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June 11, 2003
Shall we go see the dinosaur footprints? Q said, studying his program. We had just had lunch, and it was not yet time for the Picasso lecture. The dinosaurs and their footprints live right next door to the lecture hall where the Piccasso talk would be.

Amherst College has the world's largest collection of dinosaur footprints. Thousands of them. That's because the hills of Western Massachusetts are rich in fossils -- the right kind of rock, it seems, and the right climate. There were lots of dinosaurs here. A young man plowing his father's field found the first one early in the 19th century, uncovering a large flat rock imprinted with what looked to be the three-toed tracks of a very large bird, and piously took it for the footprints of Noah's raven. For several years, the family used it as their front doorstep.

As the decades wore on, person after person found tracks frozen into hard rock and, not knowing what they were, used them for sidewalks -- track side down, "good side" up. Brooklyn is full of fossilized dinosaur prints on the reverse side of its beautiful and uneven sidewalks. The footprint expert at the museum travels from Maine to Virginia, searching for dino tracks, when older cities tear up their lovely old stone sidewalks and put down the cement ones that give additional nuance to the term "pedestrian." There are almost always dinosaur prints on the underside.

There were lots of kids in the museum with us -- Amherst builds some child-friendly activities into its reunion weekend, so parents don't go crazy trying to entertain. Lots of kids, and adults feeling like kids, for a few moments: looking at the footprints, trying to figure out what the animal was doing -- walking? Running? Just sitting there, looking around? Drinking from a pool of water? Dying?

One family with three kids swarmed along through the dino tracks and out into the rest of the museum, where an impressive group of dino skeletons and an immensely gaping shark jaw stood guard. The kids walked along a wall detailing the progression of early hominids, looking at the sloping skulls and reading about them. Their mother walked anxiously behind them.

Samantha, I think I see a great lesson for Sunday School! she said enthusiastically, pointing away from the hominids to a mammoth with six-foot tusks. God made each one with everything it needed to live. Look at those big tusks!

Hey, look at this one! her little boy said. It was Australopithecus. It's 25 million years old.

Well, Mommy doesn't believe that, she said. I studied a nearby Neanderthal and listened. Those aren't really early human beings. They were animals domesticated by people, like apes. Mommy believes that God made us just as we are, just like that.

Well, did they have the dinosaurs as pets, then? her daughter asked.

Um... I think they probably did, said the mother doubtfully. Ooh, look at those birds over there!

But it says...the little boy protested, looking more closely at the explanation.

Mommy doesn't believe that, she said again, sounding harried. I wondered why this particular Mommy had brought her brood to this particular museum in the first place, knowing what she would confront when they arrived. Why didn't she take them to the art museum? But then I remembered that there was a special exhibit at the art museum, something called "Fluxus," a celebrations of sixties' art which involved a continuous video of men and women in bikinis rolling around on the floor with dead fish. So there was nowhere to hide. I felt for her: cooped up in a dormitory with three young children, while her husband slaps guys she doesn't know on the back and laughs about things they did before she met him. The kids probably saw the word dinosaur and that was it.

The dinosaur tracks were very cool. So were the mastodons, and a nice collection of ancient horses. And a bird with its skin still on: it had fallen into a pit of bird poop, which turns out to be an excellent preservative. And I did see a certain resemblance between myself and the hominids, regardless of what Mommy said. It's nice to visit family.

It was a long time before the Amherst professor who became interested in these ancient beasts could come clean about what he was coming to suspect about the origins of species. Even after Darwin's seminal work, it was a long time. The dutiful Biblicism that seemed in those days necessary in order to honor scripture at all got in the way of prior gifts of God: our eyes and ears, our power to reason and imagine. God gave us those even before God gave us any words. We wouldn't have survived to receive the texts without them.

And we won't now, either. Be fruitful, God says, and that's not just about making babies. Fruitful in everything. Use everything you have. Use your mind. Use everything I give you.

Poor Mommy. So bound to the letter of the Book that the God the Book reveals seemed bound, too. But God is not bound. God is mighty and free. Fill the earth, and subdue it. Understand it. Become as strong as you can yourselves, and as free as someone who is not God can be. And grow in wisdom, in my image, more and more. Never try to go back You can't go back. I have placed you in history, and history only moves froward. Be brave enough to move forward with it, and I will be with you always, as I was at its beginning, even to its end.
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