Dinosaur Burial Ground
Ankle-deep in ochre dirt, I stand alone under the impossibly blue
Utah sky. No trees are in sight, no waterfall sings its silver song
in the distance, no graceful deer bound away from the sound of my
footsteps. It's hot as hell and far removed from the cool, green,
mountainous retreats that stir my heart. A million tiny black flies
feast on my arms in frenzied gluttony, rivulets of salty sweat run
down my sides and gritty red dust covers my skin. There's a pebble
in my shoe. And, in spite of it all, I am elated.
Why am I so ecstatic in this scorched and rocky spot? Dinosaurs
were here! And in my pocket is proof: three rounded, polished, egg-size
bits of quartz which aided the digestive processes of Tyrannosaurus,
Brontosaurus, and their ilk. Gastroliths.
Akin to the gizzard stones of chickens, gastroliths can be found
by observant, persistent, fossil-hunters here in the Morrison Formation
near the Utah-Colorado border. The Morrison Formation is the evidence
of an ancient drainage system, which rafted the bones of dead dinosaurs
southward from Montana during times of flood.
In dinosaur time, 150 million years ago, this area was a swampy,
low-lying area of dense vegetation located along the banks of a
stream. Through geologic ages, the flat land was crinkled and folded.
It was corrugated, like the washboard Grandmother used to launder
sheets. It was tilted crazily on its side, like the rooms in the
fun house at the county fair. Now, one walks up a long slope and
arrives at the brink of a steep precipice, from where the same pattern
of slope-and-drop can be seen repeating itself clear to the horizon,
like sedate rows of dinosaur dowagers taking the sun.
After a morning of sifting the baked earth for bones and stones
and history, I rest in a Volkswagen-sized hollow at the bottom of
one of the gullies, in what petty shade there is under an overhanging
ledge of gunmetal shale. Shielding my eyes from the burning July
sun, I search the underside of the ledge for treasure, convinced
that every shadow is the trace of an ancient leaf, every stain is
the hitherto undiscovered skull of a Stegosaurus.
Chuckling at my fertile imagination, I sink onto a hoary throne
of mudstone, lift my booted feet from the earth, and free my toes
from leather bondage. The heat is heavy and tiring. I lean back
to rest against the smooth stone outcropping and am surprised to
feel coolness. I drink the last of my water while surveying my private
The dramatic line of the folded earth stands out in surreal clarity
against the incandescent sky, unsoftened by vegetation. Heaven meets
Earth in precise delineation; yellow light defines subdued purple
shadows; extremes of space and constriction confront each other.
The vast sky encounters earth suddenly, razor-sharply. This is more
a Salvadore Dali landscape than a Georgia O'Keeffe; it is stark
rather than sensual.
The line of the earth becomes an expanse and rolls relentlessly
closer, condensing and transforming until it becomes the cove sheltering
me. The cove is bare. Not barren and lifeless, like the Bonneville
Salt Flats, but spare and clean, like the designs of Meis van der
Rohe. Less is more. There is just the rock wall behind me, the friendly
mudstone chaise beneath me, the horizon before me, and the gravelly-powdery
Morrison dirt curving around me like loving arms. I close my eyes
and melt into a fantasy of the prehistoric past. As phantom Pterodactyls
wheel above, only the shoosh of the desert wind and the peaceable
drone of a bee breaks the silence.
© 1986 by Connie Powers
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