Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lonely Pleistocene Bones

In Los Angeles, a place I hadn't visited until two days ago, though I'm from California, born and raised, I went to a museum full of Ice Age bones. Between high rise hotels, the ubiquitous billboards, the stop and go traffic from stoplight to stoplight that struck me with dystopic visions, the flat sprawl of tight packed houses on one side of that luminous ridge, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the other, there are a series of tar pits. Fields of tar in this area, just under the skin of the earth or at the surface, bubbling like the belches of strange black devils, were mined for oil in the early 20th century. The hot bodies of fermented microorganisms and ancient geologic pressure, were scooped into our automobiles so we could zip around encased in metal, packed side by side on highways made of asphalt as we headed home from work each day— the beginnings of our tar cult, our asphalt country.

But also trapped in the La Brea Tar Pits are the fossilized skeletons of thousands of animals from Pleistocene California. Hemmed in from every side by roads and megaplexes, excavated tar pits are being combed for bones. 

The pelvis of a giant ground sloth, who liked to eat the tops of desert Joshua trees. The leg bone of a saber-toothed cat, one of those early and ferocious felines who imprinted our psyches with her teeth, who drove us into caves, who draws us still to the shelters of our houses at night, away from the glowing green eyes of a darkness now almost unimaginable to us, a darkness heavy with creatures many times our size and our strength. 

Men and women dig them up and clean them off, pack the bones into crates to be taken inside, out of their pungent asphalt grave, into the laboratories of paleontologists. 

Something in my stomach tangled up when I saw that crate, neat wooden slats and a cloth over the top, packed tight with the bones of animals so strange to me, so ancient and special they are like the fantastical creatures of a bestiary, sacred and wise at once, holier than any saint's relics. We learn great things from studying those bones; I would not have them left in the ground. But I also wonder, seeing the skulls and skeletons behind glass and on podiums— are they lonely? 

Ribs of an ancient species of bison, so big I could lay down and sleep inside.

Do those bones still hold memories of flight and confrontation, of coyote brush between flat strong teeth, the neck of a giant sloth under thick claws, the coat of stars at night, so many and so bright, like its own dense pelt? Do they miss the hot darkness of tar, clenching their bones into the earth where all things are eventually melted like so many candlesticks?

What it was like before: giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, camels, mammoths. Their bones under our feet.

The next day I walked with two good friends in the Santa Monica mountains. How much those steep ridges look like the spines of bison, the scapula of ancient jaguars. This was their home longer than it will ever be ours, their paw prints somewhere down below, under thousands of years of earth, their ghosts still walking the canyons at night, calling out.

I wrote a piece while exploring the geology and natural history of Point Reyes about the megafauna (short-faced bears, mammoths, camels) that used to live in the great meadow that is now the San Francisco Bay. It is mythic and strange. You can read a passage of it here. (Or just click on the Mythic Pleistocene page on the top right!)

1,600 dire wolf skulls have been found in the pits. They tried to prey on animals caught in the tar, and died themselves, pack by beautiful pack.

What songs did they howl out in the night? What stars did they see, and follow?

The milk teeth of saber toothed cats, growing.

What creatures did she crush with those long teeth? What did the grass feel like under her paws, what smells come in on the wind through juniper and cypress trees? What life does a collection of bones still hold, what spirit?
The ribs of a short-faced bear and an ancient horse, side by side in death, predator and prey. Their bones chambered and lonely as the bones of stone houses we came upon in a Santa Monica mountain canyon, the bones of hearths and chimneys lost to fire.

A staircase leading into the air. Phantom feet walk it.

Supposedly there is a small statue of the Virgin Mary amid these ruined buildings high up in Solstice canyon. All I could find was this hidden horse, carved deep into a hearth seated high up on rocks near a waterfall. What better a thing to worship than this rearing horse, hooves high, whispering into stone the names of her ancient sisters, who originated on this landmass?

Underfoot, deep down, the bodies of wild mustangs from the Pleistocene are buried, turning to dust. Saints, angels, holy things, those skeletons in the earth.

1 comment:

  1. the way you wove these experiences together is testament to how connected we still are and should be to our long prehistoric, prehuman histories, to the land and the bones, the bones still in the earth and the bones of the earth. You bring the once living to life while appreciating that death, ruins, relics allow us still to live. glorious writing. My favorite poetry: "A staircase leading into the air. Phantom feet walk it."