Autumn’s colours arrived like a wake for the perfect green of summer.
Last summer really was perfect. Splendidly dry and warm, it was the summer for which the definition of the season was written. It was summer as depicted in Van Gogh paintings of golden fields, or in sepia-toned family-rated movies. Heck, it was summer as depicted in Hallmark cards. In Winnipeg … Winnipeg … it was so dry that mosquitoes were absent. In Winnipeg!
Out on the prairie, the entire land billowed with ripening grain and sunflowers. Far to the north, paleontologists in the field baked in the hot wind, our skins burnished by dust and sun. Back home in the garden we lay on wooden chairs, too contented to contemplate physical labour. On vacation at a lake we sat by the fire, played guitars, drank wine, and sang.
After such a summer, autumn was pleasing and anticipated, but its beauty seemed mournful. Out in the countryside trees were dropping their foliage, in brown and yellow, as they passed from growth to dormancy. Mould and fungus flourished on the damp leaves, and everywhere the air was tinged with death and decay.
In a few places I was reminded that not only the trees are deciduous, as the leaves were interspersed with the remains of creatures. All organisms are ephemeral; like the leaves from a woody stem, the soft tissues fade away, leaving only the more resistant structures beneath. I photographed the colourful leaves, and the more subdued tones of crumbling bone, sinew, and feather.
If you spend any time at all travelling with paleontologists, you will know that we are fascinated by dead things. We like to think about our fossils as living organisms, and to understand them in that light, but the specimens we find and collect are not the living creatures. Rather, we find preserved dead remains, those few skeletons and fragments that have had the good fortune to survive the lottery of decay and fossilization. They have passed through the shade of taphonomy, survived transport and decomposition, and come out on the other side as beautiful relics.
If we encounter a recently dead creature during our wanders through the countryside, then, do we do as any normal person would? Do we turn our heads the other way, wrinkle our noses, or complain about the smell? Of course not. Instead, we crouch over the long-deceased crow, or shrew, or fox, or beluga whale, photographing it from every possible angle. And if decomposition has proceeded far enough that the bones may be bearable to share a vehicle with, we scoop them up and take them back to our lab or office (or house).
As I sit here, without leaving my chair I can see the vertebra of a cow that was crushed by a collapsing hoodoo, picked up 20 years ago during a dinosaur dig farther west. On other shelves I have bison teeth, the skulls of a gull and a mink, and many other pieces. Skeletal detritus inspires paleontologists as we think about fossils, but I also think that we gather and exhibit bones and skulls simply because we find them beautiful.
In a way they become our “precious,” though I suspect they only make us invisible in the sense that they encourage potential visitors to avoid us and our strange ways!
© Graham Young, 2012