Valley of the Mastodons – Part 1

There is a certain quiet at that altitude.  A height where the normal cacophony of daily life—human and otherwise—fades into the wind; where the senses of sight and smell take over; where it is easy, in that relative silence, to contemplate the eons that have come and gone, and what those eons have left in their wake.

Image of Diamond Valley Lake, taken by Jeanne Timmons

 

We were not in the Alps, but we were at a considerable height, surrounded on all sides by a dearth of civilization. The only beings making any kind of noise atop the viewing point for Diamond Valley Lake were those in our small group: a handful of paleontologists, a geologist, an archaeologist, the museum’s PR person, a poet, a paleoartist and a couple of writers.  It was why we’d all come from various places in North America to Hemet, California.

Not for the lake, of course.  But what had been found deep beneath it, before the lake had even come into existence.

Its origins took shape over two decades ago, when a site was needed to create a 6-month emergency water supply for southern California.  It had to be enormous, it had to be situated on relatively stable land geologically, and it had to be able–when needed–to provide that water by gravity.  The neighboring Diamond and Domenigoni Valleys met that criteria.

We were looking over this vast expanse of water, knowing full well that through the 1990s, this was where paleontologists Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott excavated for 7 years.  They and their team of volunteers worked six days a week, 20 hours a day in separate shifts, finding 2646 fossil localities that produced 100,000 fossils.

I thought a lot about the depths those fossils lay, the tonnage of rock and sediment above them, sheltering them from the surface climate, the thousands of years of changes.  How—if senses had been a part of their experience—they might have eventually felt the weight of truly enormous construction vehicles slashing into the very rock that protected them. How, in time, a softer, much gentler movement may have shifted the rock and dirt—the work of an army of humans eager to find them. Until at last, rays of light—warmth unfelt for an unfathomable amount of time—revealed their existence.

It must have been incredible, finding the first set of fossils.  How must it have felt to consistently find more and more and more? I wondered, too, about Kathleen’s personal experiences, especially as she knew the fossils would not only be there, but that they would be profuse. 

But we arrived at a different point in the story, long after the initial discovery. The fossils had been long since been collected, cleaned, and labeled. They were now housed at the Western Science Center in Hemet, not far from Diamond Valley Lake.  And we’d come to study them, discuss them, learn from both the fossils and each other, and share that knowledge with the public.

It was a unique idea, the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit.  Dr. Alton Dooley, jr.—Executive Director of the Western Science Center—and Dr. Katy Smith—Associate Professor at Georgia Southern University—invited paleontologists who had studied various aspects of mastodon anatomy to research the mastodons within this largely unstudied fossil assemblage.  But they also invited some of us outside the field: an artist, a poet, a couple of writers.   After a series of days, loosely structured to allow for research and outreach, an exhibit of mastodon fossils would be unveiled to the public.

All of it was new to me; I’d never attended a scientific conference before.  But I had seen the schedules of larger events—days filled with presentation after presentation, exciting scientific research explained to those lucky enough to attend them.  Even with my limited knowledge of such things, however, I recognized this for what it was: an innovative experiment.

How was this different than other scientific conferences?

Size, for one.  Rather than thousands of participants, there were less than 20 of us actively involved.

Audience, for another.  This was not a forum created solely for scientists to speak with other scientists. The larger goal, and one that was woven naturally into each day, was bringing that research to the public. Inviting them in, encouraging questions, sharing what was being learned right there on the museum floor as the research was being done.

And structure. The structure of those days, as mentioned previously, was far from rigid.  Aside from a morning of presentations, where scheduling became important, most days were fairly open—enabling all of us to do what we needed or wanted to do as we felt best to do it.  From my vantage point, it felt like Alton and Katy opened the doors to the museum, pointed to the fossils and said, “Make yourself at home.”  Which is exactly what everyone did! And it’s amazing how fast days go by when you are doing something you love, something about which you are passionate and enthused, surrounded by those who feel the same way.

The first day I felt almost dizzy, watching everything and everyone around me, excited to witness it, excited to participate, if a little unsure how best to move forward.  It was not a question of my ability to engage and then write about it; my uncertainty was determining where to focus, who to observe, what—of all the myriad things taking place around me—to be part of.  There was so much going on all at once!

As an example:

  • Katy measured tusks;
  • Dr. Jeremy Green (Kent State) sampled tusks;
  • Greg Smith (PhD candidate at Vanderbilt) and Dr. Grant Zazula (Yukon, Canada) studied mastodon molars Grant had brought with him;
  • Dr. Bernard Means (VA Commonwealth University) scanned smaller fossils for 3D images online;
  • Dr. Chris Widga (East Tennessee State University, Gray Fossil Site) scanned larger fossils for that same purpose;
  • and others helped move fossils from their displays or the collection for research.

 

Dr. Katy Smith measuring mastodon fossils, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Paleos (and a writer and poet!) at work, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Members of the public congregated near them, some asking questions, many others observing quietly.  The jocularity of some of the paleontologists broke that barrier, changing visitor observation to interaction. I was a bit star-struck myself by these paleontologists. I marveled at their casual charisma, their down-to-earth conversations, their ability to engage people of all ages.

 

Greg Smith and Dr. Grant Zazula working on mastodon molars from the Yukon, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Public observation on the museum floor, photo by Jeanne Timmons

 

Even on breaks, when we stopped for lunch or dinner or any other reason, there were constant discussions about proboscidean research or paleontology in general.   Some of us discussed books we’d read or were reading; others spoke of current research.  With almost unquenchable thirst, I drank it all in–from the most serious to the most frivolous of moments–whether I was part of the conversation or not.  These moments were what I’d dreamed of: seeing paleontologists in action.  I LOVED it.  But taking in everything and feeling such an intense emotional high takes its toll.  By the end of each day, my head reeling with information and experiences, I was more than ready to retire to my own cabin, my own space, my own quiet.

 

 

 

 

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