Looking To The Past
Fossils, Fires, and Phone Booths
As you approach, from some distance back, it appears as an apparition and it defies logic. Why is a phone booth, glass intact, sitting on the side of a two-lane highway dozens of miles from any town, tourist spot, or gas station? Bracketed by mesas, deep in the badlands of eastern Montana, I stood in that booth in 1987, under the blazing sun, describing our paleontology field work to a faraway friend. For six weeks, this phone booth on Highway 24 was our field team’s connection to the outside world as we worked mapping the landscape, uncovering fossils, and deciphering the recalcitrant clues of a former world. Back then, our communication infrastructure required only the lone booth and a stack of change to share the storied controversies of asteroid impacts and dinosaur extinctions.
As we crisscrossed those badlands in sedan, on foot, and even by boat, I learned of dinosaur bone dumps where huge vertebrae were washed out to form a playground of prehistoric hopscotch and of an exposed conglomerate of micro-mammalian fossils where we bumped into another geologist picking their the past. These were locales visible to the naked eye if you knew where to look. Their coordinates were passed down from previous field teams, season by season, a secret knowledge guarded within the academy of the approved. These spots were a welcome refuge from the long days of surveying under a blistering sun while taking short lunches in the shade sliver of a rock outcrop. Most of our work focused on large-scale geologic mapping which, over the course of many weeks, transforms the way you see the environment. Soil samples, sedimentary layers, and distant mesa peaks combine with specific fossil discoveries to transport you through time as you imagine a past earth and its ecology. This is science with heavy doses of speculative vision.
The memory of this field work percolated in my mind as Kim and I recently scrambled up a hillside close to home, out west of Austin, where a different landscape was littered with fossils. Here were signs of an ancient sea bed, the ground giving up hints of a former marine world. Under a cool morning, this bivalve graveyard greeted the tail end of our hike through Doeskin Ranch, part of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, and home to multiple trails that climb hills, circle fields, and wend through a mixture of cedar, oaks, and grasslands. Located from our driveway about 40 miles as the old crow flies, this refuge lives up to its name, offering us a chance to get afield from the density of Austin.
Traveling to and from the ranch, you hurdle through layers of Texas suburban sprawl. Toll roads, unexpected construction zones, pop-up housing developments, and billboard promises of lake views from the low 400Ks dominate the drive. Even within this year of the pandemic, the growth is unabated as lot after lot of the plateau is scraped, crushed, and poured into a cookie-cutter parity with the same burrito shops, the same mattress stores, and the faint promise of security.
The ranch offers some respite from this ongoing charge of development, but even out there the human influence is present. Last summer we came across a swatch of grassland recently scorched. At first inspection, we thought the fire a result of a lightening strike or a tossed cigarette, later learning it was a controlled burn, part of an ongoing land management process termed “Burning for Wildlife”. These prescribed burns draw on an understanding of paleo-environments and are designed to emulate the ecological role of past fires, optimizing plant growth by returning nutrients to the soil.
On our most recent visit, months after the original fire, we revisited the burn zone and were greeted with a panorama of stark beauty. The apparent lack of plant life, combined with the effects of winter, created a lunar landscape, but following the remnants of the trails we eyed some new growth. Under the charred remnants of Agarita bushes new plants were emerging. Grasses were sprouting bright green through the blackened patches. Like the Phoenix rising, there was new hope here, a result of using historical science to inform modern practices.
Back at home, I pull out a packet of snapshots from the 1987 trip to Montana. Almost 35 years old, the images conjure up a former self. This was an age where the remnants of Ma Bell and a handful of change was the communication infrastructure, far removed from the fevered pitch of today’s cycles of designed obsolescence, mandatory upgrades, and deregulated services.
The past week in Texas has highlighted the fragility of our infrastructures and the myths of a frontier mentality. The promise of a remote lakefront property dims when electricity and water are unavailable. Cost-cutting measures and a deregulated market created wealth for a few, but put millions in peril as the public services paid for and expected were crippled. And while Tim Boyd, the blowhard ex-mayor of Colorado City, proselytized individual responsibility in the face of infrastructure fail, we were all reminded that no matter how large your stack of quarters, you still need a proverbial phone booth to stay connected.