By Amy Lynn Reifsnyder
Where do I begin? How do I tell you that since participating in Petrified Forest Field Institute’s Fossil Dig, I look out my front door differently? What could I tell you that would bring to you the same sense of adventure, the same appreciation and excitement?
How do you find fossils, anyway?
It takes time. An awl. A couple of brushes. Patience. A bright, mid-day light to find fossils in the “bone layer” of a mound. And an opportunity offered by the Petrified Forest Field Institute in the colorful badlands of Petrified Forest National Park. We started the day with a tour of the research facilities located behind the Painted Desert Visitor Center, on the Interstate-40 end of the park. There we learned about the phytosaur, whose partial skull was on display. Handsome thing it was, with a toothy snout about as long as my forearm. Looked a bit like a crocodile with shark teeth. Close! It wasn’t a croc but a long-distant relative — a phytosaur.
The paleontology team — Bill Parker, Chief of Resources; Adam Marsh, Lead Paleontologist; Ben Kligman, Paleo-Intern; and Chuck Beightol, Term Paleontologist — worked patiently with me and four others as we unearthed any number of fascinating items buried in the rock. I found a vertebra of I-don’t-know-what, but it was still exciting. I was suddenly aware that there is oh, so very much more to know and explore — and it is under our feet.
We spent most of the day kneeling or lying in the dirt, chipping, sweeping, and prying rock apart to see what we could see. Marsh kept an eye on what I was doing, and occasionally picked up an ancient fish scale that I had overlooked. (They are very small.) He supervised while I dug out coprolites (fossilized dung), some of which also contained scales.
Beightol observed from above the dig line, catching glimpses of remains we missed. Someone found a really tiny spinal column. Most of us found teeth. Parker identified an ulna. Kligman supervised handling of the “small details.”
It was a blustery day, and from time to time, a hat, a kneeling pad, or baggie would get away from us. This sort of distraction was actually beneficial, as it gave us a moment to look around and take it all in, like how the changing light created new colors on the hills and canyons.
My world has gotten much bigger — and older — since the dig. When I was little, I always wanted to be one of those people who made great discoveries. And at least for one day, I was that person.
The focus of the Petrified Forest Field Institute (PFFI) is largely on the different ways and means of providing meaningful, experiential education in this fantastic park. Our upcoming event, Nightscape Photography, does just that and more. While urban sprawl and its light pollution has encroached into many wild spaces, our rural location has remained remarkably unaffected, making it possible to enjoy, discover, and remember.
Many of us can recall memories of staring in awe up at the stars in hopes of spotting a meteor or sharing stories of the constellations. Night sky viewing events are some of our most popular and well-attended park events, drawing visitors from all over the country to appreciate the night sky in a place where its wonders are still valued.
The evening of September 8 will be a pleasant and opportune time to try nightscape photography with Emmy-award-winning cinematographer and instructor, Frank Kraljic. Photographing the glorious Milky Way is the perfect prescription for those of us who seek grounding in a world that is quickly becoming replaced by gadgets.
To register for this or any PFFI field seminar, visit www.petrifiedforestfieldinstitute.org.