Week Four started with a victory. A book of memos and reports on the development of exhibits at Carnegie Quarry dating from 1936-53 had been taunting me under the scanning lights for days, and on the first work day of the fourth week of my summer at Dinosaur National Monument, I closed the book for the last time and slapped a “scanned” sticky note on it.
It turned out to be all duplicates of memos that had already been scanned from other folders, but I didn’t find that out until Marie was writing descriptions. For that day, at least, I got to savor an archiving achievement.
Adjacent to the archives library is Dan Chure’s office, and just outside his sliding glass doors, on top of an electrical box, in a small clump of twigs built by a dove, are two baby dinosaurs. They’re either mourning doves or Eurasian collared doves. The week before, they were prickly horror-movie squabs, but over the course of this week we saw them turn into full-blown animals worthy of the title theropod.
They’re not the only little dinosaurs in the park. Just outside the bunkhouse door is a robin’s nest, and last week we started to finally see glimpses of the baby robins, tiny triangle mouths perpetually open in anticipation of whatever grub the sandy ground here has to offer their foraging parents.
The magpies have been busy, too. There’s a large nest in a tree across the street, and I noticed four of the stately black-white-and-blue corvids perched in its branches. The juveniles are big, and already indistinguishable from their parents from a distance, but distinctly rougher around the edges through a telephoto lens. They haven’t learned to fly yet, and their distinctive long tail feathers have yet to grow in.
Like the four young magpies, the four GIPs (Trinity Stirling, Marie Jimenez, Elliott Smith and myself) had some training to do this week. “Operational Leadership” is what the National Park Service calls it, and they hope it will change the culture of the organization to promote individual responsibility and overall safety.
the notion of keeping morale up by not singling out or demeaning team members would have been laughed at, then demeaned when it was found to be un-ironic
The two days I spent in the Headquarters basement in front of a projector were more interesting than I thought they would be. Before I came to Dinosaur, before I even started studying paleontology or met a single paleontologist, I worked in San Francisco technology and advertising companies. The idea of having a diverse team (read: hiring anyone who wasn’t a white male under 40) was an abstract concept that quickly killed conversations, and the notion of keeping morale up by not singling out or demeaning team members would have been laughed at, then demeaned when it was found to be un-ironic. I once asked a manager why we didn’t have any black people in the office, and he replied, with shrugging sincerity, “Well we’ve only ever interviewed two or three and they just weren’t that good.”
The messages I took away from Operational Leadership training came from a different universe.
The messages I took away from Operational Leadership training came from a different universe. Whether or not the National Park Service truly lives up to what was preached over that two-day training (and I have no reason to doubt they will), the fact that these issues were addressed at all felt monumental to me. That they were addressed with enthusiasm and common sense almost made up for losing two days of archiving progress.
Park Ranger Audrey Boykin led the training session both days. Topics ranged from safety to situational awareness to mental models, bias and the effects of adrenaline on the body.
we enter every situation with only our experiences from previous situations as our guides
The concept of mental models is one I’ve worked with intimately in digital design projects; essentially, we enter every situation with only our experiences from previous situations as our guides. For web designers, this means it’s a good idea to stick with conventions that web users are familiar with, like drop-down menus and send buttons. There are exceptions if you put in effort, but generally it’s wise to not reinvent the wheel. Users get frustrated fast and they always have other options.
For the National Park Service, mental models are something to be aware of as employees encounter new situations and people, from speeding drivers and angry tourists to charging bison and horses that spook every time they see an elk. Part of the whole point of the training effort is to create new mental models for park employees and volunteers. Hearing Officer Boykin describe the concept in a new way expanded my mental model of mental models dramatically.
Officer Boykin’s talk on bias was especially insightful. Bias isn’t just meaningful to scientists; I’ve been fascinated by it in my design work as well. The human brain is a complex machine cobbled together by accident and necessity over the 4 billion year history of life on Earth. It isn’t logical, it’s not particularly reliable, and it outright lies to us constantly. It is, however, spectacularly good at one thing: pattern recognition. The reason we still use reCAPTCHA to verify that web users are human is because humans are still the only ones good enough at recognizing letters and numbers to interpret them correctly.
The human brain is a complex machine cobbled together by accident and necessity over the 4 billion year history of life on Earth.
Unfortunately, our skill at pattern recognition can work against us. As Officer Boykin explained, we can only see so many TV episodes and commercials where the bad guy has dark skin before we start making assumptions about people we encounter in the world. Hearing this acknowledged by an officer of the law was surprising. Coming from advertising, where I was blatantly told that one of my scripts wasn’t even shown to the client because the characters could be interpreted as homosexual, I realized how ahead of the game the National Park Service might be.
That said, we were excited to finish the week outside of National Park jurisdiction. A quarry in the Upper Triassic Nugget Sandstone was waiting to be excavated on land managed by the predictably-named Bureau of Land Management. Dan Chure and a paleontology team were heading out to do the job, and Chure’s GIPs (hey, thats us!) were invited to help out.
the delicate nature of the tiny bones meant they had to be excavated in blocks and prepped back in a lab
Our hosts were Brigham Young University paleontologist Brooks Britt and Professor George Englemann of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. They brought several college students and a truckload of equipment. The rocks were soft sandstone, but the delicate nature of the tiny bones meant they had to be excavated in blocks and prepped back in a lab. We all checked the area for signs of additional articulated bones (in life-like position instead of randomly scattered), and the quarry was mapped and marked in grid lines with fluorescent orange spray paint.
Then Brooks fired up his rock-cutting saws and sent dust and mud flying everywhere. It was utterly unlike the field work I’d done at the Inversand quarry with Ken Lacovara, where the grid is staked out in a soupy green marl not much denser than the seafloor sand that it was in the Cretaceous, and fossils are removed in the field using careful brush strokes.
After the sandstone blocks were pried out and carried into the truck on a stretcher one by one, Brooks and team drove off.
On our way back to Chure’s car, George Englemann took us on a detour to some nearby trackways, where I saw a theropod track about the size of my hand. I imagined the dinosaur trotting along the shore of a small lake between the giant sand dunes that now towered around us as stone.
I imagined the dinosaur trotting along the shore of a small lake between the giant sand dunes that now towered around us as stone.
Week Five started today with no plans beyond working on the digital quarry mapping project that I came here for. I should have known by now that no week in Dinosaur National Monument is predictable. It’s only Monday and I already have far more to write about.