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  Field Notes From
The Permian Extinction

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View Field Notes
From Author

Hillel J. Hoffmann

View Field Notes
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 Photographer
Jonathan Blair
It was barely light when Roger Smith set out with me to photograph the tracks left by Permian animals in what was once a marshy area at the edge of a lake. There are all kinds of tracks: Big prints from large beasts that were stomping along the lakeside and really tiny tracks made by a mammal-like reptile called Diictodon. I got the impression that these little Diictodons, which look like wiener dogs with funny heads, had been running under the feet of these great big guys. As Roger squatted down to brush the fossil tracks, the author and I placed two Diictodon models in the path to set up the shot. And for a moment, in that magic early-morning light, it looked as if those animals lived again. I hadn’t quite planned to be a rock climber when I found myself heading up a slope with two researchers in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. I was wearing jogging shoes and carrying my camera bag and ended up perched a thousand feet up on an outcrop of rock just big enough to take my body. On top of that, I could see no visible way to get down. I was not happy! The other guys went off to do their rock collecting, and I sat there wondering whether I was ever going to get down. Finally, after taking my photographs and deciding I wasn’t going to spend the night on this ledge, I got down on my fanny and began to scoot. By the time I got close enough to the bottom to stand up, I had lost the seat of my pants. In the end, I got the picture, but the pants stayed in Italy. Everything was going according to plan as I drove my van across the Great Karoo Desert. I had the 20-pound (9-kilogram) skull of a Smilesauras therox, a fierce Permian carnivore that was a cross between a mammal and a reptile, sitting in the back seat. My idea was to photograph it outside with the mountains in the landscape where it was found. I’m moving along and, just as I’m thinking that I’m going to make it before sundown, the car does a nosedive. In that instant, the skull jettisons toward the windshield, both my hands fly off the steering wheel, and I catch the skull mid-air like a football. Besides wondering what the heck happened, all I could think of was that I nearly destroyed this priceless artifact that a private collector had entrusted to me. As it turned out, I drove my car into an aardvark hole. I could just see myself sending a cable to the Director of Photography: Delayed South Africa. Car fallen into aardvark hole. Regards, Jonathan Blair.

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