I was around six-years-old when I came face-to-face with my first dinosaur. It was in the book aisle of the grocery store where my family shopped, in the pages of the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs. My mom bought the book for me and I poured over the pages of the book, fascinated by the large, lumbering brontosaurus, the fearsome allosaurus, the triceratops with its three horns and the duckbilled trachodon, munching away on leaves in a swamp. I learned how to pronounce those long dinosaur names my mom stumbled over and I went on to check out even more books with pictures of dinosaurs from the library.
My love of dinosaurs stayed with me even as Voyager’s encounters with the planets lured me into a career in astronomy. Through astronomy, I came to learn that Earth has only existed for a short time in the vast history of the universe. Reading about dinosaurs as a kid, I knew that humans existed only a short time compared dinosaurs and other creatures lived before the dinosaurs and also between the dinosaurs and us. While working on my physics degree, I took a course in geology and got to know the geological eras and learn a little more about the life that lived in those times through the fossils they left behind. During the field-mapping exercise I did as part of my geology class, I even found the fossil imprint of a Cretaceous-era leaf. During this time, I became keenly aware of how fragile life can be and how there have been several mass extinctions. I learned, among other things that the mass extinction that gave rise to the dinosaurs was far more extensive than the one that doomed them.
I was fortunate to marry an amazing person who shares my love of nature and of dinosaurs. One of our most memorable vacations was a trek to Dinosaur National Monument in Northern Utah, where numerous dinosaur fossils were buried in a flood millions of years ago.
It’s from this perspective that a friend recommended the book Otherlands by Thomas Halliday. Halliday takes a fascinating approach with his book. He steps backward from the present day through the geological eras. He picks a place where the fossil record is well developed, and tells you what it would be like to be in that place if you arrived there on a day in that time. He introduces us to giant penguins and feathered, nearly silent dinosaurs. He shows us eras where plants dominated the landscape and we learn about trilobites scuttling along the sea floor with multifaceted eyes focused at different distances. I was fascinated to realize that in terms of number of species dinosaurs, in the form of birds, still dominate the planet today. Of course, humans dominate the planet in the sense of shaping it to accommodate our needs and whims. Halliday does point out we’re not the first species to impact the planet and its climate, we just may be the first one to make conscious decisions about how we impact the climate. The whole thing paints a picture of just how small a place we humans take up in the whole history of the Earth. If you’re fascinated by paleontology, dinosaurs, and the creatures who lived in other eras, this is a book well worth reading.
I can probably trace my fascination of not only dinosaurs but books to that copy of the How and Why Wonderbook of Dinosaurs. That funky duck-billed trachodon has always stuck with me. I came to learn that it’s a type of hadrosaur and some hadrosaurs like parasaurolophus and tsintaosaurus have single growths on their heads, resembling unicorn horns. When my wife and I founded a science fiction and fantasy small press, we looked to the hadrosaur as a visual metaphor because it was at once a creature of science and fantasy. I encourage you to look up Otherlands, but I hope you’ll also drop by hadrosaur.com and learn about the books we publish. No doubt you’ll find something to stir your imagination!