At the library you chose
A book about dinosaurs.
Millions of years hence,
What will sentient creatures
On the planet earth learn about us?
Their exposed skin was soft to the touch
This extinct species of the class Mammalia
Fed mainly on meat and vegetables
Engaged in sport, lived in cities
They built trains
They raised babies
They killed one another
They wrote poems
From Shirat Hamada (The Poetry of Science), Weizmann Institute, 2015. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden
Dinosaurs prompt the question of how creatures, presumably post-human, will perceive us millions of years hence.
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park trilogy and fanciful hermeneutics notwithstanding, mankind has had no face-to-face experience of dinosaurs, which we learned of only in 1842 when a pioneering British paleontologist coined the term from the Greek deinos, terrible and saurus, lizard.
Our view of dinosaur behavior is based on some concrete knowledge about their looks, and speculation. Fossil evidence used to be confined to bones and calcified eggs, telling us about the animals’ size, shape and stance but little about their surface, which was usually depicted visually like rough hide. Soft tissue evidence emerged only recently; “dino-fuzz” has enabled scientists to infer information about the likely coloration and feathery surface texture of a dinosaur, supporting the view that they were ancestors of today’s birds, rather than reptiles as formerly believed; unlike religious zealotry, science modifies old ideas when new evidence comes to light.
Perhaps dinosaur skin, like ours, “was soft to the touch.” As their teeth indicate, like us they ate “mainly meat and vegetables” – albeit some only meat and some only vegetables. They may have had rules for playful activity (“engaged in sport”), they didn’t live in cities or build trains, we know that at least some species carefully nurtured their young, they killed one another, though usually not within a single species – and we have no record of dinosaur poetry.
Irit Katz is an Israeli poet, architect and scholar. Born in 1976 in Be’er Sheva, she is now based in Cambridge, England. She began to write poetry in Hebrew only after migrating to London to work as an architect in 2006; her first poetry collection was published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 2012 and her second is forthcoming. Her current research examines new migrant and refugee camps in Europe.
In an email she writes: “I am not sure that my research is directly linked to my poems, but when I re-read 'Dinosaurs' -- in which there is a contrast with humans as soft and delicate creatures who are at the same time so violent -- maybe there is a hidden connection.”
*Translation note: The Hebrew “you” in the first line is feminine, making a statement about gender and interest in science.
*Musing: The list of human characteristics is a mix of qualities that either could, probably do or almost certainly don’t also apply to dinosaurs. Why these particular qualities in this particular order?
*Bonus: The Mountain Man trio sings “Soft Skin.”