“No, Noah, not that one!” barks the man in the pith helmet and the “Washington, B.C.” T-shirt. “If it’s not a horse tail or it’s not a fern, it’s out.”
Noah, a sullen third-grader, seems confused by the do’s and don’ts of this strange weed-pulling assignment. That’s why the stern man in the pith helmet is here. “Noah, look at those large weeds there and the grass by Jareddo you see it? Right under the horse tail.”
Noah, Jared, and supervisor Peter Kranz aren’t traditional gardeners. They haven’t come to this fenced-in lot near Watkins Elementary School on Capitol Hill to root out competitors for their carefully cultivated tomato and lettuce crops. Their task, however, is no less delicate: They’re clearing the area of any vegetation that wouldn’t have been around during the age of the dinosaurs.
As the pupils’ missteps demonstrate, distinguishing plant species that have been around for millions of years as opposed to just thousands doesn’t come intuitively. Noah cautiously makes a move past a ginkgo “living fossil” tree and around slabs of 100-million-year-old sandstone hauled in from a Virginia quarry, but he’s essentially lost. Around him loom all sorts of stringy, spiky green plants that all look the same: How to tell what’s an everyday modern weed (to destroy immediately) and something a dinosaur might have chomped on (to preserve at all costs)?
“Careful!” warns Kranz. “You’re stepping on the horse tail, Noah.”
Squatting in his aqua Chuck Taylor high tops, Kranz examines the wounded plantresembling a long sprig of Carolina dune scrub grassthat he’s been cultivating with the utmost care. It appears the plant will survive, as well it should: After all, the species dates back to when dinosaurs thrived in the Washington area.
It’s a dismal little patch of dull green, and that’s the point. “The subtitle for this dinosaur garden is ‘World Without Flowers,’” explains Kranz. “Throughout most of dinosaur times, the plants did not have flowers.”
This was no world for pansies. The capital area was a bleak, prehistoric bayou basking in a sort of eternal Washington August. According to Kranz, paleontologist, educator, and author, there were plenty of dinosaurs roaming around. A whole mess of themright here. “Where this school is, where I’m living around the block, most of the capital city is sitting on top of dinosaur beds,” says Kranz, who is on a self-appointed mission to let the public know that D.C. is dinosaur country. “We tend to think of dinosaurs as long ago and somewhere else. The assumption is that dinosaur fossils are found only out west or far away….Where the fossils happen to be has nothing to do with its global position. It has to do with geological accident.”
One noteworthy accident occurred 100 years ago not far from Kranz’ Capitol Hill row house. A worker was digging a sewer line 45 feet underground at the corner of 1st and F Streets SE when his pickax uncovered a vertebraabout a foot long and 6 inches aroundfrom the tail of a carnivorous dinosaur that has yet to be fully identified. The one-of-a-kind bone is now part of the Smithsonian’s collection.
Kranz knows there are moreif people would only look. He points to a nearby hole, covered by a tarp. “Here’s where we started doing an archaeological dig of our own,” he says. “It’s a profile trench, but so far all we’ve come up with is lots of pieces of glass and cigarette butts.”
No matter. The purpose of the garden isn’t to find dinosaur bones but to give D.C. schoolchildren a place to dream about a lost world. As urban schoolyard projects go, it’s as ambitious as they come.
Kranz’s quartet of helpers have finished their chores and are getting restless in this penned-in wasteland fit only for a starving brontosaurus. They’ve had enough of the Dinosaur Man, as Kranz is known, for an afternoon. “You may go back to the playground,” he says. “Thank you for coming over and helping us weed.”
At this rate, the dinosaur gardenstill plagued by groves of johnny-come-lately weedswon’t be ready for outdoor class sessions for another year. In its finished state, says Kranz, the garden will rekindle the imaginations of kids reared on Jurassic Park and Barney. And it’ll be another stop on the Dinosaur Man’s tour of prehistoric D.C.
Just months after he successfully lobbied the District to adopt its very own official dinosaur”Capitalsaurus”Kranz has accomplished the same feat in Maryland. The Free State’s dinosaur, Astrodon johnstoni, lived during the early Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago; a long-necked vegetarian resembling a brachiosaurus, Astrodon was the first identified dinosaur remains found in Maryland.
By contrast, D.C.’s dinosaur, which does not yet have a scientific name, was a meat-eating predator believed to be a smaller, no less feisty cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Astrodon and Capitalsaurus were contemporaries, and Kranz envisions their mighty confrontations around what is now Capitol Hill and along the coastal plain. There isn’t much doubt, he says, as to which was the usual victor. “There’s no question that Capitalsaurus ate Astrodon,” he says. “Now, which onesyoung ones, weak ones, dead onesthose would be more likely. But there’s no question that they fed on the flesh of Astrodon at some point in history.” In an age of control boards, plantation politics, and potholes, District residents can can at least take pride in their official dinosaur, even if it has yet to be properly identified.
And in a city with few municipal symbols, Kranz had no trouble selling the notion of an official city dinosaur. “People always complain about the D.C. government, but the council was really behind this,” he says. “It’s something that people can take some civic pride in.” According to Kranz, the only snag so far came when Mayor Marion Barry mispronounced Capitalsaurus during the dinosaur’s designation ceremony.
Maryland wasn’t quite so desperate. Kranz lobbied the state’s General Assembly for nearly a decade before it formally adopted the Astrodon. The turning point, he says, was Jurassic Park. Before the blockbuster, politicians had said an official dinosaur was a frivolous idea; afterward, they saw tourist dollars in the marrow of those old bones.
A science teacher by trade, Kranz has taught at every grade level in D.C. public schools. “Paleontologists have to do other things in order to survive,” he says. For him, “other things” include everything from presentations at dinosaur fairs to dinosaur birthday parties for children, where he dons his cardboard pith helmet and becomes the Dinosaur Man. Anything to pay the bills. It’s all in the name of science.
“Dinosaurs are something the public relates to,” he says. “As such, they are an entree to get people interested in science and technology, and that’s extremely important, because increasingly that is what our world has become.”
In his cluttered house (which has a yew tree out front that, he points out, would have thrived in dinosaur times), Kranz keeps toy models of Astrodon and Capitalsaurus, along with other souvenirs of his hobby, boxes of Capitalsaurus T-shirts, bones and teeth, and the like. Although his interest in the beasts dates to his childhood trips to the famed Dinosaur Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he’s by no means the typical dinosaur fanatic. He has always preferred rocks to prehistoric bones.
After earning his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Chicago, Kranz came to D.C. to do research on clam fossils. “In the mid-’80s, I was doing field trips looking for clams, and people kept asking me about dinosaurs,” he says. “That’s how I got involved with it. I’m not particularly fascinated or obsessed by dinosaurs. I’m interested in it from a scientific and educational standpoint.”
To those ends, Kranz runs the Dinosaur Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes interest in dinosaur research in the capital region. Besides the dinosaur garden, he has launched several projects, including a planned Dinosaur Park near Beltsville, where the Astrodon bones were found more than a century ago. The parcel lies in the so-called Dinosaur Alley, a stretch of clay between Washington and Baltimore that is rich in prehistoric fossils. Combining an educational center and an open dig, Dinosaur Park would provide a place for people to come and hunt for bones.
“He’s given us some items and generated some public interest,” says Bob Purdy, a fossil expert and collections manager at the Smithsonian Institution. “What he’s doing is not really scientific collecting. It’s what I call ‘bend and reach’ collecting.”
Nonetheless, Kranz claims such amateur dabbling can produce all sorts of finds. Walking his neighborhood, he makes sure to hit every construction site and open field, always on the lookout. He acknowledges, however, that except for the downtown excavations, the District has slim pickings compared with Maryland. In January, he found a three-toed footprint in an Emmitsburg rock pile; the faint marking may be from a small dinosaur known as a prosauropod.
Encouraged by his experience with the Capitalsaurus designation, Kranz is now lobbying for more dinosaur-friendly legislation. He wants the D.C. Council to make it mandatory for construction firms to report any potentially important scientific findings during site preparation. Too many buried bones, says Kranz, are being lost to history due to negligence or subterfuge, because developers simply don’t want to delay work. The last major discovery in D.C. came during the excavation for the Ronald Reagan Building; a worker found a bone, and Kranz alerted the Smithsonian, which accepted the item. It turned out to be a deer bone from the Ice Age.
Kranz gets constant reminders that his paleontology and local politics are inseparable. A few years ago, he was trying to donate copies of his book, Dinosaurs of Maryland, to the D.C. Public Library system. Apparently put off for jurisdictional reasons, the acquisitions department initially ordered only two copies. “I sent those with a note that said, ‘Dinosaurs were politically naive. They couldn’t tell the difference between D.C. and Maryland and Northern Virginia. This book is about dinosaurs in the entire D.C. area; it’s called Dinosaurs in Maryland because it was paid for by the state.’ So then they ordered 62 copies.”CP