Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Out of the Tar Pits

If you ever get out to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the La Brea Tar Pits. They're amazing. I first learned of them in a comic book at age ten. I already had a fascination with quicksand, but with quicksand, you can always grab an overhanging vine and you'll be ok. In the tar pits however, your a gonner. It was mostly mammoths and saber tooth cats that sank into the pits. Also dire wolves. Many dire wolves. As well as every other creature that roamed the area.
  Most animals are too cautious to step into a pit of bubbling tar. But during the winter the pits would crust over. Leaves would blow onto the crust and soon the pit had it's next victim. This was all shown in my book. First the mammoth would get stuck, then the saber tooth cat would attack the struggling mammoth and he was a victim too. Pathetic.  I resolved to visit La Brea even though my home at the time was 3,000 miles away.
  When my son passed through LA I insisted he visit LaBrea. He said it was just ok. He hadn't read the comic book at the right age. It took three trips to LA before I finally managed a visit to the tar pits. Our friend Ana was living in LA at the time and she got her dad to watch her three little girls while she drove us to the site. I imagined the tar pits would be off in some deserted part of town with just a road and a small visitor center, but I was wrong. The tar pits were surrounded by one of LA's many downtowns. We had to use a parking garage. Only a few acres remain of the original extensive tar bogs. Within a fenced area you can still see pits. A big museum displays the reassembled fossils. Out back there's active excavation going on at Pit 91.
 A photo in the museum shows the scene in the early 1900s. It was then the desolate scene I had imagined, with several oil drilling rigs in the background. For many years people had been using asphalt from the pits to patch boats and roofs. In the early 1900s scientists finally figured out the bones in the pits were ancient fossils. Animals had been getting stuck in the pits for 40,000 years. Most of the fossils were retrieved between 1913-14. They focused on the large animals and birds. In the late 1960s they started excavating again, concentrating on smaller animals, rodents, seeds, etc. It was cathartic for me to understand how all this came together. Only one human has been found in the pits. But probably the most haunting image was the dozens and dozens of dire wolf skulls lined up on back lit walls as though they were precious art objects, which they are.

Would you walk out here for a $100 bill?