I blame the dinosaurs.
When I was young, I set my heart on becoming an archaeologist. If I had known better, I would have aspired to paleontologist because the desire sprang from a grade school field trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The dinosaur exhibit near the entrance left a deep impression on me, as did the fieldwork demonstrations where I meticulously brushed away sand and dirt to reveal bits of bone, teeth, and other relics from the past.
Of course those things were all orchestrated to inspire young children like me. If my deep—though temporary—passion for archaeology was any indication, it worked.
What is it about children and dinosaurs?
In his Atlantic essay “The Artists Who Paint Dinosaurs,” Ross Andersen theorizes about the childhood mystique of dinosaurs. Their “size, their ferocity, the number and sharpness of their teeth”—certainly that must be part of it. But there’s more to it than that, Andersen suggests. We have such little information about the dinosaurs, so few bones, really. Whatever we choose to believe about these ancient beasts, most of it is a result of our imaginations.
“A dinosaur is a muse, then. To contemplate a dinosaur is to slip from the present, to travel in time, deep into the past, to see the Earth as it was tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years ago, when the continents were nearer, when the forests and oceans teemed with strange plants and creatures. In childhood, the mind is alive to the thrill of that perspective shift.
I imagine the college student who recently made a significant fossil discovery in the New Mexico desert brushed up against that same thrill of digging into the past—probably from the time she was young. Carissa Raymond, now a paleontology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will go down in history for uncovering the teeth of a beaver-like animal that lived 65 million years ago. It was her first fossil-hunting trip.
“I walked over this little hill, and I saw this row of black teeth just sticking up. And I thought, wow, I’m so glad I finally found something. I didn’t know it was something so important,” she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep during an interview for Morning Edition.
Some adults still find digging into the past thrilling too. Especially “paleo artists” who use a little science and a lot of imagination to recreate dinosaurs in their original settings. Andersen writes about one such illustrator, Simon Stålenhag, whose 28 digital paintings reside in Sweden’s Natural History Museum.
“I asked if there was anything I could help with. I told them I didn’t care what it was for. I just wanted to paint dinosaurs,” Stålenhag told Andersen.
Most of us will never find a dinosaur bone or paint a dinosaur in his natural environment, but when pushed, we still crave the mystery and danger only our imaginations can create, like going back in time to face dinosaurs. It’s easier than it sounds actually—time travel. In fact, comedienne Amy Poehler, in her memoir Yes Please, says she travels in time quite often.
“Time moves too slow or too fast. But I know a secret,” she writes. “You can control time. You can stop it or stretch it or loop it around. You can travel back and forth by living in the moment and paying attention.”
For Poehler, time travel happens when we pay attention to the everyday things that happen in our lives and later are given the chance to recall those details again.
Several years ago, a young Poehler and her comedy troupe, the Upright Citizens Brigade, opened a concert for American singer/songwriter Patti Smith in the Netherlands. Poehler recounts how they met again, this time by chance outside the bathroom at a New York restaurant, and was stunned that Smith remembered their first encounter.
“Patti Smith knew who I was. I shook her hand. Suddenly, I was transported back to Amsterdam. Time stretched and bent and I went for a ride. I dare anyone to prove that I didn’t,” Poehler writes.
Of course, it’s the same Patti Smith who only recently released a memoir, M Train. Writer Anwen Crawford says in an October New Yorker article:
“Patti Smith is a person for whom the material world veils—flimsily—a set of more lasting, luminous truths. These are the truths of art, genius, fate; she has no truck with the irony or flippancy endemic to the contemporary perspective. She is an unreconstructed Romantic, which makes reading her books rather like time travel.
When I was a child, I thought a lot about shedding the constraints of “right now” every time I watched the vortex created by the tub drain as I let out the water after my baths. To my little girl imagination, the swirl created there was just like the portal in the waterfall that swept the Marshall family into the world of dinosaurs in my favorite television show, Land of the Lost. Though my size would have made it impossible for me to get sucked down the drain, I wasn’t one to get hung up on impossibilities. For all I knew, there were dinosaurs waiting for me on the other side of that little metal screen.
Eventually, I stopped worrying about the bathtub drain. Land of the Lost was cancelled after three seasons, and as far I know, the Marshall family never made it home. They dropped completely off my radar. I caught up with the dinosaurs again on that school field trip, but it took only the two years of middle school and the self-consciousness of puberty before “right now” became the most important thing. By then I was taking showers. I rarely looked down at the drain anymore.
But now years later, I have found new importance in being present in the now. Too often I am tempted toward the past, but not the one our imagination creates, not the one where dinosaurs live. Rather, I am prone to look at the swirling water in the bathtub and feel like life itself has been wasted, like all my good intentions are going down the drain. But if I am so distracted by those earlier years that I fail to experience what’s going on right in front of me, I’ll get stuck in the past. I’ll miss the portal of my presence and attention that allows me to transcend time in both directions.
Recently, we have seen a new interest in dinosaurs with the return of the Jurassic Park franchise and Walking with the Dinosaurs. We just can’t stop wondering what it would be like to live with these giant reptiles. Whether we go back in time to them or we bring them through time to us through preserved DNA, we just can’t let the dinosaurs go. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Poehler says her own intra-chronological jaunts, however real or not, have taught her a very important life lesson: that she is always just where she needs to be. More than anything, I think that’s what dinosaurs teach us, too. The fact they they—with their size, their ferocity, and the number and sharpness of their teeth—are not here now and I am. Makes me think I am right where I need to be, too.
*Featured Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute Flickr Archive