Pam and Kurt freted for days. How could their little boy hate reading? Both of them were avid readers, and they both held the belief that reading is a gateway to so many wonderful things. Now one of the two people that they brought into this world would rather drain his mind by watching television rather than gobble up a good book. The boy’s godfather suggested a book that had more pictures than words, and which little boy doesn’t love dinosaurs? So Pam and Kurt handed their son the recommended literature, and Ben held Dinotopia for the first time.
Ben really loved this book from day one, well, half of it anyway. The reading was far too challenging for him in second grade, but all of the pictures were fantastical. He dreamed about dinosaurs walking around his own backyard. Each year he would flip through the pages, and try to read a paragraph only if the picture was ‘really cool.’ He didn’t read through the entire piece until he was in sixth grade.
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney is a fictitious journal kept by Arthur Denison about their adventure upon becoming ship wrecked on a lost continent. On this continent, called Dinotopia, dinosaurs survived the cretaceous mass extinction of species, but the reason why has been lost to the sands of time. Millions of years later humans started to get ship wrecked on the island due to the turbulent tides and extensive coral network. No human or dinosaur has been able to escape the island. The land eventually became a utopia after some terrible wars, and all creatures live in harmony.
Years passed and Ben found himself shocked when one of his college peers had never heard of Dinotopia. When this peer finally started to flip through its pages, they exclaimed “This explains so much about you!” Ben then realized that Dinotopia laid the foundation of his two personal goals of teaching about the environment: wonder and peace.
“Breathe Deep, Seek Peace” is a common greeting and farewell in Dinotopia. The first part comes from the dolphins that surround the island. They are responsible for bringing ship-wrecked sailors safely onto shore. By breathing deep, they are able to live an aquatic life even though they do not have gills. The second part is thought to come from the dinosaurs themselves, as a response to the terrible wars that once happened on the island (pg 51). This simple mantra is what I have been using throughout my teaching. The dolphins remind us to breathe deep the wonder that is around us while the dinosaurs speak from millennia of wisdom by seeking peace.
Waterfall City (pictured above) is a sight to behold. This two page spread showcases civilization in the most unlikely of places. The entire city is located on top of waterfalls that are constantly eroding at the foundation. Every hundred years “we must divert the Polongo River and rebuild the cliff beneath the city” (69). This shows two very distinct things. One, natural forces are powerful. Even in the still picture you can see the power behind all of that water. With glaciers in the background, the entire water cycle is being showcased. Two, human beings are powerful. Even now the idea of rebuilding this cliff so that the city can exist makes sense to me. Yes, I acknowledge that it would be easier to build on the side of the river or better yet, in the plains. But where is the wonder in that? Having a city in the middle of waterfalls has a sense of accomplishment to it. Rather than the river destroying the city, that cycle becomes as common as taking out the trash. Such not a big deal that architecture inspired by cultures from around the globe can be showcased without worry.
But this power is also showcased in problem solving techniques. Take the ‘dinosaur chair’ pictured in the bottom of this picture (23). When dinosaurs were living millions of years ago without humans they did just fine without chairs. Now that they can utilize these small mammals, their life can be more comfortable. This isn’t to say that humans do all the work, since dinosaurs are the main transportation means while also being used in high labor jobs like saw mills (49). The smallest chores, the smallest problems, become works of art in and of themselves.
Even in their play there is a sense of wonder! Take this picture of ‘skyhopping’ (111). I equate this to the relationship between a parent and child in a pool. The child is obviously having a blast since they are being thrown in the air. But what enjoyment does the parent, or dinosaur in this case, get from doing this? Yes, there is a thrill of physical exertion but I see something more mature. The dinosaur is getting enjoyment out of seeing the youngling having fun. Part of the reason why I am able to revisit the same locations with students, to get that same sense of wonder, is because I am seeing the place through new eyes every time I take students out into the wild. I get to be amazed with them at the giant trees or rushing waterfalls. Their wonderfilled eyes are far more inspiring to me than anything I could give them.
So we as environmental educators could teach about our natural world without wonder, very similar to a dolphin always staying at the surface. But if we as educators take a deep breath, we can dive deep into the wonder that this world, including humans, have to offer.
All conflict comes from a lack of education. This viewpoint can come off as extremely innocent or naïve, but this is a belief that I have held since a young age. I firmly believe that in our world there would be no war if people would sit down and educate the other side about them. Every single conflict that I have had in my life has come from a lack of knowledge, and has been resolved with some sort of education. Dinotopia laid that foundation. Even though most of the book deals with the exploration of the island, the main two major conflicts are at the Shore and the River Basin.
Imagine you are Arthur Denison on the morning that he washed up to shore. You are cold, tired, and soaked but thankful that you and your son have minimal injuries from the shipwreck. Within the first hour you find yourself face to face with a little pink dinosaur. It raises its front paw at you, as if to attack! In response you throw a stone at it and wound its leg considerably. Suddenly a herd of much larger herbivore dinosaurs come and assume attack positions (but none move to attack). From behind one of them a woman starts to tend to the little pink dinosaur. Even though she didn't speak a word of English, she calmed down the larger dinosaurs and beckoned Will and Arthur to come with her to the village. It was only later (15-19).
All of that conflict was quickly resolved with education. Arthur had no idea that dinosaurs were peaceful, yet alone lived in modern times! And the motion of the little pink dinosaur? That hand sign is a non-verbal form of “Breathe Deep, Seek Peace” on the island. Later in the book when Bix (the little dinosaur) has a conversation with Arthur she forgives him of his actions since she learned that he had no idea about the situation (56).
Later in the book, Arthur joins a band that is going to travel through the Rainy Basin. Up until this point the only conflict he has seen has been caused by himself. All the more reason why he was confused to see the transportation dinosaurs wear defensive armor. They were about to embark into the lawless jungle, where the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex and other carnivorous beasts lived. Along with armor, they also pack a few dozen baskets full of fish. When asked why they were carrying fish and not weapons Bix responded “Ours is an invitation, not a challenge. Tyrannosaurus rex is not evil. Only hungry by nature, with no love for society, and no stomach for green food. That is why we carry fish.” (83).
This could have been an epic moment of dinosaur on dinosaur fighting, but Bix diffused a situation before it even began by educating herself on what the T. Rex needs. Even when it looks like a fight might happen, Bix communicates with the T. Rex. Not one for much talking, they get to the point of ‘here is fish, don’t attack us’ (85).
Following the Examples of Dinosaurs
It might seem childish and naïve, but an adventure on a long lost continent with creatures that should have gone extinct laid the foundation for me seeking wonder and finding peace through education about this world.
All photos taken from the book directly.