Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
An Ecology of Time
Robert King has published five chapbooks of poetry. The most recent, What It Was Like, appeared from Small Poetry Press in 2003. His creative nonfiction book about North Dakota, Stepping Twice into the River, was published by Colorado University Press in 2005. He currently writes and lectures at the University of Northern Colorado. Read other work by Robert King published in Weber Studies: Vol. 16.1 (essay), Vol. 18.1 (poetry), and Vol. 20.3 (essay).
A few years ago, hottest day of the summer, I dropped on my knees as if I were praying to the earth, a bead of sweat falling from my forehead onto the white glare of a Pliocene streambed, a spot of human moisture darkening the sand of two and a half million years ago. I watched the one moment it took to disappear, then began slicing a trowel across the almost unimaginable past. Ecology usually studies, and for good reason, relationships between organisms and environments in the same time frame, its usual vocabulary a matter of differences in space: range, patch, corridor, border, intersection. It will therefore be unusual, perhaps impossible, to imagine a study of relationships occurring within the same space but in different periods of time. Nevertheless, I often feel something exactly like that.
I felt it in a castle once, descending from Spanish tower to Moorish foundation to the pit of a Roman bath. I felt it a few weeks ago in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square, which had been a center of American bohemianism, which had been a neighborhood of the high culture described by Wharton and James, which had been a potter’s field for thousands, most of them yellow fever victims, buried below today’s pavement and grassy park.
And I felt it in Nebraska, not only visiting historic monuments or following the Platte River Road, but simply walking across a skim of wind-blown dust, beneath which lay the patterns of glacier and river-wash, beneath which lay the forms of ancient life. There are 3,000 elephant skeletons, the estimate goes, beneath every square mile of Nebraska, the odds one in ten I had one under my house.
Such facts, such feelings, help us know something about where we stand—our relationships, in this case, not to contiguous space, but to an almost eternal time. The layers of history and pre-history below us give meaning to where we stand, to where we go, and to what we leave behind. At least, I think they do. And I think that’s why I went to Ashfall.
That hot Monday afternoon two summers ago, I took my place with half a dozen other amateurs inside a rectangle of cleared dirt and cut my trowel across the surface of two and a half million years minus a couple of millimeters, the sand slightly moist, exposed to the sun the first time in eons, then quickly drying.
Mike Voorhies, the paleontologist in charge at Ashfall State Park in northern Nebraska, and the discoverer of the site, had described the activity: "We’ll be troweling and dry-screening loose, sandy matrix in full sun." These are often called "digs," but it’s not digging. The earth—the matrix—is removed horizontally, a scrape at a time, in order to come upon specimens from above. It is then hauled in buckets to tables of quarter-inch screen to be sifted, the gravely remains washed and examined later for smaller specimens.
The treasure here, of course, is the ash-bed itself, thirty yards downhill at the Rhino Barn, "a classic locality in vertebrate paleontology," absolutely dramatic. A volcanic eruption to the west ten million years ago—the Miocene—brought ash over a Nebraska waterhole and preserved almost one moment in time, a few weeks, months, of death caused by inhaling the sharp-grained ash, in sorted layers, birds and turtles first and on the bottom, smaller horses and camels, finally rhinoceroses, death in the middle of life, grass seeds in teeth, a fossil fetus in a fossil womb.
In contrast, uphill about 8 million years later, we were working a bed formed by broad streams from the rising and eroding Rocky Mountains, rivers flowing generally to the northwest, later blocked by glaciers to turn south, that familiar curve of the Platte that starts down near Fremont.
So here were two aspects of paleontology: the frozen moment versus the stream of time. I troweled away at sand collected over eons in unknown measure, this centimeter a single year’s flood deposit or, perhaps, the thin remnants of several millennia.
This both mattered and did not matter, I thought. Where I knelt was not unique—it was nature as usual and all over, clay, sand, and silt at the mercy of air, water, and gravity, nature with its grand disregard for death, scattering the remnants at random. But I still felt an excitement at touching what had never been humanly touched before, and there was something sacred about even sand, its swirls that ancient.
It was, of course, a group activity, and I met the group, most having worked here in other years: Jan from Norfolk; Norma from Winside; Lynn, a jeweler from O’Neill; "Bud" who drove up sometimes while bird-watching and helped out a few hours; and, for a couple of days, a retired psychology professor.
Most chatted back and forth—they knew each other after all, but without that social connection I tended to work quietly and, I thought, industriously. Some used the trowel to scoop sand into the bucket—sometimes suspended in mid-air until a conversation had reached a natural pause, but I tended to attack the matrix with a fierce precision, troweling and piling it up until I could use a shovel to fill the bucket.
After dumping it on the screen, I’d rub it back and forth, the pile slowly diminishing as it separated itself, a silky flour piling in a pyramid underneath, tiny gravel beginning to rattle around on top. Sometimes I found something, part of a bone, I couldn’t tell, and I’d drop it in a bottle for later identification.
It got hotter—I saw why Mike had included "in full sun" in his description—and I kept sweating into the sanctuary of lost time, and it kept evaporating. People took breaks in pairs or singles at various times, and when I discovered they sold bottles of cold water at the Visitor Center, I bought two at a time.
I tried to imagine Mike’s excitement as he moved step by step toward his final discovery. Growing up in nearby Orchard, he’d come back as a paleontologist, collecting in these hills for several years. An unusually heavy rain had eroded a side of Mr. Colson’s cornfield, and Mike found a complete jaw of a young rhino sticking out. His thrill was to find both upper and lower jaw, a "find" indeed. Then he uncovered the neck. Then he uncovered the spine. Whenever he talks about it, he’s reminded of the lines, "The head bone connected to the neck bone." How excited was he? He admits that it took several weeks to guess at what was there, and two years to truly discover the nature of the dig—it required grading and shoveling off the top and a National Geographic grant—so it was a gradual excitement. If it would have happened all at once, he figures, he’d have had a heart-attack.
But that was downhill. Uphill, by the middle of the first afternoon, we’d cleared a 20 x 20 foot area, and others had found an elephant rib, a camel tooth, two ball-joints from elephants, another rib, another tooth, all perched on top of a platform of matrix. When you found something, you exposed it just enough, then moved a few inches away to continue troweling down. When you found something.
I’d found nothing except unidentified bits in the screen, and was trying to decide if that mattered. Some variety of hope seemed to be a prerequisite for doing this in the first place, but complaints seemed out of order. My companions were all good sports. Of course, most of them had found something.
About 3:30, a little while after the heat became intolerable, we moved up to the picnic shelter, examining the gravelly remains and using wax-tipped sticks to pick up any tidbit to store in bottles for other experts to catalogue—vertebrae of snakes or small rodents, turtle teeth, amazing intricacies hidden in the blankness of the matrix.
End of the day, feeling in my legs, back and arms the repetitions of bending over and troweling or standing up and screening, I drove the few miles to my campsite by the marshy end of Grove Lake. I felt blasted by the sun, the day’s heat a physical force, and stood, cooking stew, as far away from the Coleman stove as possible.
Later, almost dark, a raspy chorus of cicadas in the background, I sat down, notebook out and a shot of whiskey in a plastic camp-cup, with something to write, an artist’s statement a small magazine wanted to use with a poem of mine.
It involved visiting Fort Laramie, standing beside a display teepee, hearing the whistle of a train following the North Platte in the distance, and watching that year’s cottonwood seeds drift past. Another example of time piled up on itself in one place, it now occurred to me: old cottonwood and ancient river, teepee and fort and railroad, modern little me, old cottonwood and ancient river.
I remembered an Emerson quote, and this sentence tumbled out onto the page: "I probably don’t agree with Emerson that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ but I seem to have lived my life that way."
It sounded good. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but there was a surprise in the phrasing—I’ve lived my life that way?—that intrigued me. The natural facts of cicadas buzzed and pulsed in the twilight while I had a second whiskey and worried that Emerson probably had his spiritual facts lined up before he discovered them in nature, the world as a moral mirror, a credo difficult to believe, yet almost irresistible.
At 9:25, all the cicadas, and I mean at once, fell silent, and I took that as a sign and crawled into my tent. When I shut my eyes in the thick heat, I was back in the Pliocene sandbed, every detail of edge and bucket, sand and bone, visually clear because I’d stared at it so long. Then I thought about Emerson—tried to think—fell asleep.
The next morning, 90 degrees already, my knees a little sore—the experienced volunteers brought foam-rubber pads—I troweled and screened and troweled and screened and lost track of time until my blade made a little clink, and I thrilled at the uncovering of a huge tooth. Mike quickly named it, lower molar of a zebra, scientific name Equus Idahoensis—that is, a member of the horse family first identified in Idaho by John Merriam in 1918, but I’d learn that later.
I stayed excited and periodically glanced back the rest of the day. Once I took a magnifying glass and studied—no, that would imply I knew something—I wondered at the intricate folds of worn enamel. I tried to imagine its owner alive, a vigorously muscled and stocky body, powerful legs, grazing slowly here. I then realized again I was in a current, everything here coming from somewhere else. Later, I watched with an amateur’s pride as Mike numbered the tooth with ink and applied preservative: "3082 dash 99," which meant it was the three thousandth and eighty second specimen found in 1999.
Then I went back to troweling, bucketing, screening. Someone found another Idahoensis tooth, could have belonged to "mine," not necessarily. We troweled, hauled buckets, screened. It was hot. Someone found a camel leg bone. The afternoon passed. As we left, I looked back, trying to imagine water moving around the bed these bones were caught in. On one hand, it was a chaotic graveyard and all we studied was death and its mostly unknowable accidents. On the other, we were learning the evidence of life.
On the way back to camp, I visited a nearby rural cemetery, "Pleasant Valley," walked past Rogman, Ziegenbein, Hering, Meisner, and stopped in the long uncut grass at the stone of Joseph Miller, died 1885, his life numbered—as was the habit then—at 67 years, three months, five days, the addition of single days always poignant to me. And, underneath that:
Farewell dear husband, father.
In thy bright home be free.
Thou can’st not come to us
But we must come to thee.
I drove into Orchard, still half-thinking of pioneer life and death and stopped at the J&B Lounge for a beer, one citizen telling another that a nearby town was just a bedroom community for Neligh. "You know, a widow dies, they sell the house, it’s bought by someone who works out of town," he shrugged.
"Oh yeah," the other replied. "Only a few of the old originals left." It took me a second to realize he meant people.
A young worker looked up from his newspaper at the barmaid. "Hey, Donna, here’s where Christensen died," he said.
"Yeah, cancer," she replied.
"Ah," he nodded, about as wisely as we can.
Let me condense the time. I found nothing else that week and left with only two rolls of film, all the photos blurry abstractions because I’d forgotten to put my glasses on when I took them. But one tooth had done its job, and I was going back. That winter I read Kurten’s Age of Mammals, skimmed an early history of Antelope Country, and stared at pages in MacFadden’s Fossil Horses: Systematics, Paleobiology, and Evolution of the Family Equidae.
Equids during the Miocene—those buried in the white ash fall—had entered upon a great phase of evolution and diversification, splitting into two main branches, the woodland horses browsing with low-crowned teeth and the plains horses, including Idahoensis grazing with high-crowned teeth.
After the unstable Miocene, volcanic outbreaks in the west, and the further uplift and erosion of the Rockies, which Kurten calls an epoch of revolution, came the Pliocene, an epoch of climax, a serene interval he visualizes in general as "a wide grassy plain under a strong sun populated by great herds of horses, mastodonts, and antelopes."
Reading, I discovered a major misconception I’d taken from old museum displays and textbooks, a singular line of progress from ancestor to descendant, "orthogenesis." Few scientists today consider evolution an orderly march toward some perfection.
For one thing, the scene is richer, different "stages"—if you even wanted to call them that—existing at the same time. Budianksy’s The Nature of Horses claims there have been as many as thirteen genera of horses at one time, some larger or smaller, more modern or primitive, one-toed and three, low-crowned and high.
Idahoensis, I learn again, I’d forgotten, was not the ancestor of my grand-daughter’s horse, "Peaches." There was only one group among the high-crowned grazers, the Pliohippus, in which the sidetoes finally disappeared, so one-toed modern horses are descendants of only this one line. The remnant of Idahoensis is Grevy’s Zebra, now occupying a little patch of eastern Africa, stocky and striped, blinking in the sun.
Not a grand parade, evolution turns out to be a push for survival in the short run, the long run just an accumulation of lucky guesses. And it’s not a matter of being adaptive, Budiansky reminds me. "Most extinct species had the misfortune of being supremely adapted to a niche that did not last."
So the simple diagram is inaccurate; and the simple statement is problematic as well.
MacFadden says a sentence like, "Horses evolved high-crowned teeth as a response to eating grasses" is—all right—true, but an oversimplification that leads to problems. Likewise, the concept of parsimony—that one should take the simplest, most economical way to reconstruct development—is fine, he says, but one should remember that may not be how it actually happened. At all.
"In natural systems," he says, "all existing parameters and factors are involved and interrelated," and although this seems only to say the natural world is complex, I take the phrase apart, making it my catechism of nature. "What parameters and factors are involved?" the priest asks. "All factors," I answer. "And how are they involved?" he asks. And I answer, "They are all interrelated."
The next summer, another Monday in July, I drive through another history, this time closer to the surface, coming into Antelope County at Tilden, near the county’s first land-claim—Crandall Hopkins in 1868, his wife and twelve children, 25 miles from a neighbor, 30 from a store, 75 from a mill, 100 from a railroad. By 1919, it had a population of 1000, although it’s 895 today—the loss less than one a year. I drive past two stores, Johnson’s Shur-Save and Bud’s Thrift-Way, the library and the funeral home.
Highway 275 follows the Elkhorn River, these settlements a matter of immigration pushing upstream and branching along the creeks, and the next is Oakdale, the county’s first town in 1872, hit hard by the 1930s, bank failing, mill bankrupt, now 362 people. I drive down a few residential gravel roads and then the ghost of a main street, the Hi-Lo Bar the only place open. I pass the Community Center built in 1981 and wonder if by the time we build a center for our community, it will be too late.
I drive through Neligh, the county seat, with a couple thousand people, including Debbie with silver-polished nails who takes my money at the Ampride Gas, the three booths of men eating along the window, and the cowboy who buys a pizza slice in a box and takes it out to his pickup.
At Royal, a peak of 250 in 1910, now 86, I turn west to Orchard. The state’s website description begins, "Orchard is a busy little town with a big cheese factory and 490 friendly people," but I remember Mike’s story that Kraft Foods bought the factory several years ago and closed it to eliminate its minor competition
I check into the Orchard Motel—the air-conditioning wheezes, but I know it will be cooler than camping—and drive to Ashfall, and here’s Jan, Norma, Lynn, and a few others. I drop to my knees—I brought a pad this time—to trowel at the hard sand, bucket it up, and screen it, gaining a little gravel for closer examination at the picnic table. This is all afternoon, and it’s hot, and that’s Monday.
The next morning two of us go down to the Rhino Barn because they’re going to extend the boardwalk and need to make sure nothing important is there. I start shoveling—here I can do that, if delicately—where someone else left off, a flat shelf beside a hump of ground with ragged grass. After an hour of nothing, someone else comes. Can they help?
"Well," I say, standing up, "it would help if you dug where something actually was, like—"I randomly poke the shovel handle into the top of the grassy hump, saying "there" at the same time I hear a little clink and feel the handle quiver, another complete accident. It turns out to be the humerus, the leg bone, of an elephant, a stegomastodon, one end shattered—proof of a scavenger, Mike says.
I do feel excited as I run my fingers down the huge dark-streaked bone, imagining it inside that huge body, its joint above my head if I’d been standing there, much more dramatic than a tooth. I have my partner take my photo, as if I’m kneeling in the African grass, having killed something. I don’t know why I smile, but I do. Mike’s happy for my find, but I wasn’t looking for it and haven’t read about it, and the huge chunk remains oddly ordinary, for me.
Back up in the Pliocene, the sun getting hotter, we’re extending the dig outward, and I choose a new section, skim off this year’s grass, shovel through some Ice-Age dust, and am soon inside 2.5 million years again. I trowel and find nothing Tuesday, trowel and find nothing Wednesday. I’ve got a bare plot all to myself about the size of a grave, and I joke that at least it’s uncontaminated by bones. A professor is working next to me, his teen daughter along, and he’s talkative, humorous, and a bit self-important, so much like myself I start to dislike him. He finds a perfect leg bone of Idahoensis, a few feet away from my last year’s tooth, six inches away from the border of my plot, and I dislike him a bit more. Fifteen minutes later, his daughter finds another leg bone and they’re both delighted and insufferable. I shovel, bucket, screen.
Let me end any suspense. I discover nothing in particular this week. My goal, here’s my new joke, is to leave the world a little flatter than I found it. Renouncing ambition, I do nothing but experience the infinitesimal layers I’m slicing into and "zone out," as my children used to say. I find the jagged red track of a decayed root, some shrub which forced its way down into the past, and I peel away, watching it thin to a scribble and disappear. I become able to see little swirls in the sand, a bit coarser grained here, more delicate there, or the abstract splotch of a lighter colored clay which changes shape as I scoop one millimeter off, then another. I’m at the bottom of one river, or the top of another, following the swirl of inorganic matter.
At the screening table, I find a dark lump and show it to Mike. It’s anorthosite, so rare it’s a major "tracer rock," establishing the origin of this stream as around Laramie, Wyoming. This one I get to keep—a small certain knowledge in the middle of a blankness—and I bend over, back to troweling. Evolution isn’t a straight line. Things are complex. We’re often not sure of our facts. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it happened. Any natural system involves all its factors and parameters. I’m at school inside the earth, a sun-burned transcendentalist looking for some lesson in another dimension, and not finding it except in what’s saved and what’s lost, and that only—as we use the adjective—by "pure" chance, accident unalloyed.
Thursday morning, I take a new route out of Orchard, coming upon a historic marker for the first windbreak planted in Nebraska by the WPA and CCC during the Depression, more than four thousand miles of them in Nebraska itself. "The growth and vigor of many trees has declined," the marker admits, "due to close spacing and invasion of undesirable short-lived trees." True—I step inside and am immediately staggering over fallen trees and through rough brush, the design impossible to detect as I flounder around in the grand collapse of a planned ecosystem. But it’s good to remember it historically, I tell myself, and thrash my way back to the road to head to Ashfall and see if anything new is happening Thursday in the house of the ancients. And it’s nothing but nature again.
That night, I’m back at the J&B, sitting at the bar next to two citizens, an older cowboy, the younger with long-hair, both having been here a while.
"My wife’s sixty miles away!" the older cowboy announces for no apparent reason.
"Well, my wife’s either here or a hundred miles east," says the younger. "We had this fight and she was going to Sioux City this morning, and I asked if she was comin’ back, and she said she didn’t know."
"Woo, boy!" the old cowboy whoops, grinning and shaking his head.
A family comes in, the young mother with jagged, punkish blue hair, the dad, shaved bald, in black T-shirt, and a girl about four. A new generation. Well, two new generations, as far as I’m concerned. A gray-haired woman comes from the back of the bar.
"Show grandma what we bought today," the mother tells the child who stares around without moving. "Show grandma what we bought today." Finally the child sticks her foot out and grandmother admires her lavender canvas shoes.
"She got kicked out of Royal," the old cowboy says about someone.
"Hell, I’ve been kicked out of Royal," the other says.
"Once they kicked a whole family out," the older cowboy adds. "And I was trying to get my money from him. That guy owed me…" and he stops to consider.
The barmaid asks where I’m from, and I tell her, then that I’m working at Ashfall. "You know, I really should go up there and see that," she resolves.
"Four thousand dollars," the cowboy finishes, looking up to find no one listening.
The historic present seems a little too much for me tonight, so I finish my beer and stop at The Lunch Box next door for a hamburger. Just as I’m leaving the mother and little girl come in and get two adult and a kid’s meal in Styrofoam boxes so she can take them back to the bar. "Show ‘em your shoes, honey," she says, as they stand talking to the waitress. "Show ‘em your new shoes."
Outside, I start the three blocks back to the motel, a tree-lined street of houses, only a few lights still on though it seems early.
I think about Mike being from Orchard, which means he spent his youth exploring the local landscape and his adult years revisiting it, finding what was hidden under his feet, his boyhood environment keeping the secret of a classic paleontological find until it, or he, was ready.
I pass a house with flowers in front and the plywood figure of a Dutch girl holding a plywood watering-can.
The layer of ash, fairly close on the hillside at Ashfall, lies 200 feet below Orchard, and I think of it down there under the sidewalk, and of the Rhino Barn holding its white tableau all night, and the streambed randomly strewn with bones of elephant and camel and zebra, a kind of sacred secret, a kind of bland oblivion, and, inside the Visitor Center, jars filled with fragments of snakes, of catfish, bullhead, gar, of muskrat, peccary, and beaver, frogs and toads, gophers and shrews and lizards.
And lemmings as well, which shows it was getting colder around here, end of the Pliocene, threshold of the Pleistocene, the Ice Age, another natural fact to take into account. Bjorn Kurten reminds us we live in an "interglacial" age, "a brief interval in a long series of temperature oscillations."
It was around then, 10,000 years ago maybe, that horses underwent their massive extinctions, dying off, migrating to the Old World over the Bering Strait, disappearing—for reasons not yet completely understood—from North America, and that part of the story was over. That’s the Pleistocene.
"The Pliocene," Kurten poetically writes of my stream of time in an amazing sentence, "is something of a paradise lost, a climax of the Age of Mammals before the coming of the cold; a time when life was richer, more exuberant than ever before or since."
I enter my room at the Orchard Motel—father and daughter who found the leg bones asleep in the next unit, its window dark. I undress and slide into bed, the air-conditioner wheezing a tepid comfort in our current interglacial age.
I don’t know how relationships can exist between different time periods, but I feel it’s true, that—whether we are conscious of it or not—any space we occupy is the intersection of a multitude of times, a succession of whole worlds, paradise upon paradise, lost and found and lost, simultaneously crude and delicate, monotonous and fascinating.
I fall asleep trying to imagine our planet from the center outward to the last few inches of soil, that world which is never awake but which also never sleeps, a kind of massive endurance which for most of us is eternity enough.