In the field with Barnum Brown

28 06 2007

Lilian MacLaughlin Brown’s Bring ’em Back Petrified was an interesting read as it provided a look at one of the world’s greatest fossil hunters looking for his quarry in one of the hardest locales to tackle; the jungle. While Barnum’s wife doesn’t seem nearly as interested in fossils as being a sort of housewife in the field, she does prove some interesting (if short) accounts of work in the field.

He hitched up his pants, spat on his hands, stepped forward and brought his pick down like a sledge hammer, shattering the limestone rock. He picked up a fragment. Out of his pocket came the hand lens, and, training it on the specimen, he squinted down into the glass. Rufio and Lolo stood a few paces behind, exchanging looks and whispers. There are times when Barnum is as finicky about noise as a golf champion on the green. This was one of them. Now an irritate cough hinted that his concentration was being disturbed by the men’s whisphering. They took the hint. We all stood like statuary – waiting.

At last he came to life with a, “hmmmmmm,” which I recognized as a good sign – particularly when he followed this by pulling out his pipe and tobacco pouch. Barnum always pulls out his pipe when he prepares to develop a dig. It’s an English briar, a smelly thing he latched onto sometime before we were married, and so heavy he has to rest his jaws between puffs. Why he keeps it is a mystery, although it does make him look a little like Sherlock Holmes.

I had to nudge him with a questioning, “Yes-s-s?” before bringing him entirely out of his trance. Even then he filled and lit his pipe before favoring me with a smiling,
“It’s our sea-bed alright, Pixie.”
Picking up another rock fragment, he examined it through the lens, then suddenly emitted a jubilant,
“FORAMINIFERA! Stand back, everyone. Nobody touch the rock. We’ve got foraminifera!”
Lolo threw Rufio a look of alarm. “Is this bad? Are we get a sickness?”
“No,” said Rufio, “I think it is something scientific. And many times,” he added, in a whisper, “that not so good either.”

Both turned to me for enlightenment but I could only shake my head and nod towards Barnum. No scientist is in an explanatory mood when he has just made a discovery. Having prospected the rocks for his information, he himself must be prospected if one is to pry that information loose. Only one doesn’t do it with his pick. One wheedles-particularly at night when a scientist’s defenses are down. Since this was daytime, I decided on the direct approach. Barnum was hunkered down working his pick point carefully over the rock.
“what,” I asked, giving the question a casual twist, “is foarminifera?”

The pick halted in mid-air. His head and neck took on a peculiar rigidity. Turning slowly, he eyed me in such a “violent” manner that Rufio stepped gallantly forward to my defense.
“Señor, we only like to know-”
“You stay out of it, Rufio,” Barnum barked. “This is a family affair.”

Although I soon caught the melodramatic undertone, for an instant indignation welled up in me.
“Can’t a person even…?” I began.
It was Barnum’s clue to clap a hand to his forehead, actor-like, and go on with the melodrama:

“That a woman of mine should ask what a foraminifera is!” he orated. “A woman who was with me when I dug up the Colossochelys atlas in India; who watched me unearth the Samotherium and Sivatherium; who helped me with my Wyoming sauropods; who…” He broke off his act, and laughed at the blank look on the men’s faces.

I laughed. The men laughed. The Señor Doctor was loosening up.


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