Another Dubois Distinction: The Bones in the Big Red Dead

Defying the experts in a search for remains.

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IMG_1386I used to love scrutinizing the rocks as I hiked. I hoped to find something important.

I’d find pretty green and pink rocks, rocks with interesting shapes, rocks that might have been carving tools, once a petrified twig. I’ve mostly stopped doing that, because I really don’t know what I’m looking for, or at.

But some others do, and they have found it—in abundance.

Paleontologists “spend a lot of time walking around with their eyes glued to the ground, because that’s where the fossils are,” said Calvin So, a paleontology student at the University of Wisconsin. I heard him a few weeks ago at the Riverton Museum.

IMG_1268Two days earlier, the crew of the Nobby Knob Triassic Expedition had covered over their site southeast of Dubois to leave it behind for the winter. They have spent this past summer excavating a trove of remains from what So called “the dawn of the dinosaurs,” between 230 and 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic.

Team leader Dr. Dave Lovelace gave a similar presentation at the Dubois Museum in July, when I was out of town. My husband went, and phoned me afterwards with astonishing news: Lovelace and the team have been tramping around the outskirts of town for the past four years, searching and digging for fossils.

They’ve been defying the experts, looking for remains in a geologic stratum in Wyoming that paleontologists have referred to as “the big red dead,” always thought to be a dry and barren period devoid of animal remains. The fact that the team has proved them wrong should not surprise us in Dubois, where we know that dry and apparently barren does not imply a lack of life.

“We have found an abundance of fossils,” So said, “contrary to what other people have been saying.” Almost everywhere they’ve looked in the Wind River Valley, Lovelace told me, they have found fragments of bone from this period.

IMG_1430After finding a tantalizing whole phytosaur skull near Lander, where a few Triassic finds were reported in the early 1900s, the team began to explore the red dirt on public land almost within view of structures in Dubois. In 2014, they found fossil fragments of extinct salamander-like creatures known as temnospondyls. The next year they determined where those fragments had been eroding from. This summer, the crew was digging at that spot for two months.

Who knew that these guys (and women) have been out there, as they put it, “digging up Dubois” for four years? (“Anyone who is interested can see us from the main drag in Dubois,” Lovelace said.) And who would have guessed what they’d uncover?

The red hill they named Nobby Knob (after a character in a fantasy book series) has yielded what Lovelace calls “amazing” remains of creatures with the wonderful name of Koskinonodon, a genus of extinct amphibian. Among them is a skull, probably a juvenile, that they affectionately named “Wally.”

When Wally died, sometime way back in a period when the continents were in entirely different shapes and orientations, this area was covered with a shallow lake. Think, So said, of a creature lurking partly submerged, waiting for something to ambush.

IMG_1271Extracting the fossils can be brutal work. To extract the fossils from the dirt, they cover them with plaster. One plaster “jacket” containing dozens of stone-covered fossils weighed 500 pounds, So said. It took about 400 hours of work to chip away painstakingly at the surrounding rock in order to expose the fossilized bones. Another weighed about 1000 pounds.

Once the specimens arrive in Wisconsin, the team exposes the bones. Then they run them through a CT scanner and analyze them using a custom imaging program that allows them to discern the individual bones inside a skull.

In 2016, the team began excavating another site nearby that is rich with remains. Lovelace calls the Serendipity Site a “mass death assemblage.” It’s a Late Triassic cemetery of sorts; a large collection of burrows containing the fossils of tiny early amphibians, probably distant ancestors of the salamanders. Many of their skeletons are preserved largely intact.

This could be echoes of a distant climate change. So said these may be the remains of creatures that went into estivation – a sort of hibernation intended to wait out a drought – and were doomed when the drought lasted too long.

This site adds to another prehistoric distinction for Dubois: A curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has called this region “the epicenter of Rocky Mountain archaeology,” because the prehistoric high-altitude villages found above Whiskey Basin a decade ago have changed our ideas about some of the earliest Native Americans.

IMG_1269Now this site is changing the way we think about some of the earliest vertebrates. There are enough late Triassic fossils just east of town to classify Dubois as a “world-class vertebrate paleontology locality,” Lovelace told me.

There are only 5 similar sites in the world, he says, and “this one is unique even among those rare localities.”

The other sites (in Poland, Portugal, Morocco, and New Mexico) are “multi-taxon sites” that include remains of several different types of animals. Most of them are random collections of bones and skulls, not large numbers of complete skeletons. The Dubois site is unique, according to Lovelace, because it preserves a single type of animal.

The remains at Nobby Knob are extraordinarily well preserved, in part due to the slow, shallow waters in which they were submerged, still showing remarkable features such as tiny teeth embedded in the palate at the roof of the mouth. Also, the vast majority of the skulls are small, and “small individuals are exceedingly rare.”

This leaves a number of unanswered questions: Were they small because they were all young? (It is not uncommon for adults to inhabit different areas than their young to avoid “their young becoming part of their diet,” he says.) Or are they a new and different species?

And another intriguing question remains: Why were more than half of the burrows at Serendipity not found empty, but still encasing the skeletons of tiny creatures doomed never again to walk that alien, ancient landscape? What was the fatal factor?

The crew will return next year to continue work at the site.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018. Thanks to Dr. Lovelace for reviewing the text for accuracy.

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

On Quilts, and the Respect They Deserve

Why it isn’t enough to call them art.

IMG_1367Entering the annual quilt show at the Headwaters, I used to pick up my ballot and dutifully try to choose my favorite. But I’ve given up on that.

Decide which I find to be most lovely or finely crafted? It’s impossible. Besides, who am I to judge?

The show crowds the large room at the Headwaters with masterworks of stitchery —  an overwhelming display of artistry and skill.

IMG_1362 (1)The sponsors of the show, and creators of many of the quilts, are the good women of the Never Sweat Quilt Guild. Making one probably doesn’t entail sweat, but it is certainly labor.

It requires a special space, a large collection of fabric, many special threads, and a special kind of creativity and discernment. Not to mention lots and lots of time.

I’ve spoken to some quilters who were actually afraid to start.

I file my digital pictures of quilts in the folder on my laptop named “Art.” From my first visit to the show, when I saw the magnificent display of quilts by artist Mackie d’Arge and her mother, I considered these creations to be works of art, and thus well deserving of the price tags (on those available for purchase).

But I’ve recently decided that art isn’t really what we’re buying in a quilt — nor is it all of their value. Like many quilters, Mackie and her mother created them largely for the pleasure of working together, not in order to make a few extra bucks.

BlueTorontoQuiltMy husband bought this simple blue patchwork as a gift for me during our first year of marriage, knowing I wanted a quilt. It’s faded and rumpled, and the edges are frayed. I believe he paid $10 for it.

For years I used it casually, until I noticed the meticulous, even parallelograms hand-stitched across the machine-joined patchwork. Someone actually put a lot of effort into it. Now I treat it with more respect.

Quilt_BlanketsThe quilt on the guest bed came from a tag sale at our former church in Brooklyn, where I was working as a setup volunteer and therefore entitled to purchase items ahead of the sale. I had wanted a larger, finer quilt for our guest bed in Dubois.

“What do you think this is worth?” I asked the woman in charge.

She shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Ten dollars?”

Umbrella Girls QuiltSome years later, a friend of mine who is a quilter pointed out what I and my fellow parishioner never noticed in our ignorance: It is entirely hand-stitched. (I sent a substantial additional donation to the Brooklyn church.)

I used to think that the simple blue patchwork quilt was the first one I ever owned. I had completely forgotten about these little girls, who sat folded and zipped inside a plastic bag in my linen closet in Brooklyn all the years we lived there. I found the quilt again when we packed to move to Wyoming.

My grandmother, and heaven knows how many friends in her small Mennonite village, pieced it together, and she gave it to my parents when I was born. Of course it later came down to me, being mine in the first place.

After hanging this charming quilt in our Dubois house, I began to view the two blue quilts in my guest room differently. They aren’t just bed coverings. They are stories to me now. And I wonder about the other stories behind them that I will never know.

IMG_1361At the quilt show, I’ve begun to inquire about some of the quilts that are marked “NFS” (not for sale). Are they being reserved for someone in particular?

There is value in the skill and the artistry of a quilt, indeed. But what the buyer also gains is a piece of history, often unknown, and a semblance of family devotion. That was what I wanted as a young bride — not realizing I already had it.

What’s in the beauty of a quilt? I think of Carol, working out her grief by making quilts from her late husband’s shirts. Or of Helen, who makes a different one for each of her grandchildren, piecing together her joy. And of my own grandmother, patiently stitching away as she hoped for me.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Of Music, Longing, and Mysteries

Nostalgia for things never experienced?

StameyCowboys roping in baseball caps, and empty spaces on McNally Maps. Dry creeks and history on the page. Sycamores and prickly pear. Barrel racers with great big hair. Horses swishing flies out in the sun.

Those aren’t my words. They’re Dave Stamey’s words.

It seems like the whole town has come out to hear the cowboy songwriter, and not just because it’s the best thing going on right now. Nearly every seat in the big room at the Headwaters Center is taken. He has us in the palm of his hand.

“It’s a place, it’s a feelin’ and sometimes it’s just a state of mind. It may not be what you were lookin’ for, but it’s here in what you find. And it’s all these things. It’s the West.”

I get just a bit choked up at that, and I’ve only been here for 10 years, for crying out loud. The words and the music reach down somewhere to grab at me the way a good song can.  Somehow I feel a longing for something that I haven’t yet lost. In fact, I’ve barely begun to experience it.

Stamey takes a pause to take several jabs at a popular old song, “Riding Down the Canyon” by Smiley Burnett, which has featured in Western films and in recordings by many famous country singers. He recites a few of those lyrics.

“When evening chores are over at our ranch house on the plain, and all I’ve got to do is lay around,” he quotes. “Well, I don’t know where that ranch is, but when evening chores were finally over at our ranch, the very last thing you’d want to do is saddle up and ride down a canyon to watch the sunset.”

There’s a knowing chuckle from the audience, and I join in — not that I’ve ever done a single chore at a ranch. My only experience at ranches was as a dude, where I relaxed while others did the chores. To folks at their radios or in movie theater seats, the song  evoked a longing for a laid-back, heavenly way of life that didn’t actually exist.

DadatPiano“These songs were not written by cowboys,” Stamey adds. “These songs were written by little bald men at their pianos back in New York.”

Well, I do know a thing or two about that. My Dad was once a guy at a piano in New York.

There he met my mother, a lovely young classical singer trying to make her way in the big city, having grown up on a farm in Nebraska. She would have enjoyed Dave Stamey.

When they met, Dad was making his living by working for a Broadway composer (who probably was a little bald man with a piano). As time went on, Dad wrote many fine songs of his own, although they weren’t cowboy songs. He had sense enough not to write about what he didn’t know.

They include this one, ironically called “City Longing,” which is actually about longing to leave the city. The frenzied, self-promoting feel of New York disenchanted my soon-to-be parents, and they left to teach at colleges in the Midwest.

FiddleMando_editedI’ve always found it ironic that New York is where I ended up spending most of my life. Being the only child of two classical musicians, of course I grew up loving that kind of music. I learned several instruments. I used to play in string quartets and orchestras.

That is one of the very few things I miss about New York. In a small way, I do long for it. Watching an orchestra performance now is a sort of bittersweet torture. Nonetheless I crave it. So I impose it on myself, when I can.

A few days ago, I took a lovely ride over Togwotee Pass to Teton Village near Jackson, to watch the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony at the Grand Teton Music Festival.

Musicians crowded the stage: 9 string basses, 10 violas. Two sets of tympani. Lost in nostalgia, while I listened I watched them at work and relived it all: the feel of the tremolo on the string, the sound of counting bars inside my head, the sense of eyes flicking up to the conductor over the top of my glasses.

This kind of nostalgia I can explain. Other feelings puzzle me.

TableMountain3

When Mahler wrote his third symphony, he  was living in his mountain retreat in Austria. He used to go there in the summer to escape the pressures of his daily work life. We lived in Germany for a few years, so I speak both his language and his language of music. And now I live in the mountains, having retreated here from the pressures of our daily working life in the city.

In the third symphony, Mahler said, “the whole of nature finds a voice.” He described the final passages as “the peak, the highest level from which one can view the world.”

In Mahler’s music, I felt I could hear him speaking from the grave. He wrote pictures in sound: deep, rich, and complex–sometimes ominous and foreboding, at other times whimsical or light-hearted, with the strains of forest birds and distant trumpets. Sometimes he launched into the bouncing chords of a Tyrolean oompah band.

In my work as a science writer, I learned that neuroscientists have found that music touches the same nerves in your brain (I’d rather say “strings in your heart”) that trigger deep emotion.

It’s one of those things that scientists find out which you sort of knew all along.

MahlerI truly don’t miss living in Germany at all, but (as for many people who admire Mahler) the music overwhelmed me with feeling. He swept me back to Germany and into the mountain woodlands, leaving me with a feeling that I had experienced and gained something profound. (But what?)

A few days earlier, alone on the stage strumming on one guitar, Dave Stamey had evoked the feel of the entire American West with a few simple words and quiet melodies. And he had demonstrated how music can also evoke a longing for experiences that people haven’t even experienced.

No doubt a musicologist could parse way these two different musical languages differ in their grammar. But that wouldn’t explain how they can speak so distinctly inside my one little brain, somehow triggering those little hairs inside my ears to play on my neurons in ways that can summon up two entire worlds, separated by years of time and thousands of miles.

I might start pondering that again next time I look up at the stars or out over the valley. But of course I won’t ever figure it out.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois’ Delectable New Drive-Thru

The reasons the Outpost is succeeding say a lot about our town.

MooseOutpostWhat this town needs, my husband has been saying for years, is a really good burger.

God forbid we should get a McDonald’s or a Burger King — let alone a Walmart or a big Marriott. That’s not Dubois at all.

But the drive-thru burger joint on our main street, opened a month ago by a pair of locals, fits in handsomely.

Handsomest of all is that wonderful moose out front (of which more, later).

BurgerThe Moose Outpost replaces an ice cream and coffee stand that failed last summer. The reasons why the Outpost ought to succeed say a lot about our town. It’s a commercial venture, sure, but it’s more.

Waiting for Travis to finish my car repairs today, I took the chance to nip across the street and order a cheeseburger. I was not disappointed.

Karrie and Bob Davis advertise that they’re serving fresh ingredients and hand-made orders at the Outpost. I couldn’t resist chomping down before snapping the photo.

As the patty slid around on the ciabatta bun and the tender onions tried to divorce themselves from that bright-red slice of August tomato, I had to run back inside for more napkins.

Just look at that lettuce leaf.

“So how long is your lease?” I asked Karrie, fully expecting her to say “through the end of the summer.”

“Five years,” she replied.

“And how’s business?” I asked.

Moose sculptureUnbelievable, she said. She added that even the Sysco people are surprised at how much meat and produce she is ordering. But it’s also, predictably, crazy.

Her job ads haven’t brought in enough helpers. “If it wasn’t for my church family,” she added, “we’d never be able to make it.”

Burger stand as a church mission: That fits too. The venture is crucial for the town (which needs good eateries not only in the busy tourist season but year-round) and typical of the helpful spirit in this place that seems to run on volunteers.

As I sat on the porch enjoying my burger, I admired the magnificent moose from behind. He seemed to be guarding the folks at the picnic tables. The creation of Karrie’s Dad, artist and sculptor Vic Lemmon, he used to stand outside another restaurant that her family owned elsewhere in town. For a long time, he’s lived near the highway east of Dubois, in a spot where he wasn’t noticeable.

MooseOutpost4Inbetween, Kerrie told me, he’s has been shot at, stolen (and returned),  inappropriately painted, and driven to Utah to oversee Christmas tree sales. Now he’s challenging the jackalope down the street as our town mascot.

Just yesterday, I read a post on TripAdvisor asking where to see a moose in Yellowstone. The odds aren’t great. But as they pass this way en route home, at least people can see what one looks like.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.