Theropods jump categories

The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, Michael Benton, Thames and Hudson.

When I was a child my favourite dinosaur book was a 1977 hardcover compendium entitled A Natural History of Dinosaurs. It wasn’t necessarily a kids’ book, but I had those as well. The book had colour plates with dinosaurs dragging their tails and looking very reptilian, certainly without any hint of a feather. Except, that is, for Archaeopteryx, which at the time was something of an anomaly, but was seen as a missing link between dinosaurs and birds, proof perhaps that a tiny thread had made it through the end-of-Cretaceous mass extinction.

There was no definitive conclusion as to why that mass extinction occurred. One kids’ book I had (a Golden Book, I think) simply concluded with the words ‘no-one knows why’, or similar. The authors of my 1977 history, being more thorough, discussed the suppositions, and, interestingly, suggested that climate change may have been to blame, with evidence of shifting continents (towards what we know of their configuration today) creating drier conditions and colder climates generally.

A lot has changed in dinosaur research since then, including the idea that dinosaurs held their tails upright as a counter-balance for the head. The much-publicised Chicxulub asteroid is generally agreed to have finished off the dinosaurs, though they might have already been in decline partly due to enormous volcanic activity in what is now India. And as for a select few scraping through as birds, this turned out to be more-or-less correct, because while many dinosaurs had feathers, a 2018 study suggested that only a few, small, ground-dwelling proto-birds were able to survive the post-asteroid apocalypse.

In The Dinosaurs Rediscovered Michael Benton covers the asteroid and notes that the Chicxulub explanation was resisted initially because palaeontologists were entrenched in thinking in models of slow change, as per, originally, Charles Lyell, and a catastrophic explanation seemed a too convenient, almost biblical theory. Benton also notes a brilliant example of how narrow research can enliven a discipline. One researcher found that the asteroid hit in June, such improbably specific date-fixing illuminated by the stage of growth lily flowers were at when they died and were fossilised.

The Dinosaurs Rediscovered also covers work done on origins, which is pushing back the date of creatures we can call dinosaurs, partly through research in the past decade on silesauridae, slender, dino-like relatives of dinosaurs. Even more recent are arguments that climate change may have accounted for the rise of the dinosaurs, which perhaps didn’t just outcompete their rivals. This is all a picture of life on earth as seasonal, times of proliferation and experiment truncated by mass die-offs. Or perhaps like the stock market. (Many ruminate on what this means for the survival of our own species.)

Computers help a lot more than they did in 1977, obviously, with explaining and mapping this multi-branched proliferation. But research doesn’t always clarify. Previously stable ideas in descent and species are being challenged, including a ‘bombshell’ rethink of the categories of bird and lizard hipped dinosaurs that many 8-year-olds are familiar with, whether now or in 1977. (Theropods – T-rex etc. – jump categories in this new theory.) Benton sticks to the old delineation but is generous enough to concede that the matter is nowhere-near settled. He seems delighted at both the refinement and the shaking-up. On other matters, he is less open, labelling ‘crackpots’ those who still suggest big dinosaurs lived mostly submerged in water. (He may be thinking here of Brian Ford, though Ford is not named in the book, who proposed that, amongst other things, T-rex lived its life like a crocodile.)

Otherwise, research on computer and in the field is producing hitherto unimagined detail, including how dinosaurs ate, how they got so big and how fast they ran (in T-rex’s case, not very fast, contrary to Jurassic Park). The authors of my 1977 book might be surprised by not only feathered dinosaurs, but also the knowledge of what colours the feathers were. The explosion in hunting and discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China shows that many dinosaurs had feathers, which were not initially for flight but later developed into flight feathers in smaller species of dinosaurs, and palaeontologists know colours from fossilised melanosomes, observable under microscopes in particularly well-preserved specimens. Sinosauropteryx, on Benton’s book’s cover, looked something like a chicken crossed with a fox, with a red and white stripy tail. Deinonychus, famed for its huge claw, now looks decidedly like a bird, rather than an ostrich naked of its feathers.

Wandering in the dark

Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night, Tiffany Francis, Bloomsbury.

Until more recent centuries it was common for people to go to bed early, then rise at midnight to eat, read, even work for an hour or two, and then go back to bed again. (This time might of course also be spent in criminal activity.) Modern experiments have shown this pattern is good for health – the time of wakefulness between sleep phases contributes to more restful sleep. This is just one of the dark-related matters Tiffany Francis shines a light on in Dark Skies, while exploring the nocturnal history of London, chasing bats, birds and beavers at night, eating cheese and watching the northern lights.

Henry Beston, in his classic The Outermost House, about living in a cabin on the dunes of Cape Cod, complained about the way civilisation has lost touch with the night, and this was in 1928, mind you. The night gives a counterpoint to the frenetic day, to the inquisitive glare. The International Dark Sky Association, which advocates for less light pollution in the night skies, notes that light pollution affects human health, wildlife and the environment. The dark is good for us, as necessary as sunshine. Humans need darkness for the production of melatonin. Too much light makes us depressed. Wildlife are disrupted by city lights and car lights, and all that energy used in lighting the night contributes to climate warming and other adverse environmental effects. Nightglow is also bad for astronomers, of course.

In Francis’s book one topic merges into another, sometimes like the flow of dreams. The night is a huge topic, and she can’t cover everything. (Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon, for example, has much about how in centuries past light from the moon dictated travel times and the like.) She writes about poets and astronomers, endangered birds and trees, but Francis’s journey through the dark landscape is also dictated by personal matters, and something of a travel diary. Like many young people she assumes her personal life is of more interest to others than might be the case, especially her love life. And she sometimes wanders off topic, as you would when wandering in the dark. (The night prompts perhaps a different kind of logic.) But her youthful enthusiasm means she often hits on what is important in life and what we should be focussing on. She points us to simple ways of doing things, laments the tendency of politicians to hoard wealth and encourage it in others, hates hunting. But she has a youthful enthusiasm for seeking new things, even if that means clomping through a cold forest in the middle of the night. This nocturnal bushwalking requires an adjustment, and attunes one to the ways wildlife operates quite differently to humans, its difference being one reason to make efforts to save it.

Where water meets sand

The Outermost House: A Year on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, Pushkin Press.

Cape Cod was the first place the English Pilgrims landed, with a vibrant Indian history before that (but darker consequences when the two cultures met), a playground for the rich, famous and artistic, a residence for sea captains and an incubator of the science of oceanography. It is the epitome of idyllic seaside villages. In summer, that is. In winter much is left to the gulls and roaring wind.

In 1926 Henry Beston spent a year in a cottage he had built on the outer dunes of Cape Cod on America’s east coast, observing the weather, animals and occasional shipwreck, and the result was The Outermost House, a classic of nature writing (now re-issued). The book is something of an update not only of Thoreau’s classic book about the cabin near Walden Pond, but also of Thoreau’s book about Cape Cod.

In the introduction to this new edition Philip Hoare, himself a keen observer of the wind and waves, describes the Cape as a frontline of sorts, the first part of land to greet the morning sun and the Atlantic breakers, like the prow of a ship. It is a primal, rugged place, elemental (in a world greatly in need of connection with elemental things, says Benton – this was in 1926, mind you; we need this connection more than ever these days). But it is also ‘paradoxically soft and fragile’, a place forever shifting. Some of us love the seaside for just these qualities that put us in touch with the turning of the world and the seasons and put our human concerns in perspective.

Benton finds beauty and interest in what might at first seem a stark land-and-sea-scape. His observations of the world wash back and forth like the waves scrolling up and down the beach. Birds, deer, fish, butterflies and the gradually shifting location of the setting sun catch his attention. He notes the crest of a dune ‘smoking’ like a volcano as the wind blows the topmost grains into an airborne column. He listens attentively too to the rain, wind, waves and symphony of insect noise that enlivens a summer night. He likes the biblical phrase ‘mighty works’, a concept which can encompass both the Milky Way and an ant’s nest.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that his writing is reverential. To contemplate the night sky is, he writes, to consider religious questions, and his observations of our planet’s journey through the cosmos are akin to metaphysical poetry, lyrical and philosophical.

His philosophy is born of experience not theory. He says that thinking of nature as cruel indicates too much time spent with one’s head stuck in books rather than outdoors. He, rather, thinks of the energy, cooperation, interconnections and astonishing complexity, even just in the space where water meets sand. (This reminds me of how medieval theorists, as Alexandra Harris tells it in her book Weatherland, had all manner of weird and wonderful explanations for the weather and how to predict it, harmonising seasons and the ‘humours’ of the human body and the motions of the heavenly bodies, with ideas partly borrowed from Aristotle, most of it rubbish. Harris notes that no-one bothered simply to take a look out the window.) Beston’s bright outlook extends to the human, even though he lived through the frontline horrors of World War I, or perhaps because his experiences with war drove him to seek out the better side of nature, as he observes a rare, lone swimmer. He takes the same approach to the naked swimmer as to the birds that wheel about his home, admiring the energy and purpose, and thinking that our coyness about the body is misplaced. The human body too is a marvel of nature, a mighty work.

God literally walked in the Garden

A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths, John Barton, Allen Lane/Penguin.

The Bible is meant to be a particularly familiar work, read widely, saturating Western culture with its phrases and stories, heard by millions every Sunday, but John Barton’s hefty and excellent history emphasises just how messy and unwieldy and even strange it is. A History of the Bible covers both how the Bible was compiled and how it has been read. Already with the former, this can be tricky, as the original authors are somewhat lost to us, and much of the Bible’s books, especially in the Old Testament, are patchwork in character (at times with obvious discrepancies between parts), meaning, as Barton puts it, we get, even within books, authors in dialogue, and styles clashing.

The Pentateuch is a composite work spanning centuries, and is not by Moses, there is not much before the Exile that historians can agree on in Israel’s history as outlined by the Bible, the Gospels are taken from earlier works, and have their own emphases and foci, and not all Paul’s letters are by Paul. As Barton, a scholar and Anglican priest says, taking note of the benefits of modern scholarship in illuminating the Bible’s messiness doesn’t have to undermine faith, but the fact that there are different versions of particular books, obvious contradictions, and differences in authorial tone make the ideas of inspiration and inerrancy complicated, to say the least.

The Bible has always been read through the eyes of faith. Jews and Christians, the Church Fathers and fundamentalists, Orthodox and Westerners, and even Luther and later Lutherans all read it in very different ways. And obviously the Bible contains a mix of genres, although what is what is disputed, Genesis being a prime example, and the Gospels – what exactly are they? They were written down long after the events described and are not verbatim transcripts.

It is perhaps an obvious point that Jews and Christians read the Old Testament (Tanakh) differently (which surprises some Christians, but the very name ‘Old Testament’, used exclusively by Christians, should make that apparent). In Judaism the Bible has been used as a guide for living, but it has been viewed as less uniform than Christians tend to do. Jews tend to see it as less self-contained than Christians also, as in dialogue with the Mishnah, and they play down the universalism that Christians read back into it. Barton also notes that original sin as a concept is nowhere near as widely held in Judaism. Christians of course often read into the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus (especially at Christmastime). But one has to use some creativity to do so.

The Church Fathers were happy to do so, reading much of the Bible allegorically. Origen and Augustine both thought the Genesis Creation account was obviously not meant to be read literally, with Origen particularly scathing. He asked how one could be so ‘unintelligent’ to believe that night and day literally existed before the Sun and Moon were created, that God literally walked in the Garden and that there was an actual ‘tree of life’ with real fruit.

But the allegorical reading got out of hand at one point, not just because allegory was possible, but because the whole point of reading the Bible was to find references to Jesus everywhere one looked. So, the Exodus story and even the Song of Songs are ‘really’ about Jesus’ relationship to the Church. And some reputable exegetes even added another layer of allegory onto the parables, which were already allegorical.

The Reformers rolled this back somewhat, though Luther had a far less reverential attitude to the whole canon than many Christians do today. He was famously happy to jettison (or at least relegate to an appendix) books that seemed irrelevant to the ‘core’ theological message of salvation through grace alone. (Although Barton says he appreciates much of Lutheran teaching, he notes that the rejection of a literal reading of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis makes the grand theme of sin and salvation – what he calls disaster and rescue mission – problematic. But then maybe he forgets that the non-literalist Augustine is usually blamed for the origin of the original sin idea, so maybe it’s not as problematic as Barton thinks, and one can hold, as Augustine supposedly did, both together.)

Interpretation, and even what was to be included in the Bible, is guided by belief. The two are in dialogue. (And to think that we can interpret the Bible free from any preconceptions is a fallacy.) An example Barton gives is the doctrine of the Trinity, for which there is rather slight foundation in the New Testament, and in Mark’s Gospel we have what might be counted as evidence against, when Jesus says, ‘Why do you call me good? Only God is good.’ (Although we could interpret this as a veiled way of saying, ‘do you realise you are recognising that I am God?’) This doesn’t discount Trinitarianism necessarily, it just points to the interaction of Scripture, belief and tradition.

Governing with diligence, wisdom, dignity…

American Carnage, Tim Alberta, Harper.

American Breakdown, David Bromwich, Verso.

As the Trump presidency careens forwards like an out-of-control cement mixer, there is the sense that anything can happen. As David Bromwich puts it, it is ‘government by frenzy’, like the White House taken over by the creators of the South Park cartoon series.

Much of what we see, though, fits what we knew of Trump’s personality, and the dubious dealings that are becoming clearer each day have a certain inevitability about them. Nothing should surprise us, unless Trump suddenly began governing with diligence, wisdom, dignity, kindness and humility. (It seems unlikely.)

What’s more puzzling than his behaviour remains how on earth America, and by extension the world, got to where we are. Tim Alberta, a Republican, but a seemingly moderate one, and a journalist, attempts to answer this by going right back to Dubbya Bush, the collapse of the Right’s power after Obama’s election, and the subsequent clawing back, fuelled partly by resentment that a black man made it to the top job.

Alberta goes into more detail than perhaps non-US citizens and non-political junkies understand or need to know, but he recalls the rise of the Tea Party, which destroyed ‘civility’ in US politics and which one Republican described as weirder than anything Shakespeare could dream up, and crackpots such as Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. Regarding the 2016 election, Alberta tries to explain why as Trump repeatedly offended, support for him continued to rise. It’s a story of increasing craziness, and Alberta views him as an outlier and aberration, but his divisiveness, selfishness, demonising of the marginalised and completely unreal sense of what America is taps into core Republican values, more than Alberta will admit. In a weird echo of Obama, but for a different audience – Republican voters – Trump explained, ‘I gave them hope’.

Christian support of Trump is a sad element in all this. Alberta describes Jerry Falwell pledging his support while standing in front of a framed Playboy magazine cover in Trump’s penthouse. The New York Review of Books recently shed some light on this, explaining that Christians are well aware of Trump’s faults, but many think God is using Trump for higher purposes. Alberta describes the relationship between Trump and evangelicals as simply ‘transactional’. And conservatives are reaping the benefits of the appointment of conservative judges. But how fair the deal is, is something that will be clearer later on. Beware doing deals with Trump. (Evangelicals ended up being dissatisfied with ‘their’ man Dubbya, who didn’t deliver all they hoped for.)

David Bromwich, in his much shorter book (with less reportage and more analysis), finds problems bigger than Trump or the Republican Party. He sees Bush and Cheney’s War on Terror being continued by Obama, while neither side does anything about the widening gulfs in American society. Alberta and Bromwich both agree – Obama was good at talking but not so good at putting into practice. Bromwich goes further back, to Reagan and Clinton, blaming them for the erosion of rights and heightened individualism, which opened a door for Trump to stick a foot in.

Bromwich looks to the founding fathers and Lincoln for alternative role models, which is always his strength, but it might be a weakness too because maybe that’s not wide enough. Maybe part of the problem lies in America’s elevated sense of itself, as exceptional, as a city on a hill. Australians are far more cynical (realistic?) about political power, those who hold it and those who support them. A TV celebrity with no morals sowing discord and winning political office by doing so shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us.

Temporarily dead

Little Faith, Nickolas Butler, Faber.

The Gospel According to Lazarus, Richard Zimler, Peter Owen Publishers.

Little Faith is set in what has been called ‘flyover country’, that neglected part of America, Midwest small towns, where there is a different pace, where there is more contact with the rhythm of the seasons, but where the effects of modernity are more to be seen in decline than progress. The plot centres on Lyle, a retiree who gains comfort from small town life, despite the decline, who with his wife attends a traditional Lutheran church, whose rusting liturgy might be seen as old-fashioned and also in decline. But Lyle finds rhythm and comfort here too, despite questioning the existence of God since the death of his son.

In contrast, his adopted adult daughter is drawn to a charismatic blow-in preacher, who has started a Pentecostal, non-denominational church in an old movie theatre. The book shows a careful understanding of the appeal and enthusiasm of such a ‘modern’ church, but it also shows an understanding of how such enthusiasm can hide manipulation and judgment. The book draws out issues of what it means to love God through loving others, even if his existence may not seem self-evident. The pastor of the traditional church, someone whose prodigal son-like worldly roaming in his early days has left him alert to the mystery and not-so-obvious nature of spiritual answers, describes the ‘elusiveness’ of faith, but this is portrayed as not simply deficiency, as well as being contrasted with the certainty of impulsively protecting family and doing what is right.

Many American novels focus on the coast-hugging citizens, the glamorous or the outcasts. Here the main character is what is usually thought of as the stalwart, the dependable older person, but a strength of the novel is making this character into a literarily satisfying, psychologically rounded figure, rather than a caricature. The book also shows how while we have an attraction to certainty, which you might think is a feature of small-town life, such places are more subtle, with people negotiating, especially through churches, a world with a seemingly random mix of good and bad.

The Gospel of Lazarus takes a different tone. Its literariness and flair contrast with the more appropriately down-home gentleness of the prose of Little Faith. And its setting is a more fraught and frenetic world. An ageing and exiled Lazarus tells of the disorientation and doubt after his resurrection (he feels guilty about not having seen an afterlife while temporarily dead) (along with having to face the repercussions of becoming ritually unclean by being dead), his friendship with Jesus, Holy Week and its aftermath. It’s a well-worn story of course, made unfamiliar and immediate not only by the author’s use of names (Jesus is Yeshua and so forth) but also by the depth of evocation of the times and setting. The brutality of Roman occupation contrasts with the life and love-filled Jesus, who is both mystic and revolutionary, a ‘sandstorm’. Jesus’ knowledge of the Torah is a dreamworld full of resonances and prophecy and direction, and this all dovetails into his understanding that his destiny is to rid the priests of their power because, as Lazarus realises too, the priests have made themselves into idols. (One of the novel’s strengths is to circumvent the wrongly premised academic argument as to whether Jesus’ mission was primarily material or spiritual.) 

Hence the conclusion of Holy Week which is, as Lazarus finds out, for Jesus’ followers not a conclusion but a beginning. (Jesus’ death becomes only an apparent and temporary setback.) In one way, first-century Palestine is a long way from small-town America, but in another it is not. Both novels convey the sense of carrying on with Jesus’ ministry of concern for others even while in the company of doubt, and how love in action nurtures faith, not always the other way around.

Clive James: 1939-2019

Clive James, who died this week, is being celebrated for his humour and writing, and his genius was in his ability to mix high and low; indeed, in a very Australian egalitarian way, to discuss works on their merit rather than according to prejudices and hierarchies about what art should be, and to see interest and, yes, humour, wherever he looked.

I came to Clive James late, as his TV career was winding down. I became interested in his books of reviews, and hunted them out in dusty bookshops, getting my hands on as many as I could. There are demarcations in his writing between the poetry, the serious criticism and the journalism, but he could write about anything cultural, and in his writings tennis players, pop singers, actors and motor racing drivers rub shoulders with opera singers, painters and medieval poets. He could find humour in high art and could take popular TV seriously. Well, he wrote about the latter in furiously funny fashion, but it wasn’t beneath him, as it might have been for other Oxbridge graduates.

Of course, Japanese game shows and Dante are not the same, and James’ first love was poetry, for which he primarily wanted to be remembered (but for which he probably won’t). He was educated at a time when poetry had more prominence than it has now, when it was as popular as TV. But poetry is where the craft of writing most dazzles, and poetry or prose, James was a master stylist. The humour just made it seem all the more effortless.

As he got older, a lecturing tone crept in, as he took on the role of old man of letters. He had strong opinions (including his rejection of religion, despite, we might note, his love of Dante). He had quite the ego, as noted by both himself and those around him. He once said that in show business you can’t be modest about your level of talent because there are too many people ready to agree with you. The ego wasn’t precluded by the fact that he could laugh at himself. It’s just that he found many things funny.

You can see evidence of both ego and self-deprecation in the book May Week was in June, a continuation of his memoirs. He describes his lack of focus, except for non-essential tasks, like writing poems about ducks who, somehow, have annoyed him, but he then muscled in on the role of poetry editor at Granta so he didn’t have to put up with editors not as talented as he was.

In a review of Philip Larkin’s jazz criticism, James noted Larkin’s rejection of the pretension of John Coltrane. Larkin thought that modern art went badly when it intellectualised or mystified. I think Larkin was something of an inspiration for James. Larkin was poet and critic, and he felt that art was for human beings to ‘enjoy’ and ‘endure’. I read the passage discussing this in one of James’ collections of reviews, which I grabbed randomly off the shelf and was flicking through after I heard he died. Often James wrote about the philosophy of art, if I can call it that, but without sacrificing lucidity, or humour and enjoyment, and because of this his frighteningly expansive intellect gets under the radar. And perhaps so it should. Truly great writers explain the complicated well and draw you in. Second-rate writers boost their egos by making things more complicated or by being unnecessarily negative.

James’s writing bubbles with enthusiasm. While he could be just as funny in his destruction of art he thought second-rate, he was one of those critics who wants to send you back to read or listen to the works he loves. There is a sunniness to his writing, a post-war optimism, thrown into more relief by the shadows of the wars and the loss of his father, and boosted by fond remembrance, possibly exaggerated by nostalgia, of his childhood in Sydney, where its harbour shone like, as he once put it, crushed diamonds. When he did fly home, he would sit at Circular Quay and enjoy white wine and the crushed diamonds, and when he no longer could fly home, it grew better in the memory. Sometimes his long-distance national pride was skewed – he praised John Howard’s prime ministership without perhaps understanding how the nation had shifted and how many non-white Australians felt alienated by Howard’s love of the good old days. But I think James owed some of his success to the unpretentious, easy-going Australia he grew up in (even if he was quick to get out of Australia, famously, and resided permanently in the UK).

Seeing him as a larrikin perhaps hides the fact that he was in love with language (and not just English – he taught himself multiple languages, partly by reading favourite books in their original languages), captured by, voracious for, writing and its potential. Even the TV criticism, while we might only dimly remember the characters he is discussing, astounds with its literary richness. James finished May Week was in June by cunningly combining the (false) modesty and ego in the sentence, ‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light’. Like crushed diamonds.