The bus ride was a little more than a hour long, and some of the children were beginning to ask their parents if we were there yet. Then a shout went up: a brontosaurus' head had been spotted from the window, towering over the treetops.
The early fall Sunday School instruction at St. James has centered on the creation of the world. A visit to the dinosaur park would round this out, supplying some information unavailable to the writer of Genesis: great lizards once walked the earth, shaking the very ground with their footsteps. Selling the visit to a group of young children and their parents was easy: all children love dinosaurs. Adore them. One of the moms told me of a study she had read about the demographics of dinosaur knowledge: it peaks among 4-year-olds, surges upward again among parents of 4-year-olds and then again among grandparents of 4-year-olds. Yup.
Oh, you used to love them! a mom told her elementary age son. Remember?
Oh, yeah, the boy said, smiling, a little embarrassed.
How old were you when you really loved dinosaurs? I asked.
I don't know. Around four, I guess, he said.
The brontosaurus we had seen from a distance was even more enormous up close, his legs like tree trucks, his tail easily twenty feet long, his head absurdly tiny. A huge blood vessel rippled along his neck, disappearing into an impressive thorax. Three boys were trying and failing to climb his tail.
He had a brain in his tail, Q read, straining at the Italian, besides the one in his head. Each brain was the size of an apple.
We had a picnic lunch first. The dinosaur park sits on a hilltop near Pisa, amid olive groves and neatly furrowed fields awaiting the sprouting of a winter grain crop. The forested areas are turning golden now, in mid-October, and the olive trees look almost blue against them. The sun was golden, too, golden and warm. Pine needles carpeted the ground, and the air was pungent with the smell of them. The park was an amateurish affair, really, which included a host of swings, bumper car rides, games and even a castoff elliptical trainer, all unrelated to anything connected with dinosaurs. It was full of young families, Italian mothers and fathers and grandparents with their dinosaur-loving children. The dinos themselves were impressive: life-sized, the carnivores fiercely toothy, the raptors' terrible claws terrible indeed. I wondered about the origin of the park: a guy who just never grew out of loving dinosaurs, building small models of them at first and then deciding that he could make money with life-sized ones? A family with some land, but not enough cash? Was there a skeptical wife? Maybe a set of alarmed in-laws -- Have you seen what he's building out there!?! Has he gone crazy?
Mangio rifiuti, read the signs on the homemade trash cans, which were all shaped vaguely like dinosaurs. I eat trash.
We sat on a bench and watched the children chase each other around and around, hiding behind an enormous leg or tail and springing out at each other with a shriek. There seemed to be no end to their energy; a tenth of it would be more than I have on a good day. A homemade volcano spewed out colored tennis balls from time to time, and groups of little boys emerged from within it each time it erupted, screaming something in Italian. I understood only the word "lava."
Others were doing other things. A teenaged boy sat under a tree and read his book. A little girl and her father sat at a picnic table, patiently building a miniature house of twigs they had found, thatching the roof with pine needles. Parents sat and talked, keeping an eye on their children. I shared a gelato with little Elio, half chocolate and half vanilla. He choose chocolate.
The bus was waiting, as evening began to fall. We stood for a group photograph before boarding, and watched as the great brontosaurus receded in the distance, his head and long neck black against a deepening blue sky. There was a time when his kind was alive, when they all were. When they killed and ate, swam in the water, laid their eggs and walked away. There was a time when the world was not as it is today, a time in which we could not have survived. But they could. And then, one day, they could not. One era gave way to another, as each era must.
We view extinction as unmitigated tragedy. We try to fight it, outraged at our role in hastening the extinction of species. We look into the future at a world in which we could not live, as we could not have lived in the world the dinosaurs once inhabited. Every animal affects the environment, and human beings affect it in a human way: our capacity to engineer. We no longer consider ourselves the only animal engineers, not now that we have seen films of a crow using a makeshift hammer, of a monkey employing the lever. But we are still the most proficient.
Will the human engineer defeat the primary mechanism of changing life on the earth, the twin processes of species development and species extinction? Or are we simply part of it, slated to be the unwitting agents of our own demise, dead at last by our own hand?
Will little children always love dinosaurs? And is there a care for the earth buried in that innocent passion, one that can awaken an adult hope for the future?
It has been a week full of economic news. Catch up with Carol Stone, the Geranium Farm's resident economist, who is thinking overtime in Ways of the World these days. There is a basis for a reasonable hope, but we all need to understand the forces at work in our economic situation. www.geraniumfarm.org.
Think ahead a little bit, and consider attending "Sacred Activism: Framing a New Story" at Kanuga Conference center in Hendersonville, NC this coming April 17-19, 2009. The speakers will be David Korten, Brian McLaren and Joan Chittister, and the Bennet J Sims Institute for Servant Leadership is the sponsor. Go to www.servleader to learn more.