Talking with Patti and Laura at the Indiana Raptor Center this week, I couldn't help but reflect on how dinosaur paleontology and bird conservation relate to each other as outreach efforts. I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of months pondering my role as a graphic designer and what I want to do with this fancy degree I'm working for. As I explore ideas for my thesis project, I feel that the core of it must be my dedication to environmental conservation and my desire to communicate the reason it's so vital: the deep, unbreakable tie we have with our fellow earthlings, human, animal, and otherwise. That's where paleontology's relevance is, too. Just read Scott Sampson if you need convincing. It's not the slight hobby of collectors, merely hoping to fill drawers in museums. It's an important way to reveal life's history. I don't think I've hit on any ground-breaking insights, but I've always found that writing helps me distill my thoughts and help direct them into action. When it's relevant, I hope you won't object to me sharing these posts here.
As a schoolboy, I remember learning about Indiana’s prehistory. Being a northerner, I mainly heard stories of the native cultures who hunted and fished before the arrival of European settlers. I heard stories of farmers discovering the bones of Mammoths when digging ponds. I heard of glaciers, the creation of Lake Michigan, the shaping of the land around us, the layers of till that created the farmlands my family drove across when driving southbound through the state. Ever since, I can't help but look into the prehistory of a place before I travel there.
One thing I learned quickly: Indiana is not dinosaur country. No, those bragging rights belonged to Western states where I heard of rocks that every year gave us new dinosaurs to study. It would take years before I matured enough to get over this slight. But eventually I learned to consider the prehistoric tales told by my home state just as fascinating as those coming from Montana, Utah, and other Western states. I especially appreciated the Carboniferous ecosystems evident in the south of the state, where ancient coal forests were mined for electricity and the remains of tropical seas provided world-famous limestone for sculpture and architecture.
Of course, by the time I had a deeper understanding and appreciation of non-dinosaur paleontology, the slight had been mitigated greatly by the realization that even though the great bulk of dinosaurs had perished many millions of years ago, a slim branch of their family tree survived the end-Mesozoic extinction and flourished: birds, of course. When I was dreaming of fantastic Mesozoic tableaus populated by great monstrous tyrants and outlandishly ornamented behemoths, I was simultaneously watching their distant kin at the feeders hanging in my family’s backyard Magnolia tree. I was collecting their feathers, gazing at their exotic relations in magazines and field guides, and learning of the diverse roles they played in their ecosystems. Two seemingly independent interests that had been traveling their separate ways intersected and reinforced each other.
Patrick the American Kestrel, one of the Indiana Raptor Center's residents That's Jennie and me reflected in his eye!.
So these birds - songbirds, shorebirds and raptors, woodpeckers, blackbirds and thrushes - are Indiana’s dinosaurs. And they deserve no less appreciation, no smaller measure of wonder than what we give to the beasts of the Mesozoic who live only in the mists of the dream time, where we can freely imbue them with as much monstrous character as we like. Likewise, looking into the keen eyes of a kestrel to see its peculiar intelligence and observing its finely honed behaviors, we can start to see the mundane beauty of the animal kingdom that must have been the true way the dinosaurs lived. Hadrosaurs are sometimes called the “cows of the Cretaceous.” Ceratopsians are compared to buffalo and rhinoceros. Sauropods to elephants. But these rough and inaccurate comparisons only serve as masks for creatures that we’ll never know.
In birds, however, some strand of the theropod’s nature persists. I believe that the power of that realization can be a potent force for education that brings people face-to-face with the long and surprising journeys evolution has taken over our shared planet’s billions of years orbiting the Sun, and that's what I want to be at the core of my identity as a designer. Thesis ideas, start dropping into my lap any time now...