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.