Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why I came to Germany

So, I’m a paleontologist. This means I am given to looking at road kill from yesterday and road kill from hundreds of millions of yesterdays past. While this blog might reveal a person who is interested in human history and art, I’ve chosen to make everything that came before that the focus of my professional curiosity. In fact, you may not actually believe it, but the fossils are the reason I chose to spend this year in Germany.

It’s impossible to fathom how little we would know about life in the past if we didn’t have Germany. German paleontologists have been moving and shaking the field since the mid 19th century, but the contributions of these studious Germans are overshadowed by the rocks under their feet. I would make the claim (reckless, I know) that Germany has the single greatest concentration of spectacular fossil localities per capita in the world. You name the time period and Germany will produce fantastic fossils. Name the “first” whatever. Germany has the first land plants, the first birds, and the first cave man and so on.

I hope you can imagine my excitement when I found out there would be a field excursion led by Dr. Martin to some of the most important localities in Germany, and by extension, the world. Messel. Holzmaden. Solnhofen. The places evoke ancient ecosystems and creatures that fundamentally affected the evolution of life on Earth. And I was going to take a look at their final resting place.

I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive about my trip to the rocks. None of the graduate students I’ve gotten to know over the last few months were going. Neither was Vincent, my lab mate. I would only know Dr. Martin, Dr. Ruf, and Pavel, a Russian post-doc who had just arrived on a Humboldt Fellowship. Then there were the German students. When I visited the Mainz Basin I didn’t have much luck cracking the German social circle, but I would have six days to try this time around. I rehearsed my small talk and prepared to depart by packing my rock hammer (thank you Grandma and Grandpa) and my rain-gear (a necessary piece of Geology equipment).

Our journey began in Enspel, a small town 90 km to the east of Bonn. For decades the basalt pit was mined for road construction. Then the miners reached the end of the volcanic material and found a baked group of sedimentary rocks with fossils from 25 million years ago. The most important discovery was a kind of carbonized smudge that represents the first gliding rodent (oohs and aahs are encouraged). We poked around in the sediment, splitting shale with knives and hammers. I found some leaves and seeds. Pavel found a fish. Sometimes I wonder if my crummy luck will prohibit my professional development in paleontology.

This was a roll-and-talk field trip, a standard feature of any Geological education. You pile into a van or bus, stop at a locality, hop out and listen to the professor explain the significance of the site. Germans tend to avoid interactive education. They also tend to be a very thorough people. I would listen and try to piece together the significance of the locality while getting anxious. I just wanted to drum up some ancient animals and get my hands dirty. At the end of each talk, Dr. Martin would ask, “Pavel, Matthew (I’m never Matt in these parts) did you understand everything?” We would dutifully nod our heads then try to piece it together afterward with some help from Dr. Martin and Dr. Ruf. Pavel is actually learning German as we speak, so I had the distinct pleasure of lending a slightly more informed hand as we muddled through the explanations.

Dr. Martin’s question had a way of driving the German students away from us. Throughout the week I would try to initiate a conversation in German at the breakfast table or on the outcrop. Usually the person I was speaking with would look horrified and answer in English, or not answer at all. One couple in particular seemed to avoid me like a leper. I thought it was because they were intimidated by a potential language barrier. Then I was in a seminar this week and heard the female student ask a question in perfect, British accented English. Hmmm. Maybe my towering physique is just too intimidating for the average German undergraduate to handle.

Our paleo-caravan rolled on from the flying squirrel site to a Devonian slate mine where they’ve been splitting stone for shingles since the Romans marched into town. In fact, nearly every locality we visited that famous for its fossils was also is industrially important. The place was an ocean 260 million years ago that was home to a lot of trilobites. Now they'll show you fun new ways to use those smooshed marine bugs to cover your roof:

Road cuts and State Parks are the bread and butter of the American geologist on a field trip. Germans get rusty elevators and track hoes. The advantage of the German system is there is always a town nearby and a machine to help with the heavy lifting. Field trips in the U.S. involve camping along the route, with everyone lugging tents and sleeping bags. For this excursion we just needed to tote a change of clothes or two as we would be crashing in youth hostels across the central and southern half of the country.

The best part of being in towns for most of the trip was ready access to regional restaurants and bars. I ate maultasche (German Ravioli), sauerbraten, and wurst. One of the great pleasure of travel is drumming up local food. Of course, I also had to sample each region’s special brew. Dr. Martin was very encouraging of this aspect of my education. He’s excited to share any aspect of German history or culture, from fossils to castles. Naturally the beer is a key cultural feature.

Each day we would grab breakfast at the hostel, roll to a grocery store to pick up supplies for lunch then go to a series of fossil sites or museums, then arrive in a new town, get dinner (usually Pavel and I were cool kids and got invited to eat with the professors) then drop into an exhausted sleep. Over the next couple of days you’ll learn about some of the most important places we checked out. Or you can choose not to. Travel logging will return in a week if you’d just like to tune back in then. Now to the rocks…


Ashlan said...

Mainz basin?? Err?

Matt said...

Yeah, at the beginning of May I went on a field trip to your part of the great D'land for some geological context and a little fossil hunting. 25 to 15 million years ago, your slice of Germany was flooded with a series of freshwater lakes and marine inlets with manatees and sharks splashing around and rhinos occasionally drowning.