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  Field Notes From
The Permian Extinction

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From Author

Hillel J. Hoffmann

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From Photographer

Jonathan Blair

Unfiltered for authenticity, these accounts have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

looking at a lost world

Field Notes From Author
Hillel J. Hoffmann
My host in South Africa, geologist Roger Smith, told me that South Africans care little for their country’s vast, dry interior, the Karoo. But I loved the spareness of the place. The terraced hills that punctuated our long drives reminded me of Texas’s Big Bend Country. Sometimes we drove for hours without seeing anything alive other than sheep, springboks, and creosote bushes. The Black Triangle—the acid-rain-poisoned patch of land where the Czech, German, and Polish borders converge—was depressing. If this is what the world will look like after the next mass extinction, I don’t want to be alive when it happens. In the Czech Republic’s Jizera Mountains, local authorities do their best to help tourists forget that a forest once grew here. They cut down the trunks as soon as they can. In the Italian Alps I had to follow geologist Mark Sephton up a slope of loose debris to a point on a cliff where one can find extinction-age fossils. It was humiliating. Mark is a climber. He scampered up like an ibex. I was terrified, but I didn’t want to let Mark know. For each step I took up, I slid half a step backward. After Mark got a sample at the top—and I finished wheezing—I crawled down on all fours like a crab.

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