Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My life as a paleontologist

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Concept art for Jurassic World

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve only ever wanted two jobs in my life: paleontologist and novelist. And the fact that I gave up the former goal around the time I turned ten years old doesn’t mean that I don’t look back on it with nostalgia. Reading the paleontologist Stephen Brusatte’s affectionate piece on The Conversation on the appeal of Jurassic World, I felt an odd twinge of regret for a life never led. Brusatte is actually a bit younger than I am—he was nine when Jurassic Park came out, while I was thirteen—and his article is a reminder that the world is still turning out freshly minted paleontologists, most of whom are distinguished by the fact that they held onto that initial spark of curiosity after the rest of us moved on. Jurassic Park, both as a book and as a movie, was responsible for countless careers in the field, just as Star Trek was for the hard sciences and Indiana Jones was for archaeology, but such works can more accurately be seen as igniting something that was already there, or providing an avenue for a certain kind of personality. Everyone knows how it feels to be excited by a book or movie into the prospect of an exotic career; the difference between real paleontologists and the rest of us is that the urge never faded. If there’s one thing you know when you meet a novelist or a paleontologist, it’s that you’re looking at the systematic working out in adulthood of a childhood dream.

Yet the two fields also have a surprising amount in common. In the beginning, both are fundamentally choices about what to spend your time thinking about: when you’re in grade school, you can’t think of anything better to occupy your time than dinosaurs. Later, as your understanding of the subject expands, it becomes slightly more subtle, if no less vast. At its heart, paleontology is the methodical reconstruction of facts that used to be obvious. Few things would have felt less equivocal at the time than a living triceratops—Jack Horner has called them “the cows of the Cretaceous”— but understanding and rediscovering such animals now requires the assemblage of countless tiny, almost invisible details, both in the world and in the mind. Fiction, in turn, is the creation of the obvious, or inevitable, from the small and easily missed. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing to mining for radium: “The output an ounce, the labor a year.” Both fiction and paleontology require that we sift through a huge amount of material in search for a few useful fragments. The difference is that the writer generates his own dirt and then sorts through it. But in both cases, the trick lies in identifying a promising tract of ground in the first place.

Concept art for Jurassic World

Both are also about developing a way of seeing. The evolutionary anthropologist Elwyn Simons has compared the hunt for fossils in the jumbled rock of the Egyptian desert to the ability to find a single rare word in a mass of text, and both fields depend on refining the observer’s eye. Even more important, perhaps, is the ability to see facts in their larger context, while valuing the significance that each detail carries in themselves. One of the first things any writer learns is how crucial a glance, a gesture, or a single image can be: each element deserves as loving a consideration as we can give it. But it also needs to be subordinated to the overall effect. This kind of double vision, in which a stone or bone fragment is granted intense meaning in itself while occupying a place in the larger pattern, is central to all of science. Both are characterized by a constant oscillation between the concrete and the abstract, with the most ingenious theoretical constructs grounded in an engagement with the tangible and particular. Every insight is built on backbreaking labor, and the process itself becomes part of the point. Genuine discoveries are infrequent, so in the meantime, you have the field and the lab, and the workers who survive are the ones who come to love the search for its own sake.

So I’d like to think that if I’d become a paleontologist instead of a writer, my inner life would be more or less the same, even if its externals were very different. (If nothing else, I’d have gone outdoors occasionally.) But even then, I suspect that I’d spend about the same amount of time in my own head. As Stephen Jay Gould writes:

No geologist worth anything is permanently bound to a desk or laboratory, but the charming notion that true science can only be based on unbiased observation of nature in the raw is mythology. Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a barroom, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a roadcut.

Which all circles back to the point with which I started: that life is ultimately a choice about what to think about. Last year, I finally realized my destiny by writing about dinosaurs for the first time, in my short story “Cryptids.” Even if it isn’t my strongest work—and I still think the ending could be better—it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I got to think about dinosaurs again. And I don’t know what more I could ever want.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2015 at 9:50 am

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