25 June 2015


The title of this post means 'Return' in Chinook Jargon, a mix of Native American languages, French, and English that served as the lingua franca of the Northwest from roughly the period of European contact through the end of the 19th Century.  As astute as my readership is, I'm sure you've also noticed that the title of the blog is now in Chinook Jargon as well and that the appearance of the whole page has changed.  Why these changes and why the use of a somewhat obscure language?  Well, just as life, climate, and Earth itself change through time, this blog has evolved since first being founded.  Think of its first iteration, The Oregon Trail, as its Paleozoic, a long interval during which it looked fairly different from its current form but that laid the foundation for what has come since.  The real Paleozoic, of course, ended with Permian Extinction, in turn ushering in the Mesozoic; the epochal event in this blog's history was my move to Cornell College, marking its change to The Mammoth Prairie.  The sudden end of the Mesozoic was marked (and probably caused) by a bolide impact; the similarly unexpected event in my life was a change of scenery from Iowa to Gonzaga University in Spokane.  This has ushered in the third stage in the history of my blog, and just as the Cenozoic is the most interesting period of Earth history, I trust the current iteration of my blog will reach new heights over the coming months.  So much for all the changes and for my recent hiatus; so why all the Chinook Jargon?  In part, because I was returning to the Northwest, I wanted something in keeping with the region's history.  While I've lived a good portion of my life west of the Cascades, my research and current job are both centered in the dryer country to the east, so I wanted to pick something with relevance to both the Pacific and Inland Northwest.  At its peak, Chinook Jargon was spoken widely from the Rockies to the Pacific and from Alaska to the "State" of Jefferson, nicely approximating the boundaries of the Great Northwest.  Beyond simply being locally relevant, though, my choice of a Chinook Jargon name reflects a subtle shift in my goal for this blog.  As the insidious spread of climate change denialism and creationism attest, public understanding of natural science are at or near an all time low.  I and other paleontologists have long viewed our field as a "gateway science" to biology, geology, and even climatology, but in an age where science - at least in the US - is effectively under attack, our role as scientific ambassadors has become increasingly important.  In light of this, my career has drifted more and more towards education and I intend for this blog to follow suit.  Just as I still conduct research of my own, I'll still be posting Fossil Vertebrates of the Month and sharing my thoughts on recent publications from time to time, but there are many other blogs out there that do so more frequently, more eloquently, and with more authority than mine.  I hope that as a research scientist writing about education and fostering appreciation for the natural sciences I will be filling a niche that is less populated and very important.  Just as I hope that this blog will serve as a useful resource for those who want to establish a dialog between scientists and non-scientists, Chinook Jargon was a language that (probably) first developed to facilitate discourse between the multilingual nations of the Northwest and later evolved to allow communication between these nations and European interlopers, making it an appropriate choice for naming this blog.
After all this, though, you may still be wondering what the new title means.  As a trade language, words such as 'paleontology' and 'fossil' are unsurprisingly absent from Chinook Jargon.  However, there is a word for knowing or understanding (kumtuks) and a word for yesterday (tahlkie); put them together and you get "understanding yesterday" (or, if you want to play fast and loose with translation, "understanding the past"), a phrase that not only sums up the goal of my research, but describes what I aim to foster through education.  It's also a nod to a quote from Confucius that's one of my favorites because it so succinctly makes the case for why we should care about paleontology and other historical sciences: "Study the past if you would define the future."