The city of Dublin emanates a shabby charm. Much of the city centre has been beautifully renovated, yet the overall impression is of a once-elegant town that saw its prime sometime before Irish independence was achieved. Or maybe it is just a place that has its corners rubbed off quickly by the rough-and-tumble of life, its paintwork scuffed and doorways chipped by too many stonking Saturday nights.
The impression of a distant grand past is also evident as you step into Dublin’s public buildings. Just off Merrion Square, beside the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), stands the National Museum of Natural History. Though not constructed on the scale of its French equivalent, this institution similarly preserves the idea of the natural history museum as the repository of biological variety and morphological complexity.
I will not attempt a detailed description and discussion of the Irish museum, since that was done twenty years ago by Stephen Jay Gould, in inimitable erudite fashion. As Gould pointed out, although the museum gives the appearance of a place frozen in time, it has in fact evolved and changed over the century-and-a-half since it was opened in 1857. But the changes have respected its initial intention, which was to exhibit the zoological diversity of Ireland and the wider world.
This demonstration of diversity has required successive generations of curatorial staff to gradually pack more and more taxidermied beasts and mounted skeletons into the museum’s tall galleries. Today, the sunlight streaming through the windows and skylights illuminates 10,000 exhibited specimens, and it is little wonder that the place has earned its local moniker: the Dead Zoo.
Gould loved the sunlight, saying that it creates “a fascinating interplay of brightness and shadow in reflecting off both specimens and architectural elements of iron struts, wooden railings, and the dark wood and clear glass of the cabinets themselves.” Trying to photograph the exhibits late on an October afternoon, I have to say that I do not fully agree with his assessment. Reflections on the glass make this place a photographer’s nightmare, and many of my images of cases were useless for the illustration of this piece.
Our on-the-ground perceptions may differ, but Gould captured the meaning of the place wonderfully ”. . . the Victorian cabinet museum thrives upon an exquisite tension in commingling (not always comfortably, for they truly conflict) two differing traditions from still earlier tunes: the seventeenth-century baroque passion for displaying odd, deformed, peculiar, and ”prize” (largest, smallest, brightest, ugliest) specimens — the Wunderkammer (or cabinet of curiosities) of older collectors and the eighteenth-century preference of Linnaeus and the Enlightenment for a systematic display of the regular order of nature within a coherent and comprehensive scheme of taxonomy.”
What more can I say?
text © Graham Young, 2013
The last few months have been a bit of a blur, with many travels fitted into the summer and autumn interval. The prior months were a blur of a different sort, as a group of Winnipeg geologists scrambled to assemble the essential components of GAC-MAC Winnipeg 2013, the annual meeting for Canadian geoscientists. In addition to a variety of presentation sessions (including one I wrote about here a few months back), there were also several social functions, and some well-attended field trips. The field trip guidebooks have recently received online publication, and free downloads can be found here.
I had the pleasure of being involved in the organization of two field trips (I can describe it as a pleasure now that the scramble of producing them is long past). One was a mid-conference trip on the geology of the Manitoba Legislative Building, on which I collaborated with Jeff Young from the University of Manitoba. The other was a much larger-scale event: a three-day tour across the Ordovician-Silurian boundary, from the Winnipeg area all the way to the Grand Rapids Uplands and Cormorant Hill.
This second trip was led by Bob Elias (also U of M), with input and support from several of the rest of us. As expected, Bob did a stellar job of organization and guidebook assembly, and the entire trip ran within ten minutes of schedule throughout! We took a delightful group of about a dozen people, representing a great variety of geological backgrounds (and, as it turned out, geological opinions).
Starting from Winnipeg we visited Stony Mountain and Stonewall just north of Winnipeg, then stopped at a site in the Fisher Branch area before really heading north to spend the night at Grand Rapids. Even though it was the end of May, there was still ice to be seen on the lake. Nevertheless, the weather gods were cooperative and our weather remained at least bearable the next day, as we moved quickly through a series of sites in the Grand Rapids Uplands before hitting the road again, covering about 320 kilometres to The Pas. Staying at the very pleasant Kikiwak Inn at Opaskwayak Cree Nation, some of us even managed a late evening visit to the casino, though fortunately we also managed to avoid any actual gambling.
The final day saw us visit a few sites at Cormorant Hill, where the succession of strata can be correlated with that in the Grand Rapids Uplands. A few brave souls even agreed to pose for photos on the fearsome feral couch that has lurked above the roadcut there for some years now. Then we were on the road again and back to Winnipeg, arriving near nightfall after a total trip of some 1700 km!
The guidebook and trip planning involved substantial work from students and former students, notably Matt Demski and Lori Stewart, along with some able assistance from Ed Dobrzanski at the Manitoba Museum, and of course we also made considerable use of the conodont biostratigraphy of Godfrey Nowlan.
One interesting sidebar to our annual research trips to the Grand Rapids Uplands is that we have been able to observe the slow decay of dead trees and regeneration of vegetation following the massive Norris Lake fire. This conflagration, in late May of 2008, burned 53,000 hectares of forest, including large areas adjacent to Highway 6 north of Grand Rapids. It turns out that the fire was started accidentally by students on an ecological program.
We were actually in the area in 2008 on the day the fire began, and I posted some fire and immediately-post-fire images a couple of years later, following those up again with some 2011 sunset shots. This September’s visit seemed like a good time to document the further regeneration, as the jack pine seedlings were a beautiful bright green against the autumn leaves, buff dolostone, and blackened trunks.
Our William Lake collecting project is pretty much done. It is sad to think that I may no longer have the chance to drive down that bar-code road as the sun sets through the scorched jackpines. I’m sure there must be some reason to continue limited collecting there, and to continue to monitor the post-fire recovery.
Thanks to Dave and Michael for ensuring that we stopped at various places along the road so that we could photograph the fire sites. I wish that my photos were as good as Michael’s!
© Graham Young, 2013
To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
I seem to have spent most of October travelling rather hopefully. This hope was well-founded, as it turned out to be a very pleasant and productive trip, resulting in more than a few epiphanies about fossils and museums. Between work and pleasure I managed to cover a substantial swath of northern Europe, from Dublin to Stockholm to southeast Germany. About a third of the way into the trip I paid a visit to Dunster Castle, England, a place I had previously visited some 47 years ago. This brought to mind a series of events that occurred slightly after that earlier trip, when my family had returned to our regular life in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Somewhere in the middle of Grade 3, the teacher, Miss A______, asked us to each paint a picture depicting an occupation we thought we would like to have when we grew up. So kids set to with their brushes and paint, showing what they might look like as a doctor or truck driver, or a nurse or secretary (this was 1967, so gender roles were very traditional).
My painting showed a figure in a tramp-like brown jacket and broad-brimmed hat, carrying a pack and grasping a walking stick as he strode down a road passing through green fields, with a hilltop castle in the background. When Miss A______ asked me to explain what occupation this depicted, I told her that it showed me as a “traveller”.
Being a practically-minded teacher in the Canadian Maritimes, she pressed me for a more rational explanation. Would I perhaps be a salesman, driving from town to town? Would I be in the military, or maybe drive a truck? Nobody made a living just by being a “traveller”!
In her own way, Miss A______ was probably the first of several teachers and guidance counsellors who would indicate that I needed to start living in the real world. She was also, however, a teacher who seemed to take sadistic pleasure from hurling wooden chalkboard erasers at my head when I was so immersed in a book that I didn’t notice her announcement that math class was beginning. I was thus disinclined to take much notice of her opinion, and I stuck with my description of a career as a traveller, who would travel to interesting places and look at things.
What is really funny about this story is that I was far closer to right than was Miss A______: in truth it is difficult to predict what will or won’t be a possible career in some unknown future world. I have made a living that, in no small part, requires me to travel to unusual and often-remote places, where I find, look at, and collect odd and remarkable things. Travelling to collect or study fossils is an activity that underlies all paleontological research.
When I got into paleontology, it was not because I was driven by that juvenile urge to travel. I wanted to study fossils because I was interested in biology, and I found ancient life intriguing. As I had always loved museums, and I knew that some paleontologists worked in museum back rooms and sometimes created exhibits, this also appealed. It was only after I was doing research as an upper-level student that I discovered a bit about how travel fitted into the work life of geologists and paleontologists.
Many of us travel to do fieldwork, of course, and that takes us to some odd and out-of-the-way places (some of them are “odd” in every sense of the word). I have done far less field travel than many of my colleagues, some of whom seem to circle the globe annually. Nevertheless, field collecting has taken me to England, the island of Gotland (Sweden), six Canadian provinces, and a transect of the central USA from Oklahoma to Illinois. Nowadays, of course, my field research is largely in Manitoba, but that still requires substantial travel as the province is almost as big as France.
The modern era of accessible air travel has also become the golden age of scientific conference travel. If our science is to develop, and if our research is not to end up in some sort of scientific backwater, it is essential to collaborate and to expose our work to the opinions of other scientists. We paleontologists are a very spread-out profession, and to have the all-important personal interaction we need to travel to get together. If you are considering any specialty within the field, this really means that you need to attend global meetings.
Over the years I have travelled to meetings in England, Wales, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, Japan, and China, in addition to various places in Canada and the USA. I could have travelled far more if I had not been the sort of person who actually prefers to pace myself and stay at home!
Nowadays, I find that I do fewer research-oriented trips. There is so much to be done in the lab, so many specimens that need to be processed and papers that need to be written. I don’t feel like I am getting old, but the time remaining to complete research is definitely becoming finite, and it is very hard to actually write when you are on the road.
Still, as last month shows, the road does occasionally grab me. It gathers me up and sends me forward, encouraging me to travel hopefully. Sometimes in the course of these travels I arrive at interesting places and discoveries. Miss A______ would be surprised, I think.
© Graham Young, 2013
Sandymount Strand on Dublin Bay is a difficult place to comprehend. Depending on how you approach it and where you look, it may tell you many different sorts of stories. Scanning southward along the shore, you will see a line of pleasant water-view homes, the edge of a city suburb. To the north is an industrial landscape, from the tall chimneys of the Poolbeg Generating Station to the cranes of Dublin Port.
As I walked along the seawall at dusk and low tide, I was surprised by the sheer number of runners and walkers on the firm sand immediately below me. To the locals, this is clearly a place of recreation. Others might contemplate it in the context of the long history of human settlement in the Dublin area, or maybe consider its literary significance as a setting for James Joyce’s Ulysses.
To me, as a visiting marine paleontologist, this looks like a scientifically complex place. In spite of the industrial activity it is clear that Dublin’s famous cockles are still abundant here, and that they are accompanied by a variety of other marine life. The tidal flats are extensive and show a great variety of ripples and other features of sediment deposition. And then of course there are all the questions about how these natural systems are interacting with the modern human ones.
So many interesting things to consider, but it is getting too dim for me to see much, and tomorrow morning my itinerary will carry me along to yet another place. A person needs 100 lives to answer even a fraction of the questions that come to mind during a random walk through this fabulous world.
© Graham Young, 2013
People sometimes ask whether we need to protect ourselves from wild animals when we do fieldwork in remote northern areas. Sure, we carry shotguns for protection against polar bears when we are in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, and I have been known to carry pepper spray in case we meet black bears in boreal forest areas, or feral dogs close to farms. But the fact is that bears, coyotes, dogs, and wolves do not worry me all that much. I am more concerned about encounters in remote places with that most unpredictable of mammals: Homo sapiens.
I have to say that we have been very lucky with the kind, pleasant, interested people we meet as we tour around central and northern Manitoba. Nevertheless, when we are out there we do recognize that there is little backup other than our colleagues and their perceptions and reflexes. And though I have never had any outstandingly weird encounters with people in remote places, in my work in the city I have occasionally had dealings with some very strange individuals, so I know that they do exist.
We have sometimes seen things in quarries and along rock outcrops that make us wonder if some of those strange people have been there before us. Mostly we seem to find beer cans, tires, and shotgun shell casings, but I have seen bags of oddly soiled clothing and broken and burned objects of every possible class, many of them unrecognizable in terms of original nature and usage. I have observed vehicles burned, smashed, and sometimes partly immersed in water or mud. And then, of course, there was the time we found an “installation” of headless doll bodies, clothing, and red-spraypainted rocks, artistically arranged on a remote section of seashore. It is best not to think about who might have been responsible for that.
From conversations with other geologists I know that, when I enter an abandoned quarry, I am not the only person thinking, “I hope I don’t find a body.” And we don’t have that thought because we are fanciful or morbid: a few years ago an unfortunate group of school students did find a body when their class visited a quarry in the Manitoba Interlake. We have seen many dead animals during our geological travels, but fortunately our own species has not been among them.
We found the truck in these photos in a pit in the Interlake yesterday. Even with the amputated roof, scorches, and bullet holes, it seemed relatively benign. Still, I was careful not to look into the cab all that closely.
© Graham Young, 2013
Along the shores of the Bay of Fundy, the molluscs are so common below high tide mark that it is often hard to avoid stepping on them. Everywhere you go are periwinkles, mussels, and whelks.
On the average sunny day, you may not realize that molluscs are probably almost as abundant in places far above the shoreline. Walk under the trees on a misty morning, though, and you will see that the woods are full of snails. These gastropods, and their slug cousins, are wonderfully adapted to the humid Acadian Coastal Forest.
These photos are from a stroll between Red Point and The Anchorage, along the seaward side of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.