A VIGNETTE from the deeper recesses of my memory: four boys head down a river in a rowboat, looking for adventure. They row through a long tunnel, emerge in rapids and narrowly avoid capsizing. When they catch their breath, they realize they are no longer remotely near home - not in place, not in time. They are surrounded by weird palm-like trees, swamp cypresses, ginkos, ferns. A volcano rumbles in the distance; whistles and shrieks cleave the air. Distracted, fascinated, the boys scarcely notice the thin shadow rising over their boat. It is the shadow of a plesiosaur. Was this a movie I saw as a child? Or was I one of those boys, living an adventure most people only read in books?
Unable to remember the title of the movie or the names of any of the actors, I still recall the sensation of being in the boat with those kids. Had I finally escaped home and its hermetic world - hovering relatives and hamburger casserole, schools, cars, shopping malls? Where a Stegosaurus lowered its armored head and howled, anything was possible. And so I kept watching dinosaur movies, honing my imagination until, by eighth grade, I was a serious paleontologist, fully versed in the intricacies of the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.
It may be that dinosaurs exist in our imaginations as part of some larger group of monsters and denizens of horror films, but I've come to doubt it. Dinosaurs hold a privileged position in our life studies, not because they are fantastic, but because they exceed fantasy. They had a concrete existence, and as we track back through their fossils we come to see an alter-ego for our comparatively tame planet.