January 15, 2010
A Story of the Past, or A Romance of Science is a very unusual book. In it readers will find frequent references to Jesus, the American West, fossil mammals, and extinct marine reptiles, often all in the same poem. Who else but one of the greatest fossil hunters who ever lived, Charles H. Sternberg, could have written it?
Sternberg was more of a collector than a scientist, a consummate “bone sharp” whose finds remain museum centerpieces to this day, but in his personal life he was also a deeply religious man. This shines through in A Story of the Past. The collection of poems is dotted with religious odes such as “One Hundred and Seventh Psalm” and “Calvary,” but Sternberg’s epic-length paleo poems were what most immediately grabbed my attention.
While I have seen no indication that Sternberg was a young earth creationist, he did see the work of God in the fossils he collected. They were testaments to divine power, and Sternberg saw it as his job to catalog the part of creation documented only by fossils. In the opening poem, “A Story of the Past,” Sternberg wrote:
I’ve found the crust of our old earth
A mighty funeral urn
Where countless forms of life had birth;
Then others took their turn
And left in sepulchers of stone
The dead He buried there.
But they are not dry bones alone;
I see them as they were
Indeed, Sternberg is at his best when he envisions ancient landscapes in which fossil bones come to life. In his opening poem Sternberg focuses on the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs that haunted the Western Interior Seaway in the Cretaceous of North America, while he describes extinct mammals as he sails down the “tide of time” in his work “The Permian Beds of Texas.” One of my favorite passages, though, comes from “In the Laramie,” in which Sternberg describes the discovery of the famous “Trachodon mummy” he made with his sons in verse:
The glory of this specimen—
He lies there as he floated in
With bloated body on the wave.
The gas escapes he found his grave,
As he sinks to his long rest,
Skin clinging fast to bone and breast.
Sure, it’s not Shakespeare, but Sternberg’s poetry does have a quaint charm about it. Nor was he the only paleontologist to describe his thoughts about the fossil record in verse. Almost a century earlier the Amherst geologist and theologian Edward Hitchcock penned an ode to the “sandstone birds” represented by the tracks he found around the Connecticut Valley (which turned out to have been made by dinosaurs). I wonder how many other naturalists wrote paleo poetry.
[Hat-tip to Andy Farke for bringing this book to my attention.]
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