Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Poetry of Charles H. Sternberg

I knew Charles H. Sternberg had written the books Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909) and Hunting Dinosaurs in the Bad Lands of the Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada (1917). I was unaware that he had written a book of poetry in 1911 - A story of the past or The romance of science. It is such a cool compilation of poems, really a must read. Hat tip to Andy for pointing it out, and for mentioning that it is available on Google Books - so go check it out (Life of a Fossil Hunter is also available)! Below if one of my favorite poems from the book.


For many years my life work ply,
And many museums supply
With the rich store from Nature's book.
On many wondrous scenes I look.
I've often wanted to explore
The graveyard of the Dinosaur,
And when the British Museum said
They'd like to own a mighty head,
The largest of the saurians dread,
Triceratops (Marsh gave the name),
To Converse County then I came.
In Wyoming's range for sheep
Are many canyons carved quite deep,
In the grey sands and beds of clay;
While haystack buttes on every side,
That often crown some high divide.
The creeks spread out in fanlike shape,
That everywhere the surface break
Into ravines, with edges steep;
While here the dead for ages sleep.
For weeks we worked the Laramie,
Those beds of sand from fossils free.
Night after night my boys come in,
And not a single fossil win.
We search out Hatcher's chosen field,
That not a single skull will yield.
At last we reach the Cheyenne brakes,
Each one a rugged canyon takes
And follows it to cedar crest.
I work on steadily with the rest.
At last one day we moved our tent;
Across the roughest ground I went,
I came to a denuded space;
O'er it my weary footsteps trace;
I stumble on a weathered horn.
I'd weeks of disappointment borne.
It is too good, I greatly fear,
To find a huge skull buried here.
We mark the place, return next day,
Remove with care the crumbling clay:
A mighty skull before us lay.
What joy to a discouraged mind
To know a skull at last we find!
But good luck does not come alone,—
George has found a pelvic bone.
Charlie and I make the long trip
To Lusk, where we our fossil ship.
When five days later we return,
I hear such news my heart strings burn
A story that George has to tell.
My pride runs high, my bosom swell,—
He's found a splendid Trachodon,
And he the prize has surely won.
"He lies now in the quarry there,
Let's quickly to the place repair."
"No," says George, "unload your duds.
For three long days we've lived on spuds,
We've worked at least twelve hours a day,
And quarried out the sandstone grey
Full fifteen feet at least in height,
Twelve feet across, from left to right.
The floor is over ten feet deep,
In center lies, as if asleep,
The carcass of our Trachodon.
And so, you see, the prize I've won."
"That's not all," cries the eager boy,
"I know your heart will break for joy,
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.
A long and lingering death he'd died,
His flesh had all been atrophied.
He surely has been starved to death,
His skin to all the bones is prest,
And within abdominal walls,
Like a great curtain there it falls.
While carcass rides upon the tide,
The head is pressed to the left side;
As in the sands his body's laid,
His arms stretch out imploring aid."

I scarce can wait until with ease
The boys their hunger can appease.
With haste our eager footsteps take
To bed of the old Laramie lake,
To where the mighty carcass lay,
As if he'd died but yesterday.
I raise a high exultant sound,
The crags and canyons echo round.
"Thank God, thank God, I'm paid at last
For days of toil, for dangers past!"
Now, Science had a mighty store
Found by collectors long before,
Of this great reptile Trachodon.
"What has this great discovery done
To advance science?" you will ask.
To tell you it will be my task.
It was supposed they lived on land,
On pillars strong he used to stand,
With short front limbs, and hands to grasp,
He held the swinging branches fast;
While duck-bill nipt the foliage green
That passed along his jaws between,
Where full two thousand teeth are seen
Arranged in perpendicular line,
Diagonally, too, one at a time.
Alternate teeth could wear quite thin
While other teeth were coming in.
A monstrous tail—one would suppose,
With hind limbs, like a tripod rose.
Of course attention must be lent
To the huge beast's environment;
And tyrant of the Laramie
Who preyed on reptiles such as he.
His body was in armour clad.
I must confess it made me glad
To learn from this my trophy grand,
He Lived In Water, not on land.
His feet were webbed, and his thin skin
Was blotched with scales, both small and thin.
His mighty body shines and pales,
Lined by rosettes and little scales.
His mighty tail of fifteen feet,
Like the propellers of a fleet.
A length of thirty feet he spanned—
A wondrous creature, and so grand.
His duck-billed head three feet in length.
His neck shows well his sinewy strength,
No carapace on dorsal spines,
But osseous tendons pack the lines
In muscles dense, on either side;
Like straddle-boards on roof they ride.
His hind limbs, full eight feet in length,
Are strongly built, of mighty strength.
With ease he stems the rising tide,
And swims to pastures on the side
Of shallow streams, whose waters glide
Through the green rush and shining reed.
And here our reptile stops to feed.
He plants hind feet in sand below,
While rushing by the waters flow.
In solemn grandeur there he stood
And gathered armsful of rich food.
Then chops it off with duck-bill strong,
While muscles pass it fast along
Where teeth like scissors shred the mass,
That into a great stomach pass.
A half a ton, I'd say, or more,
Has passed in through that open door
Before his appetite appease.
He's finished breakfast, if you please.
Now watch him as his way he'll take
To the smooth surface of the lake.
His limbs in unison, they beat
The gurgling waters 'neath his feet.
The tail, in undulations strong,
Urges the heavy mass along.
He's gaining speed. Oh, see how fast
The foam is rising on the blast!
His body now is hid from sight
Beneath the foaming waters white.
He's gaining distance: see arise
A great white column to the skies,
Like smoke in fighting ship's broad wake;
The foam marks out the course he'll take.
But now to work; I'll dream no more.
Our work lies in the old lake's floor.
How will we get our saurian safe,
Is the great problem we must face.
The mighty fossil it will prove
A trying task for us to move.
We first take off the arms and head;
They're heavy, and they weigh like lead.

The body now we cut in two,
Cover with starch and paper too;
While yards of cloth the parts enfold,
Which, dipped in plaster, forms a mold
That soon becomes as hard as stone.
It well protects the brittle bone.
Two thousand pounds each section weigh,
Like chunks of iron there they lay.
We're only four, my sons and I.
To move these masses we will try.
But first of all, strong boxes make;
Then each his sharpened shovel take
And cut some grass to pack around
This specimen that we have found.
We build a platform for the skull,
And to it now our wagons pull.
A section then we get around,
With levers lift it from the ground.
We build beneath with rocky blocks,
And get it in the box at last,
Which we roll in the wagon, too;—
Repeat the process till we're through.
Now you might think our labor done:
Dear friends, it's only just begun.
We hitch four horses,—"Please don't talk."
Half up the hill those horses balk;
They back the wagon in a ditch;
They will not pull. So we unhitch.
Then to the nearest ranch I go—
Full twenty miles from camp, I know.

What if a rain should flood the ditch
And in the Cheyenne River pitch
This load to me worth more than gold?
"The ranchman's busy," so I'm told.
He would not stop his work one day
For all the bones on earth, they say.
I find a man who owns a team
Who'd gladly go, so it would seem,
To help me in my direst need.
So off they go with all their speed,
For Levi had come on with me,
And went to show the road, you see.
In passing I might simply say
He only charged three dollars a day.
"We're out the woods; now I can talk"-
Alas! he knew his team would balk.
So full three days all squandered they.
The man got his three dollars a day.
At last George finds a man and team
Who'd do their duty, so 'twould seem.
And so we reach the platform floor
Beside the railroad station door.

Sternberg, Charles Hazelius. 1911. In the Laramie. Pages 80-87 in A story of the past or The romance of science. Sherman, French and Company - Boston.

Images from:
Osborn, Henry Fairfield. 1916. Integument of the Iguanodont Dinosaur Trachodon. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 1: 38 and Plate V. Images hosted on Wikimedia Commons.


MDR said...

That was very cool. It really conveys the excitement (and frustration) the Sternbergs must have experienced finding that iconic fossil. Thanks for posting it.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

I agree. I really enjoyed the poem. I am glad Andy posted the link! I am glad I could share it :)

Andy said...

It's a pretty amazing account of the discovery. . .I've skimmed through much of the book, and have really enjoyed it. Sternberg was not someone for whom faith and evolution were in conflict, as is very apparent from many of the poems!

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

I agree. I have not read everything yet, but quite a bit of it. I did read "The Sternberg Family of Fossil-Hunters" which was interesting. I agree about Sternberg's convection's. I think it is one of the reasons I can relate to him appreciate him. Thanks again!