I recently finished Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains, an alternate history novella in which the mammoth survives into the mid-twentieth century. Like all of Eleanor’s science fiction, it is more than plausible, it has me believing. And it is a very satisfying tale.
It also reminds me how I loved learning about the Ice Age here in Southern California. We studied it in third grade, at Rosewood Elementary School in Los Angeles. We visited The La Brea Tar Pits, i.e. The The Tar Tar pits, on a field trip, where we were taken on a tour. We saw skeletons, and we saw dioramas of an environment like today’s but wetter, colder, and way more exotic. (Oh yeah, and no great big city in the middle of it.) We learned how animals became trapped in the asphalt deposits between 11,000 and 55,000 years ago, thereby preserving their remains for posterity, which is us.
I wanted to go there. I wanted to time travel, to see the great mammals and birds of the last ice age.
One of my favorites was the dire wolf (Canis dirus), which is related to the modern timber wolf. I’m not certain there was all that much special about it wolf-wise, but I loved the name. I mean, a wolf already sounds a bit dire to me, you know?
The most popular animal among my classmates was probably the sabertoothed cat (Smiloden fatalis), which we erroneously called a sabertoothed tiger. It is not a tiger. It is more closely related to the bobcat, which we still see in these parts. The sabertoothed cat’s popularity extends beyond the third grade class at Rosewood; it is the official fossil of the State of California. And really, I think it has the hottest name after all. Smiloden fatalis? Fatal smile? You bet it had one.
Among our local herbivores here in SoCal Pleistocene times, I would love to have seen the extinct camel (Camelops hestemus). This camel more closely resembled the llama. According to the tar pit web site, modern-day camels evolved in the western hemisphere, and migrated across the land bridge to Asia.
Finally, I longed to see the western horse (Equus occidentalis). What young girl doesn’t want her very own horse?
There were lots of other animals, mastodons, bison, sloths, bears, turkeys, peccaries, American lions, tapirs, and mammoths. Some species from back then survive to this day: coyotes, bobcats, eagles, vultures, and termites. All those others, however, gone. Extinction saddened me as a child, and it saddens me as an adult. One must remark that the discovery of this fossil treasure-trove, at the end of the nineteenth century, happened as a result of oil drilling by the Hancock family, who owned the Rancho La Brea land. So. They drilled for oil, and found the fossils of extinct animals.
I would love to travel there, though. I would bring my camera. I would want to travel in comfort and safety. I would ask the time capsule operator to move away from the pits themselves, so that I wouldn’t have to watch the animals getting stuck, or hear their shrieks and cries. I wouldn’t want to see their suffering. I’m a typical tourist.
I would want to escape from the fact that time moves in a single direction, that the Pleistocene is no more, and that its inhabitants will never return. A reality I especially do not want to dwell upon the reality that my Pleistocene–my third-grade version of it–never existed, being as it was only a third-grader’s diorama without walls.
We can’t rewrite history, but we can re-imagine it. Mammoths of the Great Plains was a terrific re-imagining that took me down two alternate history paths–both Eleanor Arnason’s and my own.
Note: I researched tar pit facts on http://www.tarpits.org, which is the official La Brea Tar Pit website.