When I was eight, I made a grand announcement. I was going to be a paleontologist.
It struck my parents as an odd declaration. A paleontologist! How scientific! How smart! With my future vocation decided, everything would be milk and honey! Corey wants to be a paleontologist! Hooray! According to family legend, my mother supported my decision whole heartedly. She welcomed the notion and was ready to enroll me into the best college or university with a Paleontology program.
Then, she ran to a dictionary and looked up the word “Palentology.”
For four or five years, I was convinced that paleontology, and archaeology as a whole, was a grand and noble vocation. I loved dinosaurs. I even read adult non-fiction books on digging bones and dinosaur origins and other things I didn’t fully understand, but still enjoyed.
And then, as is to be expected, I realized how boring paleontology would be. I mean, it’s hot. Dusty. You wade through rocks, dusting them. You search for years to find dinosaur bones. You discover them, and they’re taken away to a museum.
At which point you begin again.
South Dakota, at times, seems like fossil central. We have mammoth pits and full skeleton deposits and about seventeen billion arrowheads. We’re a depository for already used calcium, with bones piling up around the state like dust bunnies.
This weekend, these bones (and a South Dakota Humanities Council board meeting) led me to experience faith.
Sorry. Let me rephrase that. Led me to experience Faith, SD.
Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found, was discovered outside of Faith, a small town in the middle of a remote but beautiful part of the state. The area is covered in bluffs and hills, and the only reason it’s not more widely known is because of its distance from any other form of civilization.
Even though Sue was discovered near Faith, the population and proximity to others makes Faith an odd place to hold a grand museum exhibit. Which is why Faith had never hosted the dinosaur that nearly made it famous. At least, until now.
Currently, in the middle of Faith’s modern-looking convention/activity center, which in and of itself is a vast contrast to the rest of Faith’s small-town charm, stands a full Tyrannosaurus skeleton. Illuminated red and backed by a soundtrack of roars, Sue (a replica – the real dinosaur is on display in Chicago) hovers over all who enter. It’s daunting. And when you imagine it with flesh and muscle and skin, it’s horrifying.
It was also fun. Sue is archaeology personified – the discovery of ancient cultures and life lying just below the surface of the Earth we now know. Seeing it firsthand is a little sobering, bringing to mind the immensity of life and the span of known existence. All we know of Sue is what we’ve discovered. We know she was a grizzled veteran, with bone scars and broken ribs documenting a life of hardship. We also know that she was fiercely protective: Sue is thought to have died protecting her young, with her jaw ripped from her skull and baby Tyrannosaurs found close by.
Most of all, though, it brought me back to my childhood. I was transported to a trip I took to the dinosaur museum in Pocatello, Idaho, where I saw firsthand the dinosaurs that were, at the time, filling my mind with wonder. I met a true paleontologist that day, and was absolutely sure that I was going to have a long and fruitful life digging up dinosaurs, living out a childhood fantasy.
Two decades later, I couldn’t help but stare down the hollowed out skeleton, through the gaping mouth, bounding down each rib, sliding up and off of its tail, and think of what people will find of me when I’m gone. What life record will I leave? What bones will people dig up. What culture will I help influence with the artifacts I leave behind?
And of course, I thought of the life that no fossil record could capture. That I was once ready to dig up artifacts on my own. Walking through the lives of giants. Discovering yet another life cut short by natural progress. Piecing together the records of those who came millions of years before me.