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On the blog: A paleontologist's perspective on Passage

September 23, 2013
by Ed Welsh, National Park Service paleontologist and Badlands National Park ranger

I have been an employee at Badlands National Park for the summer 2013 season, working with Resource Education and Resource Management (Paleontology). I've had the pleasure of meeting Masayuki Nagase early this summer during my work at Badlands National Park. I had limited knowledge on what artwork he had been planning, when it was going to start, or what the finished work was going to look like. Masayuki gave me some conceptual materials while we talked about what his plans were. My involvement was merely to help him gain a better grasp of these ancient worlds in the perspective of geologists and paleontologists.

Our discussion was focused on the local marine life of South Dakota, during the “Age of Dinosaurs,” and the ancient animals found in the Badlands, approximately 30 million years after the dinosaurs. We discussed life in the Western Interior Seaway, when dinosaurs were approaching their final doom, and the life that emerged, following the dinosaurs’ demise. However, from the plans I saw in the packet Masayuki gave me, he needed little education on what his subject would be. He seemed to have the staple knowledge and a good vision of how to portray these ancient Dakotas. First, I will have to explain what these two worlds are before I can give my own review.

 

The White River Badlands

My knowledge, skills, and expertise have been focused on the White River Badlands, with animals that lived during the “Age of Mammals.” The White River Badlands consists of exposures made of claystones, mudstones, and sandstones, mixed with volcanic ash.  This time of deposition was during the middle of the Cenozoic, approximately halfway between the end of the “Age of Dinosaurs” and the present. Remnants of that world are witnessed today in the spires and distinctive formations that are unique to the Badlands. There are three clear-cut zones, with distinct animals that characterize each.

Masayuki is very vague, yet obvious with the bones and silhouettes he has released from three distinct layers of granite.  Interestingly, the uppermost fossil mammals appear to resemble the extinct herbivores Protoceras and Leptauchenia. These are fairly obscure and unfamiliar animals to the untrained eye. However, these animals are well known to me, having a very idiosyncratic shape. Protoceras stands out with the odd head, shaped by 3 pairs of horns above the nose, eyes, and braincase. Leptauchenia was a small herbivore with a distinctive short face. Both animals are only found in the higher units of the Badlands and take their appropriate place in Masayuki's artwork. What I love about this work is that it piques the imagination of the viewer with alien shapes encompassing familiar specters.

The Western Interior Seaway

It's hard to imagine that South Dakota was mainly inhabited by sea life towards the end of the “Age of Dinosaurs.” Concepts of a dynamic, temporal world might be challenging to grasp. However, previous notions must be set aside when the remains of certain distinguishing animals are discovered. Even though South Dakota has a reputation for famous dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus rex, most of the fossils from this timeframe are oceanic. I'm ecstatic that Masayuki chose to use the Pierre Shale faunas in his theme of ancient Dakotas. The Pierre Shale is the most dominant sedimentary unit in South Dakota, as thick as 1,000 feet in some places. It is the remnant of an ancient seaway that split North America in two, with outcrops spanning several states. As a Nebraska native, my home state lacks dinosaurs because of this seaway.

Commonly, the Western Interior Seaway is poorly understood and underrepresented, in regards to life here during the “Age of Dinosaurs.” Masayuki has incorporated a mosasaur, fish, ammonite, and inoceramid clams to represent the core fauna from this era, approaching their inevitable extinction. What drew me in, initially, was the ammonite shell. Ammonites are a form of squid, closely related to the Nautilus. The polish of the shell and the contrast of color along the shell's "ribs" give the appearance of a fresh shell from an animal that is very much alive. It’s not like Masayuki discovered a fossil ammonite in stone but rather released a living creature from the depths of a vibrant ocean that is still here. Though my curiosities are usually dominated by animals with a backbone after the dinosaurs, my attention was monopolized by this squid.

 

My Review

Masayuki has utilized the elements to purposefully redirect our own obliviousness to perceive multiple, living worlds, which haven’t vanished, as if in some kind of living dream. We coast by in a three-dimensional world until we experience something like this and gain self-awareness of a corporeal, fourth-dimensional ecosphere.

 

 




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