It’s a sad commentary on our relevance-obsessed and overcrowded society that the editorial Powers That Be at the National Geographic magazine probably didn’t hesitate for a moment before choosing the cover story for their May issue: the looming ecological crisis of mass-produced food supply. That article, by Jonathan Foley, is both fascinating and alarming … and of course it’s important, vitally important.
But once upon a time, in an earlier and more innocent age, those same Powers That Be would have chosen a different article in this issue to go on the cover: of course that article would be “Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs” by Peter Miller, a classic National Geographic wonder-fest about giant dinosaurs that once roamed the area of what is now the western United States, 77 million years ago when that region of the country was isolated by a huge shallow inland sea. That isolated land-mass is now called Laramidia, and as Miller writes, “During the 20 million years or so that it existed, Laramidia seems to have been a runaway dinosaur factory, cranking out large and small dinosaurs in a surprising diversity of species.”
The article describes some of the expeditions into Utah’s desert badlands undertaken by Scott Sampson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, expeditions that stumble across pristine dinosaur fossils ten times before lunch. The members of Sampson’s expedition sit by the fire at night and try to imagine that lost world of Laramidia, which was hot, humid, and profusely tropical. And in the face of the profusion of fossils they encounter, they also try to figure out the reasons for the vast variation among the specimens they find:
Something had isolated the dinosaurs of southern Laramidia from their relatives up north, the researchers figured. Left to itself, each community of animals had evolved differently, just as Darwin’s famous finches had done in the Galapagos, where they’d become new species after populating different islands. But Sampson and his colleagues were skeptical of the idea that a physical barrier, such as a mountain range or a large river, had kept the animals apart. Mountains may block the path of some animals, he said, but others are known to walk right over them: “They do it all the time.” As for rivers, “it’s hard to imagine that a river could last for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years,” Sampson said. “Sooner or later there will be periods of drought when rivers dry up.”
The stunning painting accompanying the article – a beautiful composition of textured greens by the great Raul Martin, showing both enormous exotic dinosaurs and the old familiar faces of turtles and crocodiles – would certainly have sealed the deal in those more innocent days; this article on the wonders of the loud and teeming swampland that was once America’s western end.
A grimmer and more responsible world, these days – how can big horned dinosaurs seem anything but whimsical alongside the specter of planet-wide food shortages?
Still, it’s a wonderful piece.