Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book Review: The Life of a Fossil Hunter

Fieldwork is one of the real pleasures for many paleontologists, as well as the source of endless headaches. The weather is nearly always hot, the fossils beneath concrete-hard sediment, and vehicles have a way of breaking down at inopportune times and places. But when you find that prize specimen. . .wow! A paleontologist's lifestyle is tough to explain - and I've found few books that really do the field justice.

The single best book on field paleontology, bar none, is a little gem by Charles H. Sternberg. The Life of a Fossil Hunter, published in 1909, is one of the few popular paleontology books that I've read cover-to-cover, multiple times. What is it that makes this such a pleasure to read and re-read?

In short, Sternberg's love of fossils comes through in every page. During his long and productive career, he collected everything from fossil leaves to synapsids to dinosaurs. Yet, it isn't just this interest in the past that fascinates me as a reader. Most revealing is the honest, unvarnished look at the field. One particularly gripping chapter discusses the ups-and-downs of an expedition to the Permian beds of Texas. Initial successes were followed by weeks of barren outcrop. Then, when all hope seemed to be lost, a spectacularly productive horizon was found, with specimen after specimen of Diplocaulus and other critters. Anyone who has worked in the field knows the sinking feeling caused by an unproductive horizon - and the joy upon finally finding something!

A major highlight of the book is its insight into the early days of fossil collecting in the American West. Edward Drinker Cope is prominent, and is humanized (and idolized) in Sternberg's telling. You learn of a man with a great sense of humor, bravery, and support for his collectors. You also see some incredibly risky (and stupid) tasks in the field. . .striking off across the badlands in the middle of a moonless night, for instance. Although some of the descriptions of interactions with Native Americans are rather racist by modern standards, the tales also convey an accurate depiction of the mood of the day among travelers and pioneers in those days. Fieldwork in the western US is rugged, but nowhere near the level that it was in the 1870s!

The book also excels in bringing the long-dead back to life. Although some of the prose (here and throughout the book) is rather old-fashioned, it still conveys the vivid imagination of the author. "Watch that ripple! It is caused by a shoal of mackerel scurrying in toward shallow water, in a mighty column five feet deep. They are flying for their lives, for they have seen behind them their most terrible enemy, a monster fish with a muzzle like a bulldog's. . ." [p. 59, describing Xiphactinus audax, a fish from the Western Interior Seaway] My only disappointment is that such reconstructions are scattered sparingly throughout the book, and largely in its opening half.

Finally, Sternberg's oddly modest pride in his accomplishments permeates the entire text. "I shall perish, but my fossils will last as long as the museums that have secured them." (p. 248) This was not a man who demanded first authorship on every paper (or even authorship), or naming rights, or any of the other privileges common in academic paleontology today. All he asked for was simple acknowledgment of his role in the collection, preparation, and preservation of the fossils. Most popular accounts of paleontology are written by the "big shots" - stories by the anonymous field collectors and preparators are usually lost in the shuffle. As a window into a vanished age of paleontology, a conversation with a famed paleontologist, and an unparalleled look at the joys and travails of fieldwork, The Life of a Fossil Hunter is certainly on my list for a third (and fourth!) read-through.

Read on-line or get a free PDF of The Life of a Fossil Hunter from Google Books.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Haven't read 'Life of a Fossil Hunter' yet, but I did read Sternberg's later 'Hunting Dinosaurs in the Badlands of the Red Deer River' earlier this summer. Excellent read, if a bit creepy and personal at times (day dreams of eating beached mosasaur carcasses with your long-dead daughter).