Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Edward Hitchcock's Sandstone Bird

Professor Hitchcock
(This is an expanded version of an article I wrote for the Fall 2018 issue of Tracks and Trails, the newsletter of Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill Connecticut.)

Professor Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College, Massachusetts was the first person to scientifically study the fossil footprints of the Connecticut Valley, beginning with a large sandstone slab that was shown to him in 1835. I've written before about Hitchcock here and here so check out those links if you'd like to read more about this paleontological pioneer.

Fossil bones would not be discovered in the Connecticut Valley until the late 19th century (and even then they were extremely fragmentary), so Hitchcock could only guess at what sort of creatures the track-makers had been. At the time dinosaurs were believed to be heavy, sluggish beasts very unlike the swift, agile Mesozoic animals that had left their marks in the Valley, so Hitchcock did not even consider them as a possiblity. Instead, he hypothesized that the prints had been made by gigantic birds similar to the extinct moa of New Zealand.

Did gigantic birds similar to these New Zealand moa once roam the Connecticut Valley? Well, no. But, kind of?

 Other researchers soon began to question the tracks’ avian origins, but Hitchcock stuck to his convictions- though he grew increasingly frustrated by his inability to find bones of these monstrous birds (ironically, Hitchcock was semi-right since birds ARE highly-derived dinosaurs). He would give vent to this vexation in a poem he sent to The Knickbocker literary magazine in 1836 called “The Sandstone Bird”. In this piece, a geologist investigating fossil tracks along a river bank expresses his desire to know the identity of their maker. A sorceress appears and resurrects the bird before his eyes, but the creature, disgusted by the decayed state of the modern world compared to its own time, swiftly returns to its sandstone grave.

In his poem, Professor Hitchcock included other fossils known at the time such as the plants CalamitesStigmaria, and Voltzia along with animals such as ammonites, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. He also references the three dinosaur genera known at the time: IguanodonMegalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus.

Iguanodon statues at the Crystal Palace in the UK. Hitchcock's poem would mention these along with Hylaeosaurus and Megalosaurus, the other two dinosaur genera that were known at the time.  Picture taken by Ian Wright. Used under a Creative Commons License from Wikimedia.

Here's the poem in its entirety. I've kept Professor Hitchcock's stylized spelling choices to try to preserve the flavor of the piece.

by Professor Edward Hitchcock

Foot marks on stone! How plain and how strange!
A bird track truly, though of giant bulk
Yet of the monster every vestige else
Has vanished. Bird, a problem thou has solv’d,
Man never has: to leave his trace on earth.
Too deep for time and fate to wear away.
A thousand pyramids have moulder’d down,
Since on this rock thy foot-print was impress’d;
Yet here it stands unalter’d; though since then
Earth’s crust has been upheav’d, and fractur’d oft:
And deluge after deluge o’er her driven,
Has swept organic life from off her face.
Bird of a former world!- would that thy form
Might reappear in these thy former haunts!
O for a sorceress nigh, to call thee up
From thy deep sandstone-grave, as erst of old
She broke the prophet’s slumbers! But her arts
She may not practice in this age of light

Enter Sorceress

“Let the light of science shine!
I will show that power is mine.
Skeptic, cease my art to mock,
When the dead starts from the rock.
Bird of sandstone era, wake!
From thy deep, dark prison, break!
Spread thy wings upon our air-
Show thy huge, strong talons here:
Let them print the muddy shore,
As they did in days of yore.
Pre-adamic bird, whose sway
Ruled creation in thy day,
Come, obedient to my word:
Stand before creation’s lord.”

The sorceress vanish’d; but the earth around,
As when an earthquake swells her bosom, rock’d;
And stifled groans, with sounds ne’er heard before,
Broke on the startled ear. The placid stream
Began to heave and dash its billows on the shore;
Till soon, as when Balaena spouts the deep,
The waters suddenly leap’d toward the sky;
And up flew swiftly, what a sawyer seem’d,
But prov’d a bird’s neck, with a frightful beak.
A huge-shaped body follow’d; stilted high,
As if two mainmasts propp’d it up. The bird
Of sandstone fame was truly come again;
And shaking his enormous plumes and wings,
And rolling his broad eye around, amaz’d,
He gave a yell so loud and savage too-
Though to Iguanodons and kindred tribes,
Music it might have seem’d- on human ear
It grated harshly, like the quivering roar
That rushes wildly through the mountain gorges,
When storms beat heavy on its brow. Anon,
On wings like mainsails, flapping on the air,
The feathered giant sought the shore, where stood,
Confounded, he who called the sorceress’ aid.

Awhile, surveying all, the monster paus’d;
The mountain, valley, plain- the woods, the fields,
The quiet stream, the village on its banks,
Each beast and bird. Next the geologist
Was scann’d, and scann’d again, with piercing glance.
Then arching up his neck, as if in scorn,
His bitter, taunting plaint he thus began:

“Creation’s lord! The magic of these words
My iron slumbers broke; for in my day
I stood acknowledg’d as creation’s head;
In stature and in mind surpassing all:
But now- O strange degeneracy!- one,
Scarce six feet high, is styled creation’s lord!
If such the lord, what must the servants be!
Oh how unlike Iguanodon, next me
In dignity, yet moving at my nod.
Then Mega- Plesi-Hyle, Saurian tribes,
Rank’d next along the grand descending scale:
Testudo next: below, the Nautilus,
The curious Ammonite, and kindred forms;
All giants to these puny races here.
Scarce seen, except by Ichthyasaurian eye.
Gone, too, the noble palms, the lofty ferns,
The Calamite, Stigmaria, Voltzia- all:
And O, what dwarfs, unworthy of a name,
(Iguanodon could scarce find here a meal,)
Grow o’er their graves! Here, too, where ocean roll’d,
Where coral groves the bright green waters grac’d,
Which glorious monsters made their frolic haunts;
Where the long sea-weed strew’d its oozy bed,
And fish, of splendid forms and hues, rang’d free,
A shallow brook, (where only creatures live,
Which in my day were Sauroscopic called,)
Scarce visible, now creeps along the waste.
And ah! this chilling wind!- a contrast sad
To those soft, balmy airs, from fragrant groves,
Which fann’d the never-varying summer once.
E’en he who now is call’d creation’s lord,
(I call him rather nature’s blasted slave,)
Must smother in these structures, dwellings call’d,
(Creation’s noble palace was my home,)
Or these inclement skies would cut him off.
The sun himself shines but with glimmering light-
And all proclaims the world well nigh worn out:
Her vital warmth departing, and her tribes
Organic, all degenerate, puny, soon
In nature’s icy grave to sink forever.
Sure ‘t is a place for punishment design’d;
And not the beauteous, happy spot I lov’d;
They hate each other, and they hate the world:
O who would live in such a dismal spot?
I freeze, I starve, I die!- with joy I sink
To my sweet slumbers with the noble dead.”

Strangely and suddenly the monster sunk.
Earth op’ed and closed her jaws- and all was still.
The vex’d geologist now call’d aloud-
Reach’d forth his hand to seize the sinking form-
But empty air alone he grasp’d. Chagrinned,
That he could solve no geological doubts,
Nor learn the history of sandstone days,
He pour’d out bitter words ‘gainst sorcery’s arts:
Forgetting that the lesson taught his pride
Was better than new knowledge of lost worlds.


Edward Hitchcock's Poetic Works by Brian Switek.

"The Sandstone Bird" The Knickerbocker, Decmeber 1836. Archived at

Jordan Marché II (1991) Edward Hitchcock's Poem, The Sandstone Bird (1836). Earth Sciences History: 1991, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 5-8.

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