Photograph by James L. Amos / Getty

Remembering the Fossils I Never Knew

Words by Riley Black

Sitting among petrified pieces, science writer Riley Black attempts to find the words to grieve for an era long gone—and the dinosaurs she never got a chance to meet.

The cracked bone feels warm beneath my fingers: “Who were you?” I drop my pack and start looking for the rest of what was once a thigh bone that stood nearly as tall as I do and was wrapped in the flesh of an animal that would have considered me little more than a fuzzy, chattering mammal. There are pieces here and there, beaten by the sun and rounded down into cobbles that are slowly returning to the Earth from which the giant had once taken up the minerals that built their impressive skeleton.

 

I wish I could have seen them. I’m in the Late Jurassic Period, but only technically. The spot of hill I’m sitting on is just barely covered in a thin pâte of dry cheatgrass growing from the Morrison Formation, a series of gray, tan, and maroon rocks that pop out of the surface between Montana and Texas. I’m looking at remnants within a remnant, the wreck of 147 million years that life has taken root in—the claret cup cactus and juniper growing from the compressed and metamorphosed sediment that was once beneath the feet of dinosaurs.

 

The osteological hunk that caught my attention—a piece about the size of a soccer ball and as thick as my entire thigh—was once part of a sauropod dinosaur, the herbivorous long-necks that once lived in such numbers here that paleontologists are still in awe of how any ecosystem supported multi-ton vegetarians that munched their way through every day. I don’t know the species. If I had arrived at this spot in central Utah a century earlier, a millennium earlier, there probably would have been more. I would have had a chance at knowing my acquaintance’s name. As things are, I’ve come to watch the last act of this dinosaur, the slow scrape of wind, sun, and rain that erases even the most resilient piece of petrified bone.

 

I’ve spent a decade trying to find the right word for these emotions as I’ve wandered these deserts, stumbling across the bony frameworks of fish, wolves, dinosaurs, marine reptiles that could have gulped me down without fuss, and creatures so strange that they are only known by the arcane scientific terms held in the rolls of academic journals. The closest word in English is “bittersweet,” but that’s not quite it. After all, as a friend likes to remind me, I have lost nothing tangible. I didn’t live in the Triassic nor the Jurassic, the Pliocene nor the Pleistocene. I didn’t know them. I wasn’t there. How can I possibly miss what I never witnessed? Am I not, after all, reviving these creatures from their stony beds? Bring ‘em back petrified, Riley.

There is no arguing with grief. Sitting among the scattered chunks of femur, I miss the animal these degraded pieces once belonged to.

Riley Black

But there is no arguing with grief. Sitting among the scattered chunks of femur, I miss the animal these degraded pieces once belonged to. It’s not a matter of logic. I know that all species, sooner or later, become extinct. This dinosaur hatched, grew, ate, and breathed over 147 million years ago. Even if the city-size chunk of rock that ended the Age of Dinosaurs had missed Earth or the extinction of 66 million years ago had been altered and allowed non-avian dinosaurs to continue their endless summer, this animal lived over 80 million years before that. There was not even a sliver of a chance that I’d ever see this animal, not to mention that the continued survival of the “terrible lizards” would have meant that you, me, and everyone we know never would have existed.

 

And yet I still miss the dinosaurs, the saber-toothed cats, the weird Cambrian creatures with John Carpenter arrangements of eyes and legs. I’ve missed them ever since I first learned of them. It’s a casual bait-and-switch many of us encounter as children in classrooms and museum halls. “Look at all these amazing creatures. They are all gone now. No, they are never coming back.”  Wonder and loss are bound together leaving us with little choice but to accept what we can glean from tooth and claw.

 

The bones of Brontosaurus would never move again. I wanted them to. When I first visited the skeleton as a child, not even realizing that the bony reconstruction I was looking at was a composite of multiple skeletons, I could see it in my imagination: The huge reptile bobbing her head as she walked by a stand of conifers in the evening light, placidly looking for the next patch of horsetails to dine on. Perhaps, if I could learn more about those bones, I could better envision her in my mind. But she already taught me something that I had been shielded from.

 

There was a time when I considered myself fortunate that loss had only grazed my life. I mostly learned about death from fish that went belly up and anoles that stopped moving one day as I was growing up. I didn’t fully encounter the paralyzing bite of losing someone I cared about until well into adulthood. And when that moment came, it felt strangely familiar—the shock fading into what once was and would never be again. I couldn’t help but feel a little chagrin. Dinosaurs, the strange reptiles so often thought of as kid’s stuff that had led me into a career considering the long dead, had introduced me to grief before I even knew it.

I am both happy they are here and sad they are gone, unfortunate to have arrived on Earth so late and lucky to be just on time.

Riley Black

Such sharp and sudden absences are only part of the mix. I don’t walk into halls of reconstructed reptiles and start welling up. Not on most days, anyway. The sense of loss instead contributes to an emotional tension point, sadness, and joy wrapped together in bones of creatures who were far stranger than what even my most outlandish dreams can imagine.

 

The closest word I have for the feeling comes from a language not my own. I want to handle such a borrowed concept carefully. Hiraeth, in Welsh, is more than longing, nostalgia, or grief, but a fluid mix of all. It can refer to a place, time, or person you can never get back to, but it can drive deeper still, into the stone, to times that you were never present for in the first place. It’s a feeling that both bites and warms, taking you somewhere else for even just a moment – almost a flashback even if the destination only lives in your imagination. The feeling isn’t one you get over or wish to go away. No, you stoke it. What could be worse than forgetting what’s already gone?

 

I can’t say that the sense is a paleontological requirement. Fieldwork is often focused on the data – stratigraphic sections, geological samples, quarry maps, GPS coordinates, and other pieces of scientific paperwork. All important, all items on a checklist. But when I stumble across a jaw, a pile of bone fragments on the surface, a claw, I can’t help but speak to the bones. “Oh! Who are you? Is there more of you here?” It’s making a new acquaintance that opens up a conversation, perhaps as silly as trying to understand someone you bump into at a bar by a single finger or an incisor tooth. Still, the fossil record teaches us to be grateful with what we’ve been given. I am both happy they are here and sad they are gone, unfortunate to have arrived on Earth so late and lucky to be just on time.

 

Every ancient mammal tooth or fragment of dinosaur bone is a pivot point, life and death threaded together. Each one is what once was and yet still is, a piece of string that we can carefully hold in our fingers and start following back to a time we would have otherwise never known. It hurts that we can’t go back. My fondness can never be requited. All I can do is hold what’s left, the petrified pieces of an entire lost world, and keep playing my part in our one-sided conversation.

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