Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline
Text by Kirk Johnson, art by Ray Troll
As coastlines go, the West Coast of North America is an old one. More than 750 million years old in fact, which would make it seem at first glance to be one of the more permanent things on our planet. Except it isn't. As Kirk Johnson points out in the introduction to "Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline," his second collaborative work with Ketchikan's fish and fossil fixated Ray Troll, "the Pacific Coast has been growing to the West, and older versions of it can be found in places such as Nevada and Idaho."
In other words, nearly 200 million years before sponges sprang into being, that beach you visited last summer was already creeping about, collecting the detritus of the countless life forms that bumped against it. How do we know? Stick a shovel in the ground, the evidence is under your feet.
Johnson is a paleobotanist and director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Troll, of course, is Alaska's most renowned artist, the man whose psychedelic and painstakingly accurate depictions of all manner of sea and land lifeforms adorn t-shirts, coffee cups, posters, books, walls, museums, and plenty of other accommodating surfaces.
In 2007 the duo published "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway," a now classic account of their travels through the American West, where they dug up the physical remnants of the creatures and plants that inhabited the region in the deep recesses of geologic time.
"Coastline" is arguably an even better book. This time, Johnson and Troll set out to explore the land and shore from California to Alaska, visiting museums, meeting with scientists and paleonerds, and turning the soil in search of fossils which, we quickly learn, are pretty much everywhere.
As with its predecessor, this book is a combination of science, travelogue, and history lesson (geologic, human, and personal). Johnson, who wrote most of the text, introduces us to to the many fossil-obsessed people the pair met in their travels, talking about their finds and what what can be learned from them. He also recounts the work of paleontologists of the past, offering sketches of their lives in the process.
Paleontology, it should be pointed out, is an equal opportunity science. Having a PhD offers a big leg up, but from Johnson's stories of significant fossil discoveries, it becomes apparent that one needn't even have graduated high school yet to make a big score. And some of the most impressive collections are on view in the homes of people who caught the fossil bug at a young age and never quit accumulating them.
Johnson weaves his and Troll's encounters with such people in with his own story of evolving from a young earth creationist childhood to full fledged scientist. And he still finds space to tell us of all manner of flora and fauna long departed from the planet, with Troll bringing them back to vivid life in his dizzyingly colorful and immaculately detailed renditions.
Johnson has an infectious love for his subject which Troll shares and then injects with his trademark humor. One of Troll's repeated themes, both here and throughout his career, is to take extinct creatures and set them in the modern setting that sits atop where they once dwelt. On a dusty business strip in the sleepy and appropriately named Central Oregon town of Fossil, a shovel-tusked Amebelodon (a prehistoric relative of today's elephants) squares off with an Archaeotherium, popularly known as the killer pig. Meanwhile, on the freeways of Los Angeles, minivans, pickup trucks and semis share the crowded lanes with giant sloths, wolves, saber-toothed cats, and mammoths.
These scenes are reminders that the human presence in North America is recent, and there's no promise we won't soon be fossils ourselves, eventually becoming million-year-old relics of one more species to rise and fall in the dance of evolution.
The pair begin their journey at the famous La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles, and wander northward through California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, ending their travels with a fossil hunting expedition along the Coleville River in Alaska's Arctic. They travel inland as often as out onto the water, explaining how seas have risen and fallen, sometimes filling valleys far from today's ocean, and other times dropping so low as to expose vast stretches of land. Most notable is the Bering Land Bridge, which was a superhighway for plants, animals, and ultimately humans to travel back and forth between Asia and North America. The latter is depicted by Troll as a busy place, with critters marching both directions.
A creature that keeps popping up in this book is called the desmostylian, an order of Oligocene and Miocene age aquatic animals related to elephants. They're the only known extinct sea mammals, but once ranged from Baja California all the way up to Alaska and back down to Japan. Both author and artist are obsessed with them, and in a four page side section, Troll discusses the controversies regarding their exact appearance. Questions like what sort of lips they had remain unanswered, which means his drawings of them are partly guesswork.
Troll is most deeply in his element when the duo reaches Southeast Alaska, where Johnson explains the geological makeup. Fragments of land smashed into each other in what geologists call the "Great Alaskan Terrane Wreck." This prompts the sort of art Troll specializes in. Various Southeast towns are depicted as train cars strewn about like a freeway pileup, with shellfish beneath them, assorted sea creatures swimming through the sky above them, and mountains in the background, under ominously grey skies.
This is a fun and informative book that moves briskly, bringing science and scientists alive. It's especially appropriate for kids with a an interest in fossils. The art will pull them in first, then Johnson's lively prose will seal the deal and possibly send them spiraling off into a career. But it will work the same magic on adults. The ground is alive. Grab a shovel.
David A. James is a Fairbanks based critic and freelance writer.