Brilliant Misfits of Prehistoric Times

A VIGNETTE from the deeper recesses of my memory: four boys head down a river in a rowboat, looking for adventure. They row through a long tunnel, emerge in rapids and narrowly avoid capsizing. When they catch their breath, they realize they are no longer remotely near home - not in place, not in time. They are surrounded by weird palm-like trees, swamp cypresses, ginkos, ferns. A volcano rumbles in the distance; whistles and shrieks cleave the air. Distracted, fascinated, the boys scarcely notice the thin shadow rising over their boat. It is the shadow of a plesiosaur. Was this a movie I saw as a child? Or was I one of those boys, living an adventure most people only read in books?

Unable to remember the title of the movie or the names of any of the actors, I still recall the sensation of being in the boat with those kids. Had I finally escaped home and its hermetic world - hovering relatives and hamburger casserole, schools, cars, shopping malls? Where a Stegosaurus lowered its armored head and howled, anything was possible. And so I kept watching dinosaur movies, honing my imagination until, by eighth grade, I was a serious paleontologist, fully versed in the intricacies of the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.

It may be that dinosaurs exist in our imaginations as part of some larger group of monsters and denizens of horror films, but I've come to doubt it. Dinosaurs hold a privileged position in our life studies, not because they are fantastic, but because they exceed fantasy. They had a concrete existence, and as we track back through their fossils we come to see an alter-ego for our comparatively tame planet.

Mountains and canyons hammered through the seas, and continents began their long divide; continental sheets of ice made southern journeys four times in the Pleistocene era. Volcanoes spewed lava, and - perhaps - giant meteors made a sudden and dark acquaintance with the earth. Successive worlds took shape and vanished on the globe that we now think of as being relatively stable, even manageable. We are, in our wild hearts, the hopeful legacy of that upheaval.

As adults, this idea of evolution nags us with doubts and philosophical equants: we fear the cold grasp of prehistory reducing our sacred souls. But children, the most consistent fans of dinosaurs, have none of this anxiety. They don't worry whether they're more highly evolved than dinosaurs, or whether the existence of dinosaurs threatens their philosophy or faith.

Dinosaurs, for them, are brilliant misfits, and since kids often see themselves as brilliant misfits in an adult world, they find dinosaurs highly companionable. Chronology has nothing to do with it. It's perfectly possible for a kid to understand that dinosaurs existed at some other time as well as in the present: They are ``extinct,'' but also right around the corner, as my six-year-old neighbor Katy told me the other day. She and her brother Michael ran past me as I turned to say hi.

``We're chasing dinosaurs,'' she yelled. ``There's a great big Stegosaurus in the backyard. It's got big spines and a pokey nose and we're going to hunt it down and bring it back to captivity.'' She and Michael ran off, shrieking prehistoric shrieks.

Of course they never brought it back to captivity. Even if, in a wild stretch of the imagination, they could have brought it back, I doubt they would have. Bringing it back would have meant taming it in some way, making it a part of their adult-centered world, and that wasn't what they were after. The Stegosaurus was their ticket to adventure.

But what kind of adventure? Not any old garden-variety monster melee. The Stegosaurus, like Katy and Michael's woolly mammoth and triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex, was different. You could see it at a museum - at the Boston Museum of Science, for example, where Katy and Michael and my son Nathaniel regularly sneak up on the animated diplodocus who swung her hungry head back and forth and the sabre-toothed tiger who flashes his edgy smile. And you could see the bones of dinosaurs and early mammals; you could even touch them. They were real. But they were not real in the same way that mom and dad, or the animals in the zoo, were real. They held the lure of distance, the distance the imagination goes to recover something that no longer has a life outside the mind.

Kids make this kind of recovery so naturally that we sometimes forget how much they trust their minds to shift and shape the solid world we take for granted. But even for them, distinctions apply: A pirate in a storybook is not the same as a Stegosaurus in a museum, though kids turn both into stories and backyard dramas.

That far-removed kinship between dinosaurs and kids, that faint trace of life in the mechanized movements of the animated museum pieces, makes the dinosaurs and early mammals a fertile catalyst for play. They never quite evaporate at the end of a long day; they remain creaturely, like the dog or cat in the family photos of great-grandpa or great-grandma, etched on the edge of memory.

They are ``part of nature, part of us,'' as the poet Wallace Stevens says. Earnestly and playfully, in scholarly books and plastic models and T-shirts, we bring them back to life, and they in turn remind us: The world was not always as it is. It is not a fixed base, a guarantee of permanence. It is a long storm, and we are the current voyagers, hunting not-quite-imaginary animals as we seek the secret harbors we have seen in dreams.

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