Monday, June 22, 2020

The Dinosaur Wars and Understanding Cause and Effect

            I've always been interested in cause and effect in my writing and life in general. For instance, during my years of hunting dinosaurs, I noticed a competition between American paleontologists that seemed pretty intense and wondered what caused it. After all, I'm not a professional bone-hunter in any sense, only a fellow who likes to dream about the past and the future, and is willing to get my hands dirty to get involved. After doing my due diligent research, I began to understand that paleontologists are competitive for the reasons most of us are. They need funding to do what they do, they want to influence others to think the way they do about their field of study, and they simply want to be appreciated for the hard work they accomplish in difficult conditions. But I think this competition may also be an echo of the so-called dinosaur wars in the American west in the late nineteenth century. That was when Dr. Edward Drinker Cope and Dr. Othneil Marsh, two of the most famous and influential dinosaur hunters of that age, started an unofficial war. But, as often happens in research, my study of that war led me in an unexpected direction, to unravel another war that was happening at the same time. This war marked the end of a way of life for tens of thousands of indigenous people, the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Crow, and several other smaller tribes known in general as the Plains Indians.
            Ironically, people from Europe were responsible for first creating and then destroying the civilization that took root in the plains of the American West. The Spanish inadvertently began the formation of this society by introducing horses to the Americas. When some of the horses escaped and made their way north from Mexico, various groups of indigenous natives, then hunter/gatherers and farmers, began to make use of them by following on horseback the vast buffalo herds that were then roaming central North America. This new ability to keep up with the herds provided enough consistent food and materials to support increasing numbers of people that ultimately formed into communities we now call tribes. Before long, these tribes formed a unique civilization of mobile and competing groups that depended on the ready availability of the American bison on a sea of grass with no obvious borders. These requirements were so precise and critical that any interference from the outside had a good chance of causing the entire civilization to come crashing down and that's what ultimately happened.
            After the Civil War, there came to the western plains an assortment of men from the east, not a few of them hooligans of the worst stripe with a familiarity with guns and a disposition to use them. The railroads were happy to hire them to lay their tracks across the plains and to bully anyone who got in their way which definitely included the odd nomadic people they encountered. From the perspective of these rough men, the Plains Indians were people who wandered aimlessly and mostly got in the way. From the perspective of the tribal leaders and young warriors, their lands were being invaded by gangsters who were inclined to indiscriminately kill the buffalo, steal their women, disrespect their leaders, and damage their way of life. Alcohol, vast quantities of which was brought in and made readily available to hooligans and warriors alike, didn't help. Bullets and arrows started to fly.
            Behind the first bands of lawless adventurers came men with families who had no wish to fight with anybody. They only wanted to build homes, string fences, raise cattle, and put the land under the plow. Their efforts, seemingly benign, proved to be far worse for the Indians than the hooligans. Barbed wire kept the buffalo herds from moving on to fresh grass and caused the animals to go hungry. The introduction of cattle brought disease. Starving and sick buffalo equaled starving and sick tribespeople who, in reprisal, stole from the farmers and ranchers or attacked their settlements. Reluctantly responding after repeated demands from the settlers for help, the federal government finally dispatched the army to keep the peace. Army generals without any specific orders except stop the turmoil surveyed the situation and decided what needed to be done to get control of the situation was force the various tribes into small, isolated areas, wipe out the buffalo herds, and put the warriors afoot by taking away their horses. Before long, the battles and massacres known as the Indian Wars began and raged across the places where, coincidentally, amazing dinosaur bones were just being found.
            At first, it was the adventurers looking to make some easy saloon money who packed up old bones and shipped them east for anybody who would pay for them. Without knowledge of what they were doing, most of these samples arrived in poor condition but they were enough to intrigue both government and private scientific and educational establishments as to the potential of making some exciting and important discoveries. Heedless of the battles being waged between the Army and the tribes, they dispatched scientists with teams of men to secure the bone beds and dig up the best ones they could find.
            Among the bone-hunters heading to the plains was a young and wealthy paleontologist, the aforementioned Edward Drinker Cope. Cope was brilliant but unendowed with virtually anything in the way of social graces. He was slovenly, dominated every conversation without letting anyone get in a word, and seemed to lack the slightest ability to relate to another human being. Ostensibly representing the United States Geological Survey but accompanied by his own hired men who quickly learned he was in no way their friend but their boss, Cope roamed across the western battlefields passing without care or comment wandering bands of stunned and hungry tribespeople, huge mounds of rotting buffalo carcasses left by buffalo hunters or felled by disease, and a reckless United States Cavalry galloping around and chasing any Indians they saw.
            Cope's collecting in the Bridger Basin of Wyoming brought him into contact with another paleontologist, one Dr. Othneil Marsh of Yale University who considered that area his own private hunting ground. Marsh was an arrogant skinflint who often forgot to pay the salaries of his assistants and had the reputation of taking credit for discoveries made by others. To Marsh, Cope was an arrogant upstart and, after they met and Cope did not give Marsh his due deference, which was actually impossible considering the kind of man he was, their private war began.
            To marginalize Cope who did not have as much money or backing, Marsh flooded the bone hunting grounds with squads of diggers and collectors who filled hundreds of freight cars with bones that were shipped to New Haven for his exclusive study. He also traveled to the West to see things for himself. As if in a self-contained protective bubble, Marsh ignored the running battles replete with tootling bugles and war cries and wailing women and crying children and went wherever he pleased. His crews dug huge quarries that turned into mud holes where buffalo, deer, and elk got stuck and drowned, and dynamited sites coveted by the tribes for their seasonal villages. The Indians simply had no idea what to make of either Cope or Marsh except they were both probably crazy and bad luck to kill so they left them alone.
            While the bloody battles (which included Custer's Last Stand) continued between the cavalrymen and warriors, Cope and Marsh kept fighting their private war. When their men encountered each other in saloons, they fought with bare knuckles. In the field, they took pot shots at each other. When they got the opportunity, they jumped the others' claims and even dynamited the others' digs. On the academic front, the two paleontologists named new dinosaur species willy-nilly often based on the smallest of fragments, and generally did their best to discredit one another. In the process, Cope and Marsh caused not only damage to Cretaceous and Jurassic fossil beds but dinosaur science itself by creating a tortured mess of overlapping and, in some cases, nonexistent species that would take decades for modern paleontologists to unravel which still hasn’t completely been accomplished if it ever will.
            Eventually, karmic forces being what they are, Cope would die alone in a house filled with old bones while Marsh, broke and bitter, would pass on a couple of years later. Unfortunately, although they were gone, their battles had set the example amongst American fossil-hunters as to who named what, who was most deserving of grants, and also who among them would rise to the top of the paleontology heap. Although not as intense, this competition continues to this day.
          To be a good novelist or memoirist, a writer much try to understand everything that causes people to do what they do, where their influences come from, and the spirits that flit around them, mostly unseen but surely felt. Those writers who don't peel back life to understand what's underneath it, or research the connections between their characters and the past of the places where they live, tend to write stories that readers sense are missing something.
           When I decided to write a novel about modern paleontology, the result was my book titled The Dinosaur Hunter.  In that story of intrigue and murder, the paleontologist that shows up on a remote Montana ranch looking for bones was undoubtedly influenced by the history of Cope and Marsh, a history that I left out of the novel since there was no place for it. Still, I knew about it and it changed the way I saw that fellow and wrote about him and what he did which I think made him feel more real to my readers. Hemingway was a proponent of this, by the way, in that he said (and I'm paraphrasing) it isn't necessary to include everything you know in a story because the reader will sense that you know it. The land itself, a harsh, remote place that holds the tough remnant of the people who followed the gunslingers, also holds the ghosts of the nomadic tribes of lost dreams and crushed souls. Such is history, such is life, such are the connections between us all for good or bad that the writer must strive to discover.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

How I Became A Dinosaur Hunter

Little Sonny Hickam (him being me as a boy), about the time
 he started sifting through Coalwood's fossils

           When I was a boy in the little mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, I became aware of a huge dump of rejected coal that was also the repository of vast quantities of fossils. Fascinated and mystified, I often went there to peel away slabs of coal to reveal strange, tropical plants. Coalwood was a place where there were heavy snows in the winter so that didn't make a lot of sense. It was as if these remnants were from a different world and, in a way, they were.
            The era that produced the fossils inside the coal that my boyhood hands opened like pages of an ancient book was called the Carboniferous Period, a weird but extremely productive time for life on Earth. Because the world was warmer and wetter and its atmosphere contained much more carbon dioxide than today, our planet was essentially a greenhouse where plants grew without restraint. This went on for about six hundred thousand centuries until plants completely engulfed what was then a single continent we now refer to as Pangea. From space, had there been anyone up there to observe our world, it would have looked like a huge bright green lily pad floating on a dazzling blue sea, an ocean that was filled to the brim with creatures from single cells to complex organisms, most of them feeding on the detritus washed into it from the overgrown land.

Carboniferous Era - Hot, muggy, lots of oxygen and carbon dioxide
to help plants grow and ready, given 300 million years or so, to turn itself into coal

           So much carbon was ingested by the plants that flooded across the planet, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere rose to almost twice what it is today. The fires caused by lightning must have been spectacular. Eventually, huge mats of dead plants and ashes clogged all the major waterways. This phenomenon created vast deserts which caused the extinction of many species of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects. It was a great incongruity. An overabundance of life made remorseless death spread across the Earth. It also eventually created the layers of coal that lay in thick seams beneath my home town.
            As my boyhood self pondered the impressions of these old plants, I often wondered if I would find a dinosaur. Later in my education, I would learn that the Carboniferous age occurred well before they existed but the old dump had still started something in my head, an interest in all that had come before and how life had changed over time. After I became a scuba diver, this curiosity led me to explore caverns in Florida where I'd been told bones from extinct cave bears existed and, in a deep dive down a funnel of rock, I found a complete skeleton. When I ventured off to Honduras to map the reefs on the "lost" island of Guanaja, I climbed into its mountainous terrain and found pottery shards and decorative items created by the Payan people (akin to the Maya). These discoveries, along with books about ages past, somewhat satisfied my itch to understand prehistory but I never forgot about those days when I sat on a coal dump and wished I could find a dinosaur.

This book changed the way millions looked at dinosaurs AND Paleontology

            When the novel Jurassic Park was published, like millions of other readers, I devoured Michael Crichton's story. Although it was an obviously fictional tale, it included information about the new science behind dinosaurs that theorized they were much more active and a lot different than we had been led to believe. After the movie came out and I saw the actor-paleontologists digging them up, I started thinking again how amazing it would be to find a dinosaur fossil although I had no real idea how to do it and, my writing career just taking off, was too busy to take the time to find out. It was just something I'd always kind of wanted to do but probably never would.

Me reading Jurassic Park. Oh, wait, that's Elon reading my
novel The Dinosaur Hunter. Never mind...
           Enter the force I think of as Kismet, the strange and curious destiny that seems to control my life. To my way of thinking, this ancient proposition is something greater than having a predetermined fate. It is a power outside of ourselves that somehow recognizes that which we need and opens a path that we may choose to follow or not. If chosen, it allows a life to not just be led but savored. The trick, however, is recognizing Kismet when it arrives and then having the will to follow it along passages that may not be easy and may, in fact, be very hard. Such was the path that opened for me to become a dinosaur hunter.
            My connection to the film Jurassic Park was that it happened to star Laura Dern who played the part of a paleontologist. A few years later, Ms. Dern also played my teacher Miss Riley in October Sky, the film based on my memoir Rocket Boys. When she and I attended the Venice Film Festival for the showing of October Sky, we talked mostly about Jurassic Park. She told me she loved working on the movie but confessed she hadn't actually visited a real dinosaur dig and didn't recall meeting any real dinosaur hunters or paleontologists. She couldn't help me find a dinosaur fossil but she said, "You know what, Homer, I bet you'll find one if that's what you want to do. Don't ask me how I know, I just do."

October Sky movie poster - That's
Laura Dern on the right. On the left is
that other guy as older Sonny (Homer) when he no longer played on a coal dump

to look for fossils but launched rockets, instead
            And so it was because of Laura Dern in association with that Kismet thing that found me and my wife Linda one bright California morning sitting in the kitchen of Joe Johnston, the director of October Sky who, in a lull in the conversation, said to me, "Homer, I was talking to Laura Dern the other day and she said she thought you might be interested in what I've been doing."
            Joe left the kitchen and soon returned with a cigar box filled with rough yellowish fragments, the biggest of which was perhaps only several inches wide. "Dinosaur bones," he said and went on to explain that he'd picked them up while scouting locations for his next movie which was to be the third in the Jurassic Park series titled, appropriately enough, Jurassic Park III.

Dinosaur bone chips called "Float" like Joe Johnston showed me
           At the sight of the dusty bone chunks within the cigar box, I found myself unaccountably thrilled. "Where did you find these?" I asked, taking the box from Joe.
            "Montana," Joe said and reached to take the bones back.
            I pulled the box away and my interrogation continued. "Where in Montana?"
            "Well, we start in Bozeman but you probably don't know where that is."
            "Oh, but I do!" It was even the truth. My wife Linda and I had friends in Bozeman, a fine couple named Frank and Naomi Stewart. We regularly visited them every winter to go skiing. All of a sudden, I was that boy sitting on a coal dump peeling open slabs of coal looking for dinosaurs. "Joe, the next time you go out there, can I go with you?"
            Joe smiled. "Sorry, Homer. We're done scouting."
            I couldn't let it go. "If you'll tell me where you were," I proposed, "maybe I could go there and look around?"
            "You can't just pick up dinosaur bones,” Joe explained. He was now frowning. “You have to go with somebody who knows what he's doing."
            "Who did you go with?" I asked.
            "Dr. Horner is his name," Joe answered, "but he doesn't let just anybody go out with him. I only got to go because we hired him to be an advisor on our movie."
            The bones in the box had cast a spell over me. "But if you asked him,” I pressed, “do you think he'd let me go with him?"
            This time, Joe managed to wrest the box out of my hands and carried it back from whence it came. While he was out of the room, Linda brought up some facts for my due consideration. "Homer, you can't go to Montana. You've got speeches scheduled nearly every week for the rest of the year and have you forgotten your book deadline?"
            I hadn't forgotten. After all, I was already on chapter two and I had months (well, ok, one) to get it done but I could already feel that I not only wanted to but needed to take that Coalwood boy I once was and find, as I always wanted to do whether I knew it or not, dinosaur bones in Montana.
            When Joe returned, I kept pressing him until he said that maybe he could find out if I could go with Dr. Horner at some unspecified time in the undetermined future. Recognizing that was as far as he was willing to go, I finally fell silent about the matter and our visit was done. On the way to the airport, I reflected that maybe I was just being silly. What was the big deal about finding dinosaurs, anyway? When we got home, I got back to working on the book manuscript but, when I looked up from my computer or was out running, I still couldn’t shake the idea of going out to Montana and looking for ancient bones. To that end, I kept sending Joe occasional emails, asking him to please ask Dr. Horner on my behalf. He never answered until, to my astonishment, he surprised me with a call. Dr. Horner had given me permission to visit his summer camp near Fort Peck Reservoir in northeast Montana.
            My response, after a thank you, was, "How about Frank?"
            "Frank Stewart, my buddy in Bozeman."
            "Just you, Homer," he said and, after claiming he was busy which might have even been true, Joe Johnston hung up.
            I sat back in my chair and gave it some thought.  After a few moments of mental gymnastics, I decided surely it would be OK to bring Frank along. If there was any objection, I could explain him away as my driver or something. A preacher back in Coalwood used to say, "When a door closes, the good Lord will open another one."  My mom used to add, "If that doesn't work, Sonny boy, knock out a window and crawl through it."

The Dino Boys Caricature by
the great Don Howard

Frank and Homer - Dino Hunters

        Since I was my mother's son, I subsequently dialed Frank's number.  "Would you like to go with me to hunt dinosaurs?" I asked as soon as he picked up.
            "Sure," Frank said, and then, after a pause, "What was the question again?"
            And that's pretty much how Frank Stewart and I became true dinosaur hunters and also when I began my somewhat obsessive quest to find for myself not only dinosaur bones but, at the behest of one of the greatest paleontologists of them all, the remains of a young version of that ancient and entirely glorious but ultimately tragic creature known formally and majestically as Tyrannosaurus rex.
The Day I found my little T