I’ve been reading Digging Up the Past by Edwin Colbert. I bought the book a couple of years ago. I was excited about the lystrosaurus and continental drift. The lystrosaurus (meaning shovel reptile) was a funny looking reptile that was built like a pig. I say funny looking. I’m being kind. That said, the lystrosaurus survived the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian period. It was a dumb looking but badass reptile that survived an apocalypse and went on to dominate earth in the early Triassic for millions of years. Cool. Edwin Colbert was a paleontologist. Colbert found a lystrosaurus in Antarctica. Lystrosaurus fossils had previously been found in Africa and India. This discovery ultimately led to broader acceptance of the continental drift theory.
Anyway, Edwin wrote this memoir, Digging Up the Past, in the late 80s, at the tail end of his career. Several years ago I was all fired up about the lystrosaurus. Who knows why? Probably because it’s stupid looking and I’m a sucker for anything that looks stupid. I was also really excited about continental drift. I hate the concept of permanence. Nothing is permanent. Not even the location of the ground beneath our feet. I love that. So here is a book about a guy who dug up a stupid looking reptile and wrote about continental drift. Double whammy. Because I’m Mike Lynch I promptly bought the book, added it to the pile, and forgot about it. Then I found the book a few weeks ago and started reading it. And to be honest what makes it interesting isn’t even paleontology. He doesn’t even become a paleontologist until about 200 pages into the book.
I was born in 1980. Edwin Colbert was born in 1905. He talks about growing up in the time before cars, what his education was like, rural pre-WW1 Iowa, his family dogs, the neighborhood kids, how he learned his trade (paleontology). The language is dull and the stories are long winded. This book is not a page turner. The guy can write but he’s no Alexander Dumas. He loved reading. I want to say he studied English in college. This book actually turned me on to some books that were popular in Edwin’s day but I had never heard of. Jalna by Mazo de la Roche for example. Apparently Jalna was a big hit in the 1920s. Who knew? Not me. It’s random discoveries like this that make the book interesting. Colbert died in 2001 at the age of 96. He is from an era that overlapped with mine but only for a little while. We shared time on this earth for a good 21 years and yet almost everything about him is entirely foreign to me.
Anyway. Why am I still writing about this?