A Review of Sam Chiarelli’s Dig: A Personal Prehistoric Journey
December 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
by Aurora D. Bonner
My mother was the one who screamed when the tyrannosaur rex devoured the sniveling lawyer from Jurassic Park, but my brother and I, eight and eleven, just watched on in big-eyed wonder. By 1993, my brother was already obsessed, but after the film, I, too, became unknowingly affected by dinophilia, which Sam Chiarelli describes, in his new memoir, Dig: A Personal Prehistoric Journey, as “a delightful condition that affects millions of children.” He writes:
Many, if not most, adolescents around the world contract [dinophilia]. Dinosaur fandom attracts people of any age, gender, or socioeconomic background. A dinosaurian passion is just as likely to take root in France or Japan as it is in Morocco or Argentina, making it one of the world’s most international and multicultural infatuations. The condition can be contracted anywhere: museums, cinemas, classrooms, libraries, or in my case, a video rental store in 1989.
In Dig, Chiarelli explores the personal, social, and scientific aspects of dinophilia—the three stages of dinosaur obsession—while journeying to an archeological dinosaur dig in Colorado. Chiarelli travels to some of the most noteworthy places to discuss dinos with top researchers and childhood heroes, while uncovering dinophilia in some of the most unlikely places—a family-run start-up business, a Best Western hotel, an artist’s studio. From the quirky to down-to-earth, the exuberant to stoic, all encounters add an entertaining search for the root of dino-madness.
Chiarelli sprinkles his story with honest reflection and difficult questions that make him a very endearing and amusing narrator. For instance, when Chiarelli interviews Mark Norell from the American Museum of Natural History, and Paul Sereno from the University of Chicago, he confides in the reader that while “he manage(s) to keep the fanboy tendencies to a socially acceptable level,” he is crushed to find out his childhood heroes are not fellow dinophiles:
Are they silently pitying me? Or is this some kind of warning against falling too much in love with something? Especially an infatuation with old bones turned to stone. I can’t help but feel like an overgrown child, helplessly dependent on the dinosauria. But travel and adventure can’t be the only alluring aspects about studying dinosaurs for a living. Maybe professional paleontologists are like musicians who must discuss a single chart-topping song for the rest of their lives. Maybe these multifaceted people just want to escape a life where they can only talk about dinosaurs. I’m starting to think these acts of miniature rebellion keep them from descending into dinophilia. But then, I may be blinded by my irrational affection.
Chiarelli uses interviews and personal reflection to get at the heart of dinophilia, and through this process unearths a greater human truth about wonder and curiosity. Our interests and obsessions, the bloom of interest that keeps us questioning, keeps us longing for more, does not always stem from something concrete. Instead, Chiarelli argues, our interests and obsessions stem from imagination and wonder:
In the same way books are preferable to movies, dinosaurs enchant us because they force us to fill in the blanks. Each of us reconstructs the extinct leviathans within our minds and forges a personal relationship with our psychological creations. Our visions of dinosaurs are as unique as fingerprints, each of them a product of our own knowledge and experiences. Dinosaurs exist at the vertices where fear and fascination meet. They belong to our planet but not to our time. For human beings, whose lives are so rooted in the passage of minutes and hours, the Mesozoic marauders make us grasp for a world that has vanished forever.
Though my brother went on to survive Stage 2 dinophilia, my condition never persisted past Stage 1. Instead, the movie Jurassic Park introduced me to the book The Lost World, and a new-to-me genre of books, science fiction, that sucked me so far in, I rarely came out.
Reading Dig filled me with deep nostalgia for that feeling—the pure, unbridled wonder that blossoms from imagination and creativity. Part memoir, part travelogue, and all fan-lore, Dig encourages readers to explore and embrace their curiosities, and to face their most ingrained fears. Chiarelli proves that you don’t need to be a paleontologist to be a dinosaur fan, and that you are never too old to chase a dream.
Aurora D. Bonner has an MFA from Wilkes University and writes reviews for Colorado Review. She has published work in Assay: Journal of Nonfiction Studies and Under the Gum Tree, and she won first place in creative nonfiction at the 2016 Pennsylvania Writers Conference.