The Unpetrified Forest


Margaret Matthew Colbert

Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

This is the forest, primeval and green,
Just as I fancy it might have been seen
If you and I, safe in our own Time Machine
By pressing the switch marked “Triassic” had been
Transported in time without leaving this place.
Some two hundred millions of years in the space
Of a second have vanished and left not a trace—
A sizable chunk, you’ll agree, to erase.
A slow, muddy stream hosts some creatures exciting—
Metoposaurs toping and phytosaurs fighting*—
A gaggle of dinosaurs leaving in haste
Though the scales of their tails wouldn’t be to the taste
Of placid Placerias, or I’ll eat my hat.
(I know my anomodonts better than that.)
Of three kinds of thecodonts, Desmatosuchus,
Though spinily mild, is the most apt to spook us.
But then, Typothorax, seen here in the distance,
Could meet any foe with passive resistance.
Two Hesperosuchus, more agile and thinner,
Are foraging fiercely for something for dinner
While gnashing their teeth, which are sharp past belief
As one poor wee phytosaur found, to his grief.
If mammals live here, and we think that they might,
They’re tiny and shy and would come out at night.
Since birds, grass, and flowers have not yet appeared
To grace this fair planet, to us it seems weird
That mosses and ferns form the forest-floor cover
Where insects aplenty hide, creep, jump, and hover.
Both tree-ferns and cycads with tropical green
Remind us that this is a warm, humid scene
While tough equisetums along the stream’s coarse
Are kin to the horsetails. (I must say, some horse!)
Above all this medley of life types riparian
Tower some pines of a type araucarian
Awaiting, with luck, vivid reincarnation
As agatized logs for our own delectation.
So now we’ll begin to retrace our time-trip
And, reaching for “Recent,” command that our ship
Whisking us back from Triassic adventure, re-
Turn us intact to our own native century.
*Oh well, if you must—that’s a lungfish he’s biting.

circa 1978

Guest art by Brigid Christison (@Brigidomorpha on Twitter; CurioStitchery on Etsy)

In the mid-1970s, Margaret Matthew Colbert was commissioned by the Rainbow Forest Museum to create a mural depicting the Triassic fauna of Petrified Forest National Park. This was a part of their effort to update their exhibitions to reflect modern scientific knowledge. Completed in 1978, Margaret and her husband Ned had to hire a school bus to move the 16′ x 4′ piece to the Museum. Margaret wrote this poem to accompany the piece and offered it to be as a legend, but apparently they opted for a more scientific description.

The natural history of this poem

Throughout her poem, Margaret Colbert imagines using a time machine to go see the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, USA, as it would have been in the Late Triassic (~225 million years old). She first describes the slow muddy stream nearby, referencing the humid, wet conditions that existed in Petrified Forest which was located close to the equator in the Triassic.

Margaret then lists various animals that existed in this environment, which are depicted in the mural she created for the Rainbow Forest Museum. Metoposaurs were large, crocodile-like amphibians, and in the poem they are fighting with phytosaurs, another crocodile-like animal that was a member of the group containing modern crocodilians. The dinosaurs in the poem are running away, likely referencing the fact that dinosaurs at this time (like the Coelophysis depicted in the mural) were quite small compared to their kin that would evolve millions of years later. Placerias was a type of synapsid, the group of animals that includes mammals and their close relatives. Placerias was a cow-sized herbivore with a beak for snipping vegetation and two large fang-like tusks, likely used for display or fighting with rivals of the same species. Desmatosuchus and Typothorax are both aetosaurs, herbivorous relatives of crocodilians that were covered in armor-like bone and large spines on their shoulders to protect themselves from predators. Hesperosuchus is another crocodilian relative, but unlike the aetosaurs, it possessed long legs and a lean body, and was able to run quickly and hunt small animals on land.

Finally, Margaret references the fact that there may be mammals present in this environment, but that if they are they would be small and shy. Today, palaeontologists are still trying to pinpoint when exactly the first mammals evolved, and many hypothesize that they may have appeared in the Triassic.

Margaret also discusses the plants found in Petrified Forest National Park, including cycads, horsetails, ferns, and mosses present as well as the large Auraucarioxylon trees that the Park gets its name from. Margaret describes these trees as becoming agatized, which means being transformed into the mineral agate. Agate is a type of rock mostly made of the mineral quartz. The petrified trees in the park had their original wood replaced after the tree was buried and came into contact with groundwater containing the agate forming minerals. These trees are also often referred to as the rainbow forest because their petrified wood comes in many different colours. Each different colour of agate is determined by the trace amounts of iron bearing minerals that influence the final colour.

Margaret Matthew Colbert

Margaret Matthew grew up in New York State surrounded by nature and encouraged to study all she could. Her father, palaeontologist William Diller Matthew, was a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and was often absent in the summers doing field work. Instead of remaining in humid New York, Margaret and her family often traveled to New England (USA) or New Brunswick (Canada) for the summers. When Margaret was older, her father accepted a position as director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and the whole family moved with him in 1927. That fall she enrolled in arts school, majoring in sculpture.

Thanks to her family’s connections, Margaret had no trouble securing employment right after graduation in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Her mother Kate arranged Margaret’s employment as a “bone artist” for palaeontologist Walter Granger at the American Museum of Natural History, bought her a bus ticket, and gave her $100. The night before her first day, Margaret was setting foot on an overnight ferry from Fall River. She was ill her whole first day and had no room booked to stay in. By the end of the day, “museum cataloguer” Rachel Husband (later Nichols) took Margaret to her apartment (shared with 3 other career women), where she stayed for days, recovering.

During her time at the Museum, Margaret began working with Edwin “Ned” Colbert. She did “enormous amount of work” for him and in 1933 they became engaged. They married the same year, and when her employment year ended, Ned did not want her to renew it. Margaret’s career as an artist stagnated. She became a housewife, and a mother of five sons, occasionally illustrating some of the dinosaur books that Ned wrote for the public. He was away on field work every single summer, and his reputation as a scientist grew as she took care of his household. History is full of “wives, sisters, and helpers of science,” (as described by Lady Science Magazine), the women who conducted work behind the scenes that allowed “great men of science” to have successful careers.

Black and white photograph of Margaret Matthew Colbert, an elderly white woman with short, wavy hair and thick-rimmed glasses. She's wearing a smock and standing at a workstation where she's sculpting one of the first Lystrosaurus models. Around her are painting and sculpting supplies, and a complete Lystrosaurus sculpture. On the floor leaning on the wall is a painting of a young woman, possibly Margaret or her mother.
Margaret Matthew Colbert sculpting a Lystrosaurus model.
Credit: Museum of Northern Arizona

As the Colbert sons grew older and more self-sufficient, Margaret was able to return to some of her artistic pursuits. In 1942 she created the logo for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (for which she was not paid), and she did freelance artwork for countless books, magazines, and museums. She created large-scale murals depicting prehistoric ecosystems that are on display in museums all over the United States. Later in her career she did sculpture work as well, including the first reconstruction of the Triassic dicynodont Lystrosaurus. Ned Colbert and his team found Lystrosaurus fossils in Antarctica during their 1969-70 expeditions, and its presence on every other continent helped support the theory of plate tectonics.

Margaret had a long and prolific career as a palaeoartist, and in her later years enjoyed traveling all over the world with her husband. Today, she is remembered through the prestigious Edwin H. and Margaret M. Colbert Prize given annually by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Besides her biography however, it is surprisingly difficult to find biographical information on Margaret Matthew Colbert, especially online, and like many women in science she does not currently have a Wikipedia page.