Faraway Senses

The effort to reconstruct the prehistoric past—and understand friends' routines

If you’re accustomed to thinking about the distant past as a series of flat, static illustrations printed in a book—a pterodactyl with wings ever outstretched, an armored ankylosaurus with clubbed tail forever held aloft—it’s easy to forget that the prehistoric world was a sensory feast. The landscape, like any other, was rich and textured, full of sounds, smells, and motion. 

Though the record is patchy, it’s possible to puzzle out a bit of what it might have felt like to move across the prehistoric planet. In museums, exhibition designers have emulated the low-frequency rumble that might have rattled your chest as a predator stomped nearby. On the basis of fossils, paleobotanists know that at the end of the Cretaceous, some of present-day America was studded with ponds covered with thick mats of Cobbania—a plant similar to living water lettuce, with floating, rosette-forming leaves. The ground was probably home to broad-leaved forests, stippled with conifers like cypresses and redwoods. The prehistoric record also includes leaves from the genus of the modern tulip treeLiriodendron tulipifera.

Because researchers know what would have grown on the ground, they can also make some guesses about how the environment would have smelled. Scientists suspect that if you took a whiff of that part of the prehistoric world, you would recognize some of its components—they would evoke ginger root or cypress resin. Az Klymiuk, the collections manager of paleobotany at the Field Museum in Chicago, once told me that the Hell Creek formation in present-day South Dakota—where SUE, the museum’s star T. rex, was entombed in sediment some 67 million years ago—probably resembled the current forests of Northern Florida or South Carolina. Though these prehistoric landscapes are far in the rearview mirror, they’re not entirely alien. 

Still, it’s hard to imagine leaping across the distance and wandering through them. I’ve been feeling that way right now, too, trying to picture tagging along with loved ones who are scattered around the country in places I can’t conjure with all of my senses.

Photos shrink the gulf, particularly when they’re the “live” variety that shiver to life when you hover over them. One friend recently sent an image of a dock, jostled by choppy, steel-colored water. Another sent one of a bushy tree, ruffled by the wind. No one has found a way to spray scents through Zoom or Google Hangouts, the digital places where I’m currently spending so much of my time. Instead, the way I feel most immersed in the landscapes my friends tell me about is being able to hear the sounds that wash over them. 

A couple weeks ago, I asked you folks to send me snippets of what you hear at night, wherever you happen to be. This week, instead of a poem from me, you get two of my favorite dispatches. Thanks and enormous, enthusiastic waves to Jessica Glazer and Emily Pontecorvo. They’re currently in Massachusetts and Wyoming, and here’s what they hear:

Thanks so much for listening. And, as always, if you want to send a snippet of audio or a poem that’s really resonating with you, I’m all ears.



P. S. A few nice links:

This Tuesday, June 9, is the Museum Mile festival along Manhattan’s 5th Avenue. The in-person festivities are cancelled, but the Met, Neue Galerie, Guggenheim Museum, Jewish Museum, Museum of the City of New York, El Museo del Barrio, the Africa Center, and others have migrated programming online. You can follow along at home for talks, hands-on art projects for kids, and tours of exhibitions installed in rooms empty of visitors. And speaking of which: If you’re missing the hustle and hubbub of concerts, crowded restaurants, or crushingly packed trains, it may be worth revisiting this auditory love letter to New York City, produced by the New York Public Library. (Of course, there’s plenty to hear outside, from Black Lives Matter chants to helicopters and the quiet commotion of a crowded park on a sticky day.) If you’re too hot, clammy, angry, or drained to cook much this week, I highly recommend watermelon and mint salad. Here’s a recipe that dresses it up with red onion, cucumber, and feta. That sounds nice, but it’s unnecessary; a squeeze of lime rounds it out even if you’re working with little else. The topping heaped on this chickpea pancake is also a great meal; I added sautéed kale, red pepper flakes, and a handful of dried cranberries. (You can even skip the pancake part and just eat the topping by the spoonful.) I recently cooked it on Zoom with some friends who were frying it up in their respective kitchens. In that moment, we shared a sensory experience, state lines be damned.

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there.

[Image: RobinGoodfellow_(m)/Public Domain]