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Edward Hitchcock’s Poetic Words

In 1836, the Amherst College geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock published a description of strange, three-toed tracks found in the blood-red sandstone of the Connecticut Valley. The tracks were well-known to local residents; some members of the Lenape tribe believed that they had bee...

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In 1836, the Amherst College geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock published a description of strange, three-toed tracks found in the blood-red sandstone of the Connecticut Valley. The tracks were well-known to local residents; some members of the Lenape tribe believed that they had been made by an ancient monster, and European settlers often described them as turkey tracks. Hitchcock, who had found out about the tracks by the naturalist James Deane, believed that they were made by gigantic ostrich-like birds that lived long ago.

The skeletons of the creatures proved elusive—but when they were discovered years later it turned out that the trackmakers were not birds, but early dinosaurs. Hitchcock didn’t live to see this discovery, but the strange impressions enthralled him all the same. Soon after he published his description of the tracks, he also published, under a pseudonym, a poem celebrating them in the magazine The Knickerbocker. In “The Sandstone Bird,” a sorceress (Science) conjures up one of the ancient birds, but the giant avian, disappointed at the degenerate state of the world, vanishes back into the void without a trace—a telling reflection of one scientist’s frustration that he could not confirm the form of the real “sandstone birds.”

Read the full poem after the jump. Scene – Banks of the Connecticut River. Geologist alone examining the footmarks of a bird. (Ornithichnites giganteus)
Foot-marks on stone! how plain and yet how strange! A bird track truly though of giant bulk, Yet of the monster every vestige else Has vanished. Bird, a problem thou hast solved Man never has: to leave his trace on earth Too deep for time and fate to wear away. A thousand pyramids had mouldered down Since on this rock thy footprints were impressed; Yet here it stands unaltered though since then, Earth’s crust has been upheaved and fractured oft. And deluge after deluge o’er her driven, Has swept organic life from off her face. Bird of a former world, would that thy form Might reappear in these they ancient haunts. Oh for a sorceress nigh, to call thee up From they deep sandstone grave as erst of old She broke the prophet’s slumbers. But her arts She does not practice in this age of light.

Enter Sorceress

Let the light of science shine, I will show that power is mine Sceptic, cease my art to mock When the dead start of the rock. Bird of mighty foot (Oh vain) Ornithichnites called by name; Science thus her ignorance shows, On a footmark to impose Name uncouth; while by my arts Into life the biped starts. Bird of sandstone era, wake! From thy deep dark prison break. Spread thy wings upon our air, Show thy huge strong talons here: Let them print the muddy shore As they did in days of yore. Pre-adamic bird, whose sway Ruled creation in thy day, Come obedient to my word, Stand before Creation’s Lord.” The sorceress vanished, but the earth around, As when an earthquake swells her bosom, rocked. And stifled groans with sounds ne’er heard before Broke on the startled ear. The placid stream Began to heave and dash billows on the shore; Till soon, as when Balaena spouts the deep, The waters suddenly leaped towards the sky, And up flew swiftly, what a sawyer seemed, But proved a bird’s neck, with a frightful beak. A huge shaped body followed, stilted high, As if two main masts propped it up. The bird Of sandstone fame was truly come again, And shaking his enormous plumes and wings, And rolling his broad eye around amazed, He gave a yell so loud and savage too, Though to Iguanodons and kindred tribes Music it might have seemed, on human ear It grated harshly, like the quivering roar That rushes wildly through the mountain gorge, When storms beat heavy on its brow. Anon, On wings like mainsails flapping on the air, The feathered giant sought the shore where stood, Confounded, he who called the sorceress’ aid. Awhile surveying all the monster paused, The mountain, valley, plain, the woods, the field, The quiet stream, the village on its banks, Each beast and bird. Next the geologist Was scanned, and scanned again with piercing glance. Then arching up his neck, as if in scorn, His bitter taunting plaint he thus began. “Creation’s Lord! the magic of these words My iron slumbers broke, for in my day I stood acknowledged as creation’s head, In stature and in mind surpassing all. But no, O, strange degeneracy! one, Scarce six feet high, is styled creation’s lord! If such the Lord, what must the servants be! Oh how unlike Iguanodon next me In dignity, yet moving at my nod. The Mega-Plesi-Hylae- Saurian tribes- Ranked next along the grand descending scale: Testudo next below the Nautilus The curious Ammonite and kindred forms, All giants to the puny races here, Scarce seen except by Ichthyosaurian eye, Gone too the noble palms, the lofty ferns, The Calamite, Stigmaria, Voltzia all: And Oh! what dwarfs, unworthy of a name, Iguanodon could scarce find here a meal! Grow on their graves! Here, too, where ocean rolled, Where coral groves the bright green waters graced, Which glorious monsters made their frolic haunts, Where strange Fucoides, strewed its very bed, And fish of splendid forms and hues, ranged free, A shallow brook troop, where only creatures live Which in my day were Sauroscopic called, Scarce visible, now creeps along the waste. And Oh! this chilling wind! a contrast sad To those soft balmy airs, from fragrant groves, That fanned the never varying summer once. E’en he, whom I’ve called creation’s lord, (I call him rather Nature’s blasted slave,) Must smother in these structures dwellings called, (Creation’s noble palace was my home.) Or these inclement skies would cut him off. The Sun himself shines but with glimmering light, And all proclaims the world will nigh worn out, Her vital warmth departing and her tribes, Organic, all degenerate, puny soon, In nature’s icy grave to sink forever. Sure ‘tis a place for punishment designed, And not the beauteous happy spot I loved. These creatures here seem discontented, sad: They hate each other and they hate the world, I can not, will not live in such a spot. I freeze, I starve, I die: with joy I sink, To my sweet slumbers with the noble dead. Strangely, and suddenly the monster sank, Earth op’ed and closed her jaws, and all was still. The vex’d geologist, calling aloud Reach forth his hand to seize his sinking form; But empty air alone he grasped, chagrined, That he could solve no geologic doubts, Nor have the history of sandstone days, He passed out bitter words, ‘gainst sorcery’s arts, Forgetting that the lesson thus taught pride, Was better than new knowledge of lost worlds.
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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