The Sandstone Bird by Edward Hitchcock

The Sandstone Bird – by Edward Hitchcock

The writer supposes a geologist, solus, examining traces of the Ornithichnites Gigantius on the sand-stone, whose shade he apostrophizes thus :

A thousand pyramids had 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 does 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.
Preadamic bird, whose sway
Rul’d 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 billows on the shore;
Till soon, as when Balaena spouts the deep,
The waters suddenly leap’d towards 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 Iguanodon 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 gorge,
When storms beat heavy on its brow. Anon,
On wings like mainsails, flapping on the air,
The feather’d 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 those words
My iron slumbers broke: for in my day
I stood acknowledged 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.
The Mega-Plesi-Hylae- Saurian tribes-
Rank’d next along the grand descending scale:
Testudo next : below, the Nautilus,
The curious Ammonite and kindred forms;
All giants to the puny races here,
Scarce seen, except by Ichthyosaurian 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 creeping along the waste.
And ah! this chilling wind! — a contrast sad
To those soft, balmy airs, from fragrant groves,
That 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 for aye. §
Sure ‘t is a place for punishment design’d,
And not the beauteous, happy spot I lov’d ;
These creatures here seem discontented, sad ;
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 sank.
Earth oped 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. Chagrined,
That he could solve no geologic doubts,
Nor have the history of sandstone days,
He pour’d out bitter words, ‘gainst sorcery’s arts:
Forgetting that the lesson taught pride,
Was better than new knowledge of lost worlds.

* Before the discovery of these Ornithichnites, the most perfect animals that had been found, as low down in the rocks as he new red-sandstone, were a few reptiles, called Saurians; so that birds must have been decidedly the most perfect animals hat then existed: though it has been recently announced in the journals, that the tracks of quadromanous animals have been found on new red-sandstone in Germany. But until I have seen the details of this discovery, I am not disposed to let it spoil my poetry; for as to some, quadromanous animals, I think that birds successfully compete with them for the palm of superiority.

† The Ichthyosaurus, another huge and extinct Saurian animal, was remarkable for the size of its eye; the orbit in some specimens measuring ten inches in length, and seven n breadth.

‡ The organic remains found in the rocks of the temperate and frigid zones correspond more nearly to those now found alive in the torrid zone, than to those in the temperate and frigid zones. Indeed there can be no doubt but the northern hemisphere was once covered with tropical forests: such as the palm and the ferns of huge size. The Calamite, Stigmaria and Voltsia, are names given to plats found in the new red-sandstone, which do not correspond to any now found upon this globe.

§ If it be admitted that the climate, vegetation, and animals of this valley were tropical, when this bird lived, who will say that its present condition would not seem, even to a rational being, in similar circumstances, to be one of deterioration and approaching ruin?

Listen to the poem below:

The Sandstone Bird, by Edward Hitchcock.
With Anna Lorimer as Ornithichnites, Brigid Christison as the Sorceress, and Mike Thompson as the narrator.
Guest art by October Seagrave (@Zooophagous on Twitter)

After publishing a scientific description of the dinosaur trackways of the Conneticut Valley, Edward Hitchcock also submitted an accompanying poem based on his research. The publisher declined to print it however, so Edward submitted to the literary magazine, The Knickerbocker, under the pseudonym “Poetaster” instead.


The natural history of this poem

The sandstone bird was written with one particular fossil type as its main subject. Specifically, the fossilized tracks of what Edward Hitchcock and others believed were made by a very large bird, found in the deposits of the Connecticut Valley. This identification was based on the fact that the tracks had 3 long bird-like toes and were quite large. At the time, the tracks were given the name Ornithichnites giganteus, literally translating as “giant bird tracks” from Latin. Such names are often assigned to trace fossils, with palaeontologists calling this the fossil’s ichnogenus. However, the tracks Edward saw were later confirmed to be made by early theropod dinosaurs who lived before birds.

Illustrations of “Ortnithichnites” footprints by Orra White Hitchcock
Credit: Amherst College, Palatino Press

Edward wrote this poem in 1836, which was 6 years before Richard Owen published the first works scientifically defining Dinosauria as a formal grouping of organisms. Thus, dinosaur palaeontology, and palaeontology as a whole was very much still taking its first steps as a scientific discipline. In the poem, Edward does mention some dinosaurs, specifically Iguanodon and within the phrase “…the Mega, Plesi, Hylae, Saurian tribes…”. The terms Mega and Hylae refer to two dinosaurs and are grouped here with plesiosaurs as “saurians”, the group which large reptile fossils were classified as at the time. Mega refers to Megalosaurus, the first formally described dinosaur fossil species and a theropod dinosaur found in the UK. Hylae refers to Hylaeosaurus, another very early dinosaur found in the UK and a member of the armored ankylosaur dinosaurs. He also references other early fossil finds of the time such as plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, ammonites, nautiloids and various types of fossil plant species, giving the reader an interesting picture of the types of fossils known during the early 1800s.


Edward Hitchcock

From WIkipedia

Edward and Orra White Hitchcock were two of the earliest naturalists in the United States that were specifically interested in palaeontology. With Orra’s help, Edward became the first state geologist of Massachusetts in 1830. She was also instrumental to his career as a Professor of Natural Theology and Geology from 1823-1845 (when he became President of the College). Orra was a scientific illustrator, and she helped Edward develop lesson plans and create slides for his lectures. She even illustrated some early reconstructions of fossil mammals, and illustrated the trackways listed in the poems.

Throughout their careers at Amherst College, Edward and Orra are credited with fundraising enough to keep the school from bankruptcy, and with filling the palaeontological and geological collections with specimens from the Connecticut River Valley.


Further Reading

Poem source:

Natural History

More on Orra White and Edward Hitchcock: