Prehistoric Flashback

February 13, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Aidan Bonner

The Daily Sun does not generally encourage its columnists to use their space in the paper as a platform to gush about their favorite shops. That said: Autumn Leaves, downtown in the Commons, is amazing. It’s one of those rambling old bookstores full of overstuffed couches and obscure literature that always seems homey, a place you could stay in for days if you wanted to and never feel bored or unwelcome. There’s always something new there, and yet whatever you find there always seems like something that’s been with you all your life.

In some cases, that’s true in the literal sense as well as the figurative. A few weeks back, my girlfriend and I ducked in there to escape a chilling Ithaca wind. We soon found ourselves on the big sofa over by the children’s section, the kind of sofa that always ends up somehow causing the people sitting in it to cuddle up together (something I certainly didn’t mind). 

It was then that I saw it. It had been years since I had even thought of this book, yet I recognized it immediately. The lavish cover illustration, the big block letters of the title, the way the book dwarfed everything else on the shelf — all of it was there. This was Dinotopia by James Gurney. It’s a book about a utopian island where humans live peacefully with intelligent dinosaurs, complete with giant cities built on waterfalls, people who ride pterosaurs, a treehouse city accessible only via the neck of a brontosaurus and a Tibetan-style mountain monastery populated by woolly mammoths and giant sloths.

When I was a child, I was obsessed with this book. This was partly due to the captivating story and beautiful illustrations, but a big factor drawing me to this book was that I discovered it in the midst of my dinosaur phase. I didn’t just have Dinotopia — I also had an evolution-themed board game, a set of dinosaur footprint stamps, a balsawood T. Rex, dinosaur playing cards, some dino-themed episodes of Nova on tape and more dinosaur books that I can even begin to name.

I’ve never known a child that didn’t have a dinosaur phase. There’s just something about the idea of giant extinct reptiles that absolutely fascinates children between the ages of four and eight. But why? What is it about these creatures that makes them so irresistible to children?

I think the answer lies in the fact that, fundamentally, dinosaurs are still extremely mysterious. As much as we’ve studied them, we still know very little about them, and what we think we know is being cast into doubt all the time. When it comes to things like the dinosaurs’ physical appearance or what their daily habits were, we can, at the end of the day, only conjecture. Furthermore, our conjectures constantly have to be re-evaluated in light of new evidence, such as the recent fossil findings suggesting that Jurassic Park’s famous Velociraptors likely had feathers.

This process of guessing based on evidence is fundamental to scientific thought, but it’s also fascinating from the perspective of child. Our knowledge of dinosaurs is limited, and since we don’t know that much about them, your average six-year-old is free to imagine them in all sorts of fantastical ways. After all, who says Triceratops can’t be hot pink (recent theory has suggested that Triceratops might not have even existed, but that’s another matter)? Maybe pterodactyls cooed like pigeons! To a child, the world of dinosaurs is one that they make themselves; these giant reptiles spring up not from the ground, but from the imagination.

Reading Dinotopia again was like going back to an old playground I used to frequent in my youth. I kicked the swing set and marveled at how a slide that small could have been so scary, but I knew I couldn’t play there anymore. As we get older, our world — which used to be so malleable, like the world of the dinosaurs — becomes concrete. We decide what to do with our lives, and in so doing we make things just a little more set in stone and a little bit less changeable.

But growing up isn’t fossilizing; I’d say it’s more like evolving. After all, the dinosaurs are still with us as their evolutionary descendants, the birds. Part of adulthood is recognizing that the pigeons and geese that surround you are just as fascinating as the Tyrranosaurs in your imagination, and seeing that the reality of a warm bookstore has just as many possibilities as the lush islands in your head. Growing up means losing the infinite possibility of being a dinosaur, but it also means learning to fly.

Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester

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