At the age of 8 I could tell a diplodocus from a brontosaurus (more gracile, longer tail), an allosaurus from a tyrannosaurus (the teeth are the giveaway), and a stegosaurus from a triceratops (oh, come on.) And of course I still can. Anything laid down that early sticks.
The first book I owned was Robinson Crusoe (a gift from my only - and thankfully distant - aunt). I never read it. Its bulk was too daunting, its print too small. The next dozen books I owned, numbers 2 to 13 of my life, were about dinosaurs. I didn't read them either. I engulfed them. I absorbed them. I took them into my flesh. Even death will not part us. We'll go down together, the dinosaurs and I.
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By the age of 10 the dinosaur craze was over. The flush of love, the irresistible tide, had surged and subsided, as love does. But it had left, as it sometimes does, both knowledge and affection.
Quite why I fell for dinosaurs at that age I don't know, though it is common among boys. I liked the big ones best, the giant herbivores with thigh bones the size of cars, tails the length of a cricket pitch, bodies that needed to stand in water so as not to collapse under their own weight. And among the carnivores I liked the big boss predators, the ones that were not themselves predated, that had teeth the size of my leg and that knew no foes except hunger, time, and of course, as it happened, meteors.
For 65 million years ago, as everyone knows, a meteor smacked into Mexico and darkened the skies for however many years it took to kill all the dinosaurs. And when the skies finally cleared it was to reveal a world of nicer smaller warmer creatures, prime among which were the cuddly little mammals with big brown eyes and the pretty little birds that sang like choirboys and meant no harm to anyone. It was as if the nasty dinosaurs had never been. Such was the history of the world as we inherited it.
And pfui and nuts to it. The story is too neat, too simple. Consider a dinosaur's ribcage and your own. They differ only in scale and detail. Fundamentally they're the same design. There can be no doubt that they came from the same assembly line. Life didn't stop with the dinosaurs and then restart. The show went on.
And the most obvious evidence of continuity, it seems to me, is not the dinosaurish crocodiles or the nightmare lizards of Komodo, but the birds. I first noticed this when I kept chooks. I remember burying a chick that had died within a few days of hatching and noting as I laid out the corpse that its outline was precisely the outline of the dinosaur. The bipedal stance, the tilt of the body, the feeble forelimbs, the meaty thighs, the folded back legs. And most obviously of all those clawed and scaly feet. In those feet lay the truth of a bird. There was its real self. Fluff, feathers, wings, these were mere accoutrements. At the heart of every bird there's a lizard. And at the heart of every lizard there's a dinosaur.
And once you start looking at birds in this light then the distinctions between animal kingdoms grow fuzzy.
Consider the shag. I drove the dog to a lake this warm afternoon and we watched a shag take off. It ran across the water, smacking it wings on the surface till it rose, battling to get aloft. This was primitive flying, early days stuff, pterodactylian, archaeopteryxesque. The shag flew directly over my head, rowing hard across the bluest sky, a bravely airborne lizard.
Other shags sat on the lake's surface like little longboats, their heads their prows, perched between air and water, for all the world amphibian. Then with slithery ease they'd dive below. Dive is the wrong verb. They slipped below, they went between elements without splash or fuss, and became what? Surely not birds. Their underwater progress was marked by the faintest bulge on the surface. They moved fast enough to catch fish.
And one stood on the bank in the signature pose of shags, wings outstretched to the sun, the feathers rendered translucent by the light, like a bat's wings, and the bones were Christ's arms. The bird's head was turned to one side, its beak in profile like a hieroglyph.
Here in this bird was all of animalkind, knowing no division, all driven only to survive, shaped by the same forces that shaped you and me and the dog and the dinosaurs. As perhaps I sensed, as I knew in my bones perhaps, aged 8.