Paleoaesthetics in the Bisti Badlands

Derek Turner writes . . .

Scientific Cognitivism

There’s a strand of thinking in environmental aesthetics, carried forward by Allen Carlson and Glenn Parsons, that emphasizes scientific expertise.[1] The rough idea is that scientific knowledge enriches our aesthetic engagement with nature and—this is the controversial part—makes our aesthetic judgments more accurate or more reliable. If you’ve ever gone on a hike with a scientist you probably have a good sense of what these “scientific cognitivists” have in mind.

For example, I am terrible at identifying plants. But a few years ago, I had the chance to hike around Comb Ridge, in southeastern Utah, with a group that included a notable archaeobotanist. At first, I experienced the arid wash and slickrock slopes as life-force-suckingly hot and unforgiving (and that is sort of true), but with just a little bit of scientific guidance, I started to see rice grass and other wild food sources all over the place. I tasted Mormon tea. I learned not to step on cryptobiotic soil—a fragile living system that just looks like crusty dirt. A little knowledge transformed the land into a different place.

Cryptobiotic soil in Simon Canyon, New Mexico. It's alive, so please don't step on it.

Cryptobiotic soil in Simon Canyon, New Mexico. It's alive, so please don't step on it.

                                                

One theme of the romantic tradition, a tradition that has strongly influenced American environmental thought, is that scientific knowledge leads to disenchantment. Here is Wordsworth on not letting science get in the way of our experience of nature:

         Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
          Our meddling intellect
          Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
          We murder to dissect.[2]

But the scientific cognitivists hold the exact opposite: nature is all the more enchanting, the more you know about it.

Scientific cognitivists think that empirical knowledge can deepen our sense of place and alter our relationship to the land. Can this idea help us to understand both the appeal and the practice of paleontology?

The dinosaur at the top right is the Bisti Beast!

The dinosaur at the top right is the Bisti Beast!

The Bisti Wilderness

Recently I drove south from Farmington, New Mexico, with my dog, to visit the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area. You drive some 35 miles across a high sagebrushy plain, and then the road drops down into the badlands. All of a sudden, you can see the geological layers that you’ve been driving over exposed in profile. Bisti (pronounced like “Bist-eye”) in July has a strong abiotic vibe. It’s a landscape nearly devoid of chlorophyll. The wide, flat, wash, crisscrossed by shallow arroyos, is full of sad little knee-high, incipient tumbleweeds. Perhaps an evening monsoon would cause the place to green up a bit, but the overall impression you get is that in this place, plants and animals have mostly thrown in the towel. I saw a couple of birds near the parking area, and one lonesome cottontail rabbit, but that was about it. The wash is maybe half a mile wide at the wider points, and the badlands on either side consist of ashy gray, black, and red layers. The floor of the wash is erosional muck, baked hard in the sun, and covered in many places with little piles of rock sherds that thunderstorms and weather have washed down from the badlands to the east. The BLM warns visitors not to go there when it’s wet.

One of countless strange hoodoos at Bisti. The ashy clay cap is a little more resistant to weathering than the black coal layer. If you squint just right, you can see a tropical river delta.

One of countless strange hoodoos at Bisti. The ashy clay cap is a little more resistant to weathering than the black coal layer. If you squint just right, you can see a tropical river delta.

At Bisti, it’s as if the earth is trying to remind us that it owes us no duty of hospitality. Or as if the earth decided to stripmine itself. Freaky hoodoos abound. The entire landscape is in a state of disintegration. You could make a sci fi movie here and people might not recognize the landscape as belonging to Earth at all.

 

But—and here’s the insight from aesthetic cognitivism—how you experience this place depends on what you know about it.

 

The black bands in the photo above are lignite, or coal. The gray stuff above that is mostly clay, with lots of volcanic ash mixed in. All of this belongs to the Fruitland formation, from the late Cretaceous period, around 74-75 million years ago. In places, these are topped by slightly younger rocks of the Kirtland formation. The coal is what’s left of a swampy delta, where a river cut across a coastal plain and emptied into the great interior sea that, at the time, bisected North America from north to south. If you go just a few miles to the southwest, at Chaco Canyon, you’ll find lots of fossils from offshore deposits, in the slightly older Cliff House sandstone. Little rust-colored shrimp burrows are all over the place. But the rocks here at Bisti record an onshore environment.

In many places, the shales and clays that sit right on top of the coal beds are stunning red. This is because they burned. You may have read that in Centralia, Pennsylvania, an underground coal seam has been smoldering for half a century, necessitating the relocation of nearly all the town’s residents. Geologists think that at some point in the past, the Bisti coal beds similarly caught fire and burned for much, much, longer. Much of the clay layer above got fired into something like ceramics. All around the wash, there are places where sharp-edged burnt clay clinkers are weathering out and piling up. Sauron himself could learn a thing or two from the burning coal beds of Bisti.

At some places in Bisti, the ground is covered with coal dust. The white flakes in this picture are bits of 75 million year old petrified wood that have eroded out of the coal. The red pieces are clinkers--bits of overlying sedimentary rock that was burned in some prehistoric underground coal fire.

At some places in Bisti, the ground is covered with coal dust. The white flakes in this picture are bits of 75 million year old petrified wood that have eroded out of the coal. The red pieces are clinkers--bits of overlying sedimentary rock that was burned in some prehistoric underground coal fire.

I didn’t see any dinosaur fossils during my visit. (And note that fossil collecting at Bisti is illegal. If you see something interesting, photograph it and leave it there.) But dinosaurs were here.[3]  Among other things, New Mexico’s most famous therapod, the “Bisti Beast” (Bistahieversor sealyi) was found here in the badlands and helicoptered out in the late 1990s. The name “Bistahieversor” is a mishmash of Navajo and Greek that means something like “destroyer of the badlands.” Not far away is where Charles Sternberg found the type specimen of Pentaceratops in 1921-2. Recently, two Pentaceratops specimens, including one juvenile, were also helicoptered out of the Bisti--with special permission from the BLM. (Here is a nice account of that research by Spencer Lucas, of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.) And not long ago, the Bisti also yielded a new armored dinosaur, Ziapelta. These are all close relatives of the familiar Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Ankylosaurus, but late Cretaceous New Mexico seems to have had its own distinctive dinosaur community that differed from those found further north along the shores of the same interior seaway.                                                                                 

The exciting (even if still somewhat remote) prospect of finding a dinosaur fossil gives way to simple absorption in the place, getting to know it, walking through it, meditating on its transience, and letting the badlands affect you for the better. We philosophers of science don’t often write about aesthetics, but scientific cognitivism might have something to teach us about paleontology, and about historical science more broadly. Learning about the deep past can be a way of cultivating sense of place, and can transform our relationship to the land, changing how we experience it and perhaps also how we care for it. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to me to suggest that a richer sense of place--a richer aesthetic engagement with place--could be a central goal of historical research in paleontology, geology, and archaeology.

An argument for scientific cognitivism

Scientific cognitivism does, however, involve a controversial normative claim: Scientific knowledge makes one's aesthetic engagement with nature objectively better. Aesthetic judgments made by those with scientific knowledge are objectively better than those of the uninformed. This runs counter to relativist and/or subjectivist views about aesthetic claims, which many people find more intuitive. A thought experiment will help to bring this into focus.

Imagine three different people suddenly transported to Bisti: (1) a scientist with considerable paleontological and geological knowledge of the history of the place; (2) Wordsworth, who says "Up! up! my friend, and quit your books," making a point of learning nothing about the place so that his experience of it is uncontaminated by too much thinking; and (3) a young Earth creationist whose beliefs about the place are patently false. All three make aesthetic judgments about the hills and hoodoos of Bisti, marveling at the beautiful, otherworldly forms. Should we say that the three visitors just appreciate the landscape in different, equally legitimate ways? Or does knowledge of natural history place the scientist in a better position to appreciate the landscape?

Here's a quick (and admittedly underdeveloped) argument: Perhaps the history of a place is, in a way, part of the object of appreciation. To engage aesthetically with Bisti is not merely to engage with the landscape in its current form, but to engage with the place in all of its history, with the larger historical processes of deposition, weathering and erosion as much as the products. The problem with Wordsworth and the young Earth creationist is that they are only engaging with a very tiny part of nature--with a mere time slice of the real thing. They are like people transported into a concert hall just in time for the last notes of a symphony. The one expresses no interest in what he's missed, not wanting the rest of the piece to contaminate his experience of the final notes, while the other has the false belief that the whole piece consists of only a few notes. The scientist hasn't heard the whole symphony either, but at least has some idea of what all three have missed. It's better to engage aesthetically with the whole symphony, rather than just the final chord.

[Finally, a quick thanks to Jack Justus. I recently saw Jack give a great talk criticizing scientific cognitivism at the NACCB meeting in Madison, WI, and some of the conversation there, including a question from the audience about "disenchantment," inspired this post.]

 

[1] For a terrific introduction to scientific cognitivism, see G. Parsons (2007),“The Aesthetics of Nature,” Philosophy Compass 2(3): 358-372. For an early statement of the view, see A. Carlson (1979), “Appreciation and the Natural Environment,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37(3): 267-275.

[2] See the full poem here.

[3] Lucas, S.G., Heckert, A.B., and Sullivan, R.M. (2000), “Cretaceous Dinosaurs in New Mexico,” in Lucs, S.G. and Heckert, A.B., eds. Dinosaurs of New Mexico. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin, No. 17, pp. 83-90.