Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway with Ray Troll

Dr. Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll at Gulliver's Books

Dr. Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll at Gulliver's Books

Dr. Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll were at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks on Friday night, talking about their 2007 book Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, telling stories and autographing books. It was a hoot.

Johnson is a paleobotanist, a fossil-hunter who specializes in the fossils of plants. As he puts it, he goes time traveling with a shovel. He understands William Faulkner’s line, “The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past.” He has a gift for telling stories, and is a science popularizer par excellence. Plus, he can find dinosaur footprints in roadcuts driving by at 65 mph.

That’s not the kind of skill you’d expect to find in the Vice President of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, but it’s true. As well as a Ray Troll drawing.

Ray Troll is, well, he’s Ray Troll. He’s an Alaska treasure, a man comfortable with fish, evolution, puns, geology, the Amazon, puns and Truly Awful puns. His surrealistic art has anatomically correct critters. And he’s a fine public speaker, too. He gave a very nice, 45 minutes summary of the book and the adventures that led to it, complete with excellent KeyNote slides. He is, of course, a Mac user.

He can and did talk knowledgeably about the Morrison Formation, Pleiosaurs, Triceratops, Jackalopes, Ammonites and the strata of the Wind River Canyon. He can draw a vivid explanation of Natural Trap Cave – the mother lode of Holocene mammal skeletons – and make a joke at the same time: “Forty Thousand Mammals Can Be Wrong.” He sells t-shirts, but world class museums compete for his exhibitions.

Johnson wrote the book, mostly. Troll illustrated it. Johnson has a easy writing style that is comfortable explaining deep time, Troll’s penchant for cheeseburgers, the mechanisms by which fossils are made and preserved and the endless variety and availability of fossils.

Look Under Your Feet, © Ray Troll

Look Under Your Feet, © Ray Troll

The book is science blended with the road story of Troll’s and Johnson’s trip together and excursions into some of the pleasures of geology. A couple of WC’s heroes wander into the story, including Dr. David Love, the subject to John MacPhee’s superb Rising from the Plains [Amazon link], and how Love came to have a dinosaur named after himself. Or at least a dinosaur track; the late Cretaceous, four-toed species is known to science only from its tracks. And, as it turns out, Love once took Olaus and Marty Murie, of Alaska fame, fossil hunting. You never know what’s going to wash up when you beach comb the shores of science.

And the book is filled with amazing new characters, too. Like “Buck-a-Bug” Jimmy Corbett, who finds trilobite fossils and sells them to Fossil King Robert Harris for a dollar each. As Troll skillfully points out,  if we look under our feet, the past is all around us.

There are Christianists, religious zealots and various prigs who would deny us and our children our true heritage: billions of years of history, deep time, and tens of millions of species that were long gone before mammals even evolved. They’d force our public schools to deny the existence of The Dinosaur killer, the K-T boundary that is the dinosaurs’ epitaph and all that went before and since. Johnson was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and his story of the moment as a teenager he realized Noah’s Flood was not the default answer to every geologic problem could stand as an object lesson for all creationists.

Ray Troll was kind enough to sign a few of WC’s books, and both Troll and Johnson signed a copy of Fossil Freeway. They are fine souvenirs, and will have a place of honor on WC’s bookshelves. But the bigger take away from the evening is the hard, clever work of these two gentlemen who are working to tease a little knowledge of the past into the thick, stubborn brains of Americans.

WC is grateful for their efforts and wishes them every success.