get to accomplish those dreams held to them as a child...

Alas! Dreams, like shadows and heroes, diminish the closer one appears.

This is not to say that all dreams are bad in any sense more than shadows or heroes might be considered bad. But it does, in some senses, remain quite true. (Of course, this leads into the argument that any categorical distinction is as true as it is untrue; whereas the ends do not justify the means, you also can't make an omellete without breaking a few eggs.) And in that sense, at least, I found out a great lesson in my dino hunting trip. A great lesson indeed.

Inasmuch as my enjoyment went, I had an absolutely glorious time. I found a triceratops (my personal favorite dinosaur, due to a mid-eighties trike craze I experienced in my childhood), minus the skull and limbs, but with at least one intact vertebra and multiple ribs and tendons. The specimen was not articulate, unfortunately, but the spread of the bones did indicate that it had been killed by a neotyrannosaur, and later scavenged by some form of cretaceous raptor that we couldn't identify. Teeth marks were found on the bone, but no teeth were imbedded within the bone itself. All in all, it was a fairly average find, with nothing of particular scientific interest. But to me, it was wonderful. Exhilirating. Delightful. Enjoyable.

But there remained that voice in the back of my head, understanding what was to become of these bones after they were fully prepped. They would be sold, I came to understand, and the profits would remain with Dr. Garstka, the paleontologist of the group.

But then again, he wasn't really a paleontologist. And there, I think, is where it all came out wrong.

Bill, you see, had his training in biology, specifically in snakes and lizards. Of course, his education came from the Vietnam era, so the biology he learned is now horrendously outdated, though he still works his day job teaching the stuff at a mid-sized 'government' (his description) university. He used to do research on specimens, but when the animal rights activists got a whole bunch of government regulations on cage size, feeding habits, and the like, he found that he was unable to cope with any of it, and switched over to field work in a national preserve instead.

The preserve at that time was headed by a country boy, very unlike today's common park ranger head honchos who come from more of a law enforcement background. Accordingly, Bill was allowed considerable leeway in his field experiments; this all changed once the leadership changed, and suddenly Bill found himself unable to conduct useful research without first leaving the country.

It was at this point that he turned to paleontology. "Surely," said he, "there will be no such restrictions on animals that have been dead for sixty-five million years!"

But, as he isn't a paleontologist by training, his research could not be funded by the university he was employed at, and instead he got his funding through the selling of dinosaur bones to the general public.

Now, I don't want to go into all that this means, though I'm sure most of my readers can glean exactly what a pothole of philosophical questions this opens up, especially in the field of a historical science like paleontology. Remember: once it's dug out, it can never be dug out again. And once it's sold to the general public, it would take a hell of a time to get it back into a museum in even the worst of conditions.

As a historical example, allow me to cite the old westerns that Hollywood did back in the day. Remember all of those headresses and teepees and stuff they used as props? Those were all real. They went out into the poor parts of native american land and bought out all of the old stuff, merely to be used as props in movies. Because of that, there are no old headresses anymore. They were all destroyed and thrown away by old movie actors who ruined them. Nowadays, all there is access to is fifty year old and younger artifacts from Native American land, excepting what is found in archaeological dig sites.

So it bothered me somewhat when I came to find out that Bill funded his bone-digging by selling his bones. It turned a scientific escapade into a lesson in marketing. I could see no difference between digging up these bones and selling them at inflated prices than I see in the raping of the earth for natural resources like oil and gold, and selling them for a profit as well. Hell, I can even see an argument for why oil must be drilled for and sold, whereas there is absolutely no reason why dinosaur bones should be sold to the public, especially at the loss of museum pieces that is sustained because of it.

Do you realize that there have only been twenty-eight complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons dug up in the entire history of paleontology, and, of these, only half of them are in actual museums? And only one of the articulate ones is in a museum, where it rightly belongs! And for that matter, most museums have mere plasters of skeletons, and few actual bones to speak of. All because of money-grubbing entrepeneural 'pseudo-paleontologists', who pervert the science of paleontology into mere profiteering.

As you can see, my comfort level of working with Dr. Bill Garstka dropped tremendously almost from the very beginning.

But I tried not to let it get to me. I tried not to think about what would happen after the entire process of prepping the bones had been finished. Instead, I concentrated on the thrill of finding a Trike vertebra in the flaky North Dakota rock, and of the beauty unraveled before me as I swept the dust away with a paintbrush.

Truly, it was an amazing adventure for me, despite all of the conceptual problems I had with the whole situation.

But, I suppose my disagreement with the situation became quite apparent with Bill. I kept noticing the local scientist types bothering him, circling planes above him with the intention of pure annoyance, and driving up to a far-off butte, sitting and watching as Bill dug into the rock below. I realized: they had no way of stopping Bill from doing what he was doing in any legal manner whatsoever, and yet the cared enough for the sanctity of pure, profitless science that they took time away from their day specifically in order to try and intimidate him from digging there.

But truly, what could they do? What can they do? They talk with the local ranchers, trying to persuade them to not lease out the dinosaur digging rights to anyone other than a university, but there aren't enough universities sponsoring such digs, and besides: profiteers like Bill give huge handouts monetarily in order to keep their leases current. And how can you ever convince a rancher not to take huge sums of money that is offered to him, even if it is in the name of science to turn profiteers down?

I read B. F. Skinner's Walden II while I was there. It turned out to be a most appropriate book to be reading for the occasion.

I had planned on staying there longer. But, after nearly two weeks, I was asked to leave. Not just because of my views, but for a number of other things. Bill, ironically enough, was just too damned objectivist for me.

But irregardless (i.e., with regard) of my misgivings after the fact, I still think that this trip of mine, above all other trips, has been the one where I not only learned the most, but also got the most experience, and best of all, became cognizant of certain ideas and thoughts that I hadn't fully understood before now...

All in all, I had a most rewarding trip, and I am very, very glad that I took it.

If you haven't read Skinner's Walden II, go read it. Now. I'm serious. I picked it up on accident, thinking it was Thoreau's Walden, and I'm glad I did. What a find!

Read it.

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