The Dinosaurs by Alexandra White

Topic: Extinction

“But where did they go?” my six-year-old son asks, with a mouthful of English muffin.   “Did they just die?”

We are talking about dinosaurs at the breakfast table. My son is at that stage where he has lots of questions, many of which further highlight my own large gaps of understanding. When he was younger, the questions were easy to answer—“When’s my birthday?” or “When can we go swimming again?” or “What color does red and blue make?” I always felt myself puff with pride whenever I could provide him with the information he wanted. An informed parent, that’s me, I would say to myself.

So this morning I began to talk about the idea of extinction, and then,  like a lot of things I try to explain to my children, I find myself tangled in a longwinded version of what happened to the dinosaurs, that I am not sure is accurate.

With excellent radar, my son senses my growing confusion. “Was it like the monsters on Rotten Island”? he asks. This is one of his favorites lately–William Steig’s tale about a group of angry, ugly monsters who live on a horribly inhospitable island. They enjoy fighting and torturing each other, and then finally destroy each other after the strange appearance of a beautiful flower. The flower’s arrival signals a wonderful change in the island, as nature takes over and makes everything a lush paradise.

“I’m not sure,” I say, finally, and then shift to a common refrain when I get into these increasingly-deep-and-intellectually-muddy waters. “We’ll have to look it up on the computer,” I say, and then catch myself. “Or we could get a book from the library.”

In my own childhood, if I didn’t have time to get to the public library, I could look up most basic things in our stack of World Book encyclopedias. I loved pulling out a volume (“B” for butterflies, “L” for lemurs), opening the brown pebbly faux-leather cover, and flipping through the gilt-edged pages to find what I needed for a history or science report, or just to fill a few minutes on a cold and rainy afternoon.

Sometimes the lure of pulling up information in a few seconds in Google makes me worry about the fate of the reference librarian—that person I remember from my youth, so important and helpful behind a tall desk. Where the information in the World Book ran short, the library had all of it—the blurry microfiche showing me the detail in an old newspaper, tiny print in an important reference book, or even special reading files I could look at for an hour or two. The card catalog I used to page through, the ends of the cards curled over and soft with the searching of so many fingers, is probably extinct now.
My “look it up” commentary has diverted the discussion about monsters for the moment. So we talk about going to see actual dinosaur bones in a museum some time. We muse about the incredible scale of these creatures. “Were they bigger than our house?” says my son. We gaze out the bay window, imagining these giant creatures stomping down our quiet street.

“It is good they are gone,” says my four-year-old daughter, with a pretend shudder. “A lot of them like meat, so they would like us!”

We agree that we would not last long in front of a dinosaur–a small, insubstantial snack.

The kids finish breakfast, and as I am doing the dishes I think more about the idea of extinction, what we try to preserve and protect and what we destroy. The bald eagle is no longer endangered, and though my children enjoy seeing an eagle, they aren’t as excited as I am because it’s now a common sight in our area. Yet I remember as a child when we thought we might lose these amazing birds forever.

Then I realize why it’s hard to talk about extinction—it forces you to admit that something that once was real, that lived and breathed, clawed or chirped, is gone forever. These beautiful wild animals we’ll never see again, often because of what we have done through overharvesting, pollution and other modern “improvements.”

It’s sort of like facing the mortality for not just yourself or your family, but of your planet.

The emotional weight of seems a bit more than I can handle after only one cup of coffee.   The sun shines through the kitchen window, as soapsuds form under my fingers.

After I finish the dishes, I plan to stop by the library and find a book that explains all of this in cheerful, rational terms, before my son asks me again.

2 Responses to “The Dinosaurs by Alexandra White”
  1. amyweezie says:

    Beautiful Alexandra! I like how you lead the reader from a homey example, talking to your kids, into the larger idea that it symbolizes.

    • talleygilly says:

      Thanks so much, Amy. It’s funny what writing can lead you into–I had one idea for this piece when I started, but it turned into something else completely!

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