Friday, July 31, 2015

“Casual Collecting” ~ The U.S. Forest Service Hits Amateur Paleontologists with a Dictionary

When is “casual collecting” of fossils not casual collecting?  For that matter, when is a “sandwich” not a sandwich?  The answer is:  when a dictionary is used as a dispositive and authoritative source.

I’ve long thought it poor form to make a major point in an essay by using a dictionary’s definition of a word.  It’s somewhat akin to making a conclusive statement by quoting Wikipedia.  In other words, it shows a lack of imagination and, perhaps, research skills, as well as, ignorance or disregard of how the quoted authority is actually derived.  Yes, I’ve been guilty of incorporating a dictionary definition or two in the central part of a blog posting, but, that said, I do recognize that definitions of words differ from one dictionary to another, and that definitions change over time because dictionaries, particularly modern ones, are intended to reflect usage and common understandings.  They do not seek to present a definitive or authoritative guide to how a word should be used.

Not much is really lost when a blog post engages in this practice, but in other venues a great deal more may be at stake.  Take, for example, the recently published final regulations from the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (Federal Register, April 17, 2015) for its administration of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (Title VI, Subtitle D, Public Law 111-11).  These regulations have sent spasms of concern through the ranks of amateur paleontologists and fossil hobbyists.  And much, if not all, of that angst arises not from the regulations themselves, but from language in the accompanying (I think that’s the right word) “Section-by-Section Explanation of the Final Rule.”  In that Section-by-Section, the Forest Service turns to a dictionary to define the word “casual.”  Surely a misguided step.

So, what’s this all about?

PRPA is necessary and sound legislation enacted to protect paleontological resources on Federal land, replacing the previous patchwork of rules and policies with an overarching legal framework defining what can and cannot be done with such resources, and providing serious penalties for deliberate violations.  I’ve posted on this several times, most recently on June 7, 2013.  PRPA absolutely forbids commercial collecting of fossils on Federal land, while allowing “casual collecting” without a permit under specific conditions.  The law defines “casual collecting” in Section 6301(1):
The term “casual collecting” means the collecting of a reasonable amount of common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources for non-commercial personal use, either by surface collection or the use of non-powered hand tools resulting in only negligible disturbance to the Earth’s surface and other resources.  As used in this paragraph, the terms “reasonable amount”, “common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources” and “negligible disturbance” shall be determined by the Secretary.  [Note:  Reference to the “Secretary” should be read as to either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture, depending upon the federal lands involved.]
Under Section 6304(2) of the law, casual collecting without a permit is allowed on land of the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Forest Service “where such collection is consistent with the laws governing the managements of those Federal land and this subtitle.”

All well and good.  I’ve argued previously that PRPA actually is a boon to amateur paleontologists because it authorizes in law the “casual collecting” of  “common invertebrate and plant” fossils and also applies this to a somewhat broader sweep of federal lands than had been true under the previous policies and rules.  The key, for me, is my belief that, under this statute, what amateur paleontologists and hobbyists do is, in fact, “casual collecting.”  It’s important for this discussion to know  that I consider an “amateur paleontologist” to be someone who takes the avocational pursuit of fossils seriously, following a deliberate approach to collecting modeled, as best he or she can, on the practices of professional paleontologists.

During the many years of its legislative consideration, PRPA was the source of much handwringing and hyperbole within the amateur paleontology community sparked by concern that the law targeted amateur fossil collecting on Federal land for elimination, threatening violators with draconian penalties.  That concern about the law was, I thought and still think, unwarranted

But, now, I’m not so sure about the effect of the regulation writing process of the Forest Service.  The final regulations define “casual collecting” just as they were defined in the proposed regulations (Federal Register, May 23, 2013) and as they are in the law.  No problem there.

The Forest Service’s decision to add language defining “casual” to the text accompanying the regulations has created a problem for the amateur paleontology community.  Reflective of that concern is a piece that appeared in the 2nd issue in 2015 of the Janus, the newsletter of the North Carolina Fossil Club.  It’s titled Federal Forestlands Fossil Collection Ruling and Why it Matters and the author asserts that the Forest Service rule
is designed to end amateur fossil collecting (of any kind) on all Federal Forest Lands.
The writer goes on to claim that the “ruling is SPECIFICALLY written to address fossil INVERTEBRATE collection.  The 2009 Ruling already banned Vertebrate collecting” (capitalization in the original).

The message is clear and the tone just a bit shy of apocalyptic.  The perfectionist in me cringes at the erroneous references to a “2009 Ruling” (that’s the year the underlying legislation was signed into law) and its prohibition on vertebrate collecting (that ban was nothing new under prior Federal policies and rules, its codification in law is what was new).  But, getting beyond that and the various other errors in the article regarding legislative process and rule making, I think there is some fire beneath all of the smoke being raised.

In the Section-by-Section Explanation of the Final Rule, the Forest Service appears to be engaged in a process of trying to take away what the law provides for amateur paleontologists.  After reiterating the elements that the law stipulates constitute “casual collecting,” the Section-by-Section Explanation descends into a bit of dictionary-inspired madness:
The Department [of Agriculture] considers that in establishing the term “casual collection” [sic – the term actually established in law is “casual collecting”] rather than “amateur collection” or “recreational collection”, the Act intended that casual collection reflect the commonplace meaning of “casual”.  The commonplace definition of casual includes the elements “happening by chance; not planned or expected”, “done without much thought, effort, or concern”, and “occurring without regularity” (“casual”  2014.  (4 March 2014)).  (Federal Register, April 17, 2015, p. 21594.)
The Section-by-Section goes on to state
Consequently, the Department considers that casual collecting would generally be happenstance without intentional planning or preparation.  Development of criteria for reasonable amount and negligible disturbance reflects, in part, the view of casual collecting as an activity that generally occurs by chance without planning or preparation.  (p. 21594) 
Wait, wait.  In light of my idea of what an amateur paleontologist does in pursuit of fossils, we may be screwed.  Often, we plan, go into the field prepared, and are deliberate in our actions.  But, and it’s a sizeable but, none of the language in this Section-by-Section Explanation appeared in the proposed regulations in 2013 and their accompanying text.  So, it, essentially, appears out of nowhere and was not subject to any public comment.  Further, and very significantly, the law already defines what constitutes “casual collecting” and the legal elements are (1) collecting “a reasonable amount of common invertebrate and plant” fossils, (2) collecting for “non-commercial personal use,” and (3) collecting from the surface of the land or by means of “non-powered hand tools” without creating more than a “negligible disturbance to the Earth’s surface and other resources.”  That’s it, period.

Yes, the law specifically allows the Secretaries to define certain phrases in the definition, but not the term “casual collecting” or the word “casual.”

Admittedly, I don’t know what legal force this Section-by-Section Explanation really has when it comes to enforcing the Forest Service’s regulations, either by the agency or in a court of law.  Perhaps little, perhaps a great deal.  Regardless, it’s highly troubling and it’s wrong.

Assuming that this language reflects how the Forest Service will actually approach amateur paleontologists collecting on its land, then, as far as I can see, the Service is going out of its way to limit the collecting that can take place in such a way that violates the spirit, intention, and plain language of the law.  Turning to a dictionary’s definition of what “casual” means is nonsensical and fraught with problems.  Different dictionaries may define “casual” in different ways and a dictionary may provide several senses for a word, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website, cited by the Forest Service, does for “casual.”  It offers three different senses of the word “casual,” each of them conveying something slightly different.  The Forest Service’s Section-by-Section Explanation picks from all of those senses in its selection of “phrases” that it asserts define “casual.”  Yes, one of the Merriam-Webster senses focuses on chance and the unexpected, but another, separate sense is based on the idea that “casual” can be used to describe something that does not occur with regularity, that is occasional.

My Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1963), which is one of two I have immediately at hand (it’s a falling-apart, hardcover book that just happens to be around my summer cottage) has this to say about how to use the different senses of a word:
The best sense is the one that most aptly fits the context of an actual genuine utterance.  (p. 12a)
Ah, context.  That’s missing from what the Forest Service did in its effort to define “casual.”  At the outset, there is the context of the legal definition itself which is dispositive, as far as I can see.  It’s easy to identify what would not constitute casual collecting – the collection of an unreasonable amount of fossils, the collection of vertebrate fossils or fossils from rare invertebrates or plants, the collection of fossils for commercial purposes, or the collection of fossils in such a way that the land is disrupted.  The law intends to preclude each of those actions.

Perhaps even more damning for the Forest Service is the internal inconsistency that its definition of “casual” has with the language of the law itself.  The Forest Service holds that the drafters of the law intended “casual” to mean, among other things, “happening by chance; not planned or expected” or “done without much thought, effort, or concern.”  If that’s true, then, why would the law permit “casual” collectors to use “non-powered hand tools”?  The Forest Service regulations define such tools as “small tools that can be easily carried by hand such as geologic hammers, trowels, or sieves, but not large tools such as full-sized shovels or pick axes.”  How would such allowable tools come to be brought onto Forest Service land by collectors in the first place, if not deliberately, through planning, and with forethought?

Did the Forest Service do a thorough search through the legislative history to determine whether “casual collecting” was intended to preclude amateur collecting?  The appropriate legislative history should be seen as really stretching back through several Congresses because that’s the time span in which the legislation was considered.  I went back through just the 111th, 110th, and 109th Congresses to see what might turn up.

What doesn’t turn up is any explicit statement that “casual collecting” was not intended to describe what most amateurs and hobbyists do.  Rather, in some instances, it’s fairly clear that the phrase is broadly construed by the Members who sponsored the bills and by officials in the Executive Branch.  For instance, in the 109th Congress, when Senator Akaka introduced S. 263, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act which had a definition of “casual collecting” that mirrors what was ultimately enacted in 2009, he stated:
The bill acknowledges the value of amateur collecting and provides an exception for casual collection of invertebrate fossils, but protects vertebrate fossils found on Federal lands under a system of permits.  (Congressional Record, February 2, 2005, p. S891.)
Perhaps Senator Akaka intended to distinguish “amateur collecting” from “casual collection,” but I don’t think so, I believe he was equating what amateurs do with casual collecting.

In the next Congress, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved S. 320, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act and reported it with language identical to that in P.L. 111-11 defining “casual collecting.”  The Senate Committee Report 110-18, to accompany S. 320, included, among the Executive Communications for the legislation, a statement by Christopher Kearney, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget of the Department of the Interior.  (This statement was actually presented a couple of Congresses earlier in testimony on S. 546 that included the same language regarding “casual collecting.”)  Kearney had this to say:
One exception to the permitting requirements under S. 546 is for casual collection of certain paleontological resources for personal, scientific, educational and recreational uses.  This important provision would authorize the Secretary to allow the public to casually collect common invertebrate and plant fossils without a permit on certain federal lands.  In other words, under this bill, visitors to BLM [Bureau of Land Management] lands who enjoy paleontology as a hobby could continue to collect and keep for their personal use a wide variety of plant and common invertebrate fossils.  The casual collection of such fossils can be an important component of the public’s enjoyment of some federal lands and is generally consistent with scientific and educational goals.  (p. 6)
The BLM has always been supportive of fossil collecting by amateurs, so it’s not surprising that Kearney’s statement reads as it does.  Significantly, he finds that the legislation permits “casual collection” by those who “enjoy paleontology as a hobby.”  Where’s the notion that “casual” means happening by chance or unexpectedly?  That simply wasn’t an aspect of the understanding of what “casual” meant to this governmental official testifying on the legislation.

Finally, with regard to the Bureau of Land Management, which has not yet issued even its proposed regulations for PRPA, I take some solace in the concluding comments in the North Carolina Fossil Club piece.  The author reports on a conversation she had with “the head paleontologist of the Bureau of Land Management” who acknowledged that the Forest Service language was “unfortunate.”  The author of the piece asserts that “the BLM folks seem to be more open to the Amateur/Avocational community and they intend for their wording to be different.”

I would hope so.  The language of the law is straightforward; its definition of “casual collecting” requires no ad hoc definition of the word “casual.”  How does the Forest Service define “absurd”?

The case of the “sandwich” definition is a wonderful example of why what the Forest Service has done in relying on a dictionary to determine legislative intent is absurd.  There’s a fascinating literature on the use of dictionary definitions in court opinions, primarily at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court.

[Note:  If you came to this post to read about PRPA, you may want to stop here.]

Lawyer and reporter Adam Liptak, writing in the New York Times, asserts, “In the last two decades, the use of dictionaries at the Supreme Court has been booming.”  (Justices Turning More Frequently to Dictionary, and Not Just for Big Words, June 13, 2011.)  Citing a Marquette Law Review article, Liptak notes that in the first decade of the 21st century, Supreme Court justices turned to dictionaries in 225 opinions, defining 295 words.  Fifty years earlier, in the decade of the 1960s, dictionaries figured in just 16 opinions, defining 23 words.

Much of the recent blame for this trend can be laid at the feet of the “textualists” on the Court, Antonin Scalia, among them.  Law professor Ellen P. Aprill describes “textualism” as giving “particular attention to the statutory language” involved in a case.  (The Law of the Word:  Dictionary Shopping in the Supreme Court, Legal Studies Paper No. 2006-12, Loyola Law School, 1998, p. 278)  Instead of turning to the legislative history of a statute, textualists often employ a different tool to parse the meaning of words used in statutes:  the dictionary definition.  Aprill provides a detailed examination of why dictionary definitions are often decidedly unreliable and inappropriate in a legal context, concluding:
Their purpose of giving readers and speakers approximate meanings of words so that they begin to understand the meaning of the word in context makes dictionaries ill-suited for determining the meaning of a particular word in a particular statute.  (p. 334)
One of the funniest and most damning instances of using a dictionary definition in a case centers on a decision rendered in 2006 by Judge Jeffrey A. Locke of the Massachusetts Superior Court in the case White City v. PR Restaurants.  The case hinged on whether White City Shopping Center had violated the “sandwich” exclusivity clause in its lease with PR Restaurants for the operation of a Panera Bread Restaurant in the shopping center.  That clause stipulated that White City couldn’t enter into a lease with any other entity with a significant portion of its annual sales (over 10 percent) coming from the sale of sandwiches.  The crux of the legal debate was whether the “tacos, burritos, and quesadillas” that a Qdoba Restaurant would be selling under a lease with White City should be considered “sandwiches.”  Since the exclusivity clause did not define “sandwich,” Judge Locke turned to the New Webster Third International Dictionary which defined a "sandwich" as “two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them.”  The word “sandwich,” determined Judge Locke, did not include burritos, tacos, or quesadillas because those foods involved the use of “a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans.”  Though, as I read it, the heart of his decision rested on his interpretation of this dictionary definition, Judge Locke also noted that PR Restaurants could have defined sandwiches in the exclusivity clause and chose not to, even though at the time it was negotiating its lease, it was aware that nearby restaurants sold burritos, tacos, and quesadillas.

The White City decision is saluted by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner in their book titled Reading Law:  The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012).  Richard A. Posner, Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a scathing review of the book for the New Republic titled The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia (August 24, 2012), reserves some choice words for Scalia and Garner’s treatment of White City.  They posit that the entire case was decided on the basis of the dictionary definition.  Posner disagrees, noting, as I did above, that Locke put the definition in the context of the drafting of the exclusivity clause.

But here’s where the fun really mounts and a critical point gets made about reliance on dictionary definitions.  Posner posits, “[T]he court got the definition wrong.”  He observes, 
A sandwich does not have to have two slices of bread; it can have more than two (a club sandwich) and it can have just one (an open-faced sandwich).  The slices of bread do not have to be thin, and the layer between them does not have to be thin either.  The slices do not have to be slices of bread:  a hamburger is regarded as a sandwich, and also a hot dog – and some people regard tacos and burritos as sandwiches, and a quesadilla is even more sandwich-like.  Dictionaries are mazes in which judges are soon lost.  A dictionary-centered textualism is hopeless.  (Emphasis added.)
Amen to that.  Sadly, the Forest Service is also lost in a dictionary maze.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Escape to Patagonia

The trek to Patagonia in 1930 had its paleontological objectives, for sure, but it also had singularly personal ones for George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984).  In that year, though a young 28 years of age, Simpson already was associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and a leading expert on Mesozoic mammals.  He was at the beginning of a brilliant career, one that would transform paleontology.  By the middle of the 20th century, he would be considered among our most important paleontologists, if not the most important.  (For an accessible and spirited consideration of Simpson’s paleontological career, I recommend Léo F. Laporte’s George Gaylord Simpson:  Paleontologist and Evolutionist (2000).)

All of the further professional accomplishments would come later, but first there was this Patagonian adventure, the initial one of two to the area that Simpson undertook.  It produced a wealth of Cenozoic mammal fossils and a better understanding of some of its stratigraphy.  It also produced Simpson’s wonderful firsthand account of the seven months he and his assistant C.S. Williams (called “Coley”) spent in the Patagonian wilderness hunting for fossils.  Attending Marvels:  A Patagonian Journal, published in 1934, is one of the finest travel books I’ve read, and the subject of this post.  (Pictured below is the cover to the Time Reading Program Special Edition published in 1965.)

Patagonia offered Simpson an opportunity to explore and make some sense of South America’s Cenozoic mammal fauna which differed markedly from the mammals from this period found elsewhere in the world.  As he put it, he would join the ranks of previous fossil hunters (which included Charles Darwin and John Bell Hatcher) in the “débris of the lost world of Patagonia.”  These extinct mammals
are not like the extinct animals of any other part of the world.  To describe them you have to start from the ground up, or to compare them with half a dozen different animals at once, and then add a few original touches, like the fantastic combination beasts in children’s stories.  (p. 65)
According to Simpson, South America’s isolation from the rest of the world over the previous 60 million years accounted for the uniqueness of its ancient mammals.  Simpson and Coley collected fossils and worked out the stratigraphy of an area around the lake called Lago Colhué Huapi in Argentina.  Though I suppose that technically the term Patagonia should be used to describe parts of Argentina and Chile, Simpson applied it just to the lower portion of Argentina that stretches to Tierra del Fuego.  A Google Earth map of the area in which many of the events of Attending Marvels occur appears below.

In this next map, zoomed out from the previous one, the marker in the south of Argentina shows the location of Lago Colhué Huapi.  (The label of Argentina is obscured by the obnoxious Google Earth box that opens over top the map.  I could not figure out how to get rid of it.) 

The expedition served another purpose.  When I first read Attending Marvels, I knew nothing of Simpson’s personal life, so it was striking that, as far as I can recollect, he makes no reference at all in the book to his family.  But, as Laporte observes, “Although the Patagonian expedition has a sound scientific basis, the yearlong overseas trip had the added benefit for Simpson of relief from his marital woes.”  (Note 16, p. 299)  At this juncture he was separated from his wife with whom he had four daughters; the marriage would formally end a few years after his return.  I guess then that the absence of references in the book to his family, though sad and (to me) a bit troubling, is not surprising.

In the Foreword to the book, Simpson notes that though the expedition is a scientific one, this book “is more concerned with people and events and places than with science.”  (p,. xxv)  There is some paleontology here, but this is a personal account, conveying life lived, at times almost minute-to-minute, during a paleontological expedition to an untamed part of the world.

Attending Marvels opens with Simpson’s characteristic wit, understatement, and graceful storytelling.
The lecture had not been very exciting.  Intimate details about the molar teeth of the larger extinct rodents probably have their place in life, but they are a poor prelude to events more immediate and more stirring.  So it was that when Dora [Coley’s wife], Coley, and I emerged from the subway in the Plaza de Mayo we were ill prepared to have to force our way through a move of excited young men closely followed by a troop of angry police.  We quickly sought a side street, for the Plaza was in the possession of the Escuadrón de Seguridad, the infamous mounted police of the national administration, chasing everyone away with drawn sabers. . . . This was Buenos Aires on Thursday the fourth of September, 1930, and we had stumbled onto the first overt act of the revolution.  (p. 1)
No, this is not to be a paleontological treatise.  In this opening passage, Simpson makes that clear; those “intimate details” of mammalian dentition, of which he was certainly an expert and which were critical to his scientific studies, would not be the center of this tale.  And, irony of ironies, the story begins in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, not at all a part of the Patagonian wilderness, yet the city, shortly after Simpson’s arrival, erupts in revolution.  A wild tale, to be sure.

The landscape, which dominates this account, as well it should, sparks a love-hate relationship.  The area of Patagonia into which Simpson and Coley venture is . . . what’s the word, ah, the one that captivates Simpson . . . bleak.  He first offers a dictionary definition of bleak and then notes, "The dictionary has taken the words right out of my mouth.  Patagonia is all of that, and I may as well start repeating it now:  Patagonia is bleak."  (p. 25)

Desolate, barren, curiously claustrophobic, and often hostile.  This landscape is a challenge.  For much of their stay, it seems, Simpson and Coley deal with wind, rain, and sometimes snow, that sweep across the land.  The wind assumes mythical proportions.  Simpson recounts the incident (tall tale?) of the airplane that took off from Comodoro Rivadavia, the Patagonian port where his party had disembarked, but, once airborne, had encountered such a strong headwind that the pilot spent almost four hours trying to cope with it, succeeding only in fighting it to a stand still.  “[T]he plane simply hung as if suspended in space.”  (p. 29)  Simpson does experience, first hand, what the wind can do, noting that “it is sometimes impossible for a man to progress against it except on his hands and knees, clutching bushes for anchorage.”  (p. 30)  It’s into this environment that Simpson and Coley venture in their quest for fossils.

They cross the pampas on their way to badlands.  The pampas are covered with “thorny scrub bushes . . . , but no grass and no trees.  The general effect is one of a great emptiness.  A  vacancy not expansive, as on a true plain where miles of country may be seen from every little elevation, but cramping and rather unpleasant.”  (p. 40)  Still, when Simpson looks out over Lago Colhué Huapí and the badlands area he will explore, he finds the poetry in this landscape:
In the farthest distance the dark serrations of the Sierra San Bernardo and beneath us the vast Sarmiento Basin, with Lago Colhué-Huapí gleaming like silver in the sunlight.  Rimming the basin and here and there in the foreground, isolated peaks, some chalky white, others of somber volcanic rock.  Immediately before us dropped away the jagged dissected edge of the pampas, bare of all vegetation.  In the dry air and beneath the clear blue sky, these hundreds of square miles seemed like a boldly graven miniature model of a continent.  (p. 40-41)
What a dilemma, there is so much wonderful, graceful writing in this volume, that the temptation is to string together quotations.  I wont resist the temptation here.  Much later in this Patagonian adventure, Simpson offers the following prose poem:
Today is especially vivid.  Numerous local storms sweep across the landscape, the clouds are bright yellow or deep purple as the sun strikes them or not.  The peaks disappear and then reappear as the falling rain passes before them, and occasionally a distant barranca gleams white in the sun and then merges again into the general blue of the horizon.  Nearby, the sunlit falling rain is like a trailing veil of luminous gauze.  To the east, above the incredibly flat surface of the Pampa Pelada, arises a brilliant and perfect rainbow.  The scene is thrillingly, deeply beautiful and its fundamental harshness seems merely the strength and character that differentiates beauty from prettiness.  There is nothing pretty in Patagonia, even at its best.  (p. 214)
Certainly Patagonia is not everyone’s (almost no one's?) cup of tea.  Even on the view just described, Coley parts company with Simpson.  “To him, this view is merely a lot at once of what is not worth seeing even in smaller amounts.”  (p. 214)

Transportation here is a bitch.  At the time, the preferred motorized vehicles in Patagonia are apparently Ford trucks.  Simpson had shipped in a truck and the landscape defeats it frequently.  Nearly all of the roads are mere tracks, often marked by mud holes or sand traps, hungry for passing vehicles.  He and his companions spend countless hours trying to free vehicles from mud or sand, other passing vehicles often become mired in the same location.  Tires are punctured repeatedly, and mechanical breakdowns abound, solved often only when a part or mechanic can be obtained in some distant village.  “Trails in Patagonia are marked by Ford springs, like camel bones along the old caravan routes.”  (p. 48)  But, even such disruptions can be balanced by glimpses of Patagonian beauty.  One time, in search of some “very ancient mammals,” Simpson and Coley end up with the truck stuck in sand dunes.  After they manage to get free, they decide to drive along a dry watercourse, only to become trapped again.  After the sun set, they conclude further work to extract the vehicle is futile, so they begin a walk back to camp.
There was no moon, and we stumbled over the badlands and across the pampita in inky darkness.  The night was cold and clear, and the beautiful stars shone brilliantly, and silently wheeled through the black sky.  (p. 243)
(The use of the word wheeled in this context is simply perfect.)

Many of the people Simpson encounters and describes who live in Patagonia are leading constricted, impoverished, and difficult lives.  Yet, they do live their lives, at times, with a dignity that inspires.  Less inspiring are the ex-pats, some of whom sport wonderful nicknames like El Rey, Scottie, or Whiskey-proof.  They often came to Patagonia with high hopes of making it big in oil or sheep or what-have-you.  Early success might be had but, inevitably, things go sour and soon the ex-pat has been living in Patagonia for decades, eking out a living.  Simpson can be rather harsh in his characterization of Argentines or foreigners, but he’s clearly open to finding the strength and virtue in the ability of many to survive in this place.

There’s a violent undercurrent to life in Patagonia, so present and persistent that Simpson can make light of it.  One evening, he has “cocktails in the Club Social, the gathering place of polite society in Comodoro [the port] and so eminently respectable that it had been almost a year since anyone was shot there.”  (p. 34.)  As for Baliña, a man hired during the latter part of the expedition to assist with camp life including cooking, the opening line of the Foreword says it all,
“What are you writing, señor doctor?” asked Baliña.  This was in his better days, before he had brooded so over Coley’s dislike of garlic that he decided to murder us.  (p. xxiii)
It's no idle threat and Simpson makes sure they part company with Baliña before he can carry out his mission.

I regret that Simpson hewed so closely to his objective of writing mostly about people and events at the expense of the science.  The passages in which he pauses the personal account and turns to describe some of what drew him to Patagonia in the first place and the paleontological processes that he and Coley employ to find and collect fossils are captivating.  Chapter Four, titled Ancient Beasts, offers the most concentrated infusion of paleontology in the book.  Simpson reviews the paleontological history of Patagonia and some of the men who explored its fossils, describes the stratigraphy of the area in which he is working, the processes through which fossils come to be, and the methods he uses to extract and prepare them for shipping back to the States.  In response to the question of where to dig, Simpson states succinctly that
we dig where we see something to dig for.  There is nothing esoteric about hunting for bones; we have no sixth sense and cannot see into the earth.  The first step is to go where we know fossils do occur or where we think they might.  Picking a likely place requires a fairly wide knowledge of geology and close study of any previous records of travelers and explores in the area to be visited, but thereafter it is chiefly a matter of hard work.  (p. 78)
And of the actual hard work, he writes in terms that any fossil hunter recognizes (I first read this passage on a display at the Calvert Marine Museum ):
Having come to a place where fossils do occur, like this barranca south of Colhué-Huapí, we walk over it, eyes glued to the ground, examining, as nearly as practical, every square foot of the exposed rocks.  When the fossils are small but sufficiently abundant or important to justify the effort, we may literally crawl for miles on hands and knees.  (p. 78)
Appropriately, given the nature of Simpson’s quest and his experiences in Patagonia, the title of the book and its epigraph come from Ishmael’s explanation, in Moby Dick, as to why he desires to go to sea on a whaling voyage.  The very idea of a whale with all of its size and dangers is foremost, along with the “wild and distant seas” where it is found; “these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish.”
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