The many adventures of Charles Sternberg

1 06 2007

Last night I was able to get through more than half of Charles H. Sternberg’s 1909 autobiography The Life of a Fossil Hunter, and I have to say it is perhaps the most enjoyable book that I’ve read as of late. In fact, it is a good follow-up to W.J.T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book in that Sternberg seems to be a combination of cowboy and scientist, tying together intellectual fulfillment as well as high adventure no longer available to us in the 21st century. (I’m sure there are many barren locales in other countries, especially Africa and the Middle East, where experiences similar to Sternberg’s can be had today, but after the American West was “won” it was soon lost)

Even if Sternberg’s story were not enough in and of itself, we also get a more personal look at E.D. Cope, a man often relegated to a paragraph or two referring to the great “Bone Wars” in most books about dinosaurs. Sternberg’s travels with the “Professor” (as he’s usually referred to) are just as interesting as the fossils they uncover, and this book is an absolute must for anyone interested in the early days of paleontology in the American west. I’m apologize if all I’ve said so far is a bit general; I will get more specific when I finish the book tonight.

What is interesting to note, however, is that Sternberg was the son of a minister and he often refers to “Providence,” “the Architect,” and “the Creator” in the book. Indeed, at one point Sternberg’s memoirs echo Phillip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, asking the reader to join him on the shores of a Kansas ocean during the Cretaceous to watch mosasaurs fight and devour each other. Here is an early, more peaceful, excerpt on that theme;

Go back with me, dear reader, and see the treeless plains of to-day covered with forests. Here rises the stately column of a redwood; there a magnolia opens its fragrant blossoms; and yonder stands a fig tree. There is no human hand to gather its luscious fruit, but we can imagine that the Creator walked among the trees in the cool of the evening, inhaling the incense wafted to Him as a thank offering for being. All His works magnify Him.

While Sternberg often refers to God and “the Age of Reptiles,” there doesn’t seem to be any conflict in his mind. So far evolution has not been mentioned, nor has the actual creation of the earth or its creatures, so perhaps any conflict between the Bible and science simply fell under the category of “I do not think about things I do not think about” for Sternberg.


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