Written and recited by Christina Olson
in another dimension the mastodons are still alive
their teeth not yet white marble hard as a Venus’s breast
and in another dimension the ocean has not yet receded like a hairline
and the freeway does not yet hold California together like sutures
and the water in Diamond Valley Lake sparkles like nothing
because there is not water, there is no lake and the mastodons
are not hardening in their muddy graves they are instead pissing
and fighting a breathing like you did this morning
and in another dimension the great tusks are not slumbering in the tar,
waiting to be dragged out of the black rot
and in another dimension you are Little Stevie lumbering in the scrub
and you are not thinking about death but rather dinner
and in another dimension you are alive, you are alive, not dead, no, never dead
In the summer of 2017, Christina was invited to serve as poet-in-residence for a palaeontology conference and exhibition (“The Valley of the Mastodons”) at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. This piece was inspired by that time spent among the paleontologists as well as her observations of the museum’s collections of fossils. This poem was written in honor of Little Stevie, one of the collection’s mastodons.
Little Stevie is the nickname of a fossil specimen of mastodon that was found in California. Mastodons, along with living elephants and their relatives, belong to the group Proboscidea. The first members of the Mastodon group (Mammutidae) appeared around 30-27 million years ago, and the group went extinct only around 11000 to 10000 years ago in the Pleistocene Epoch; this means that mastodons coexisted with modern humans!
Mastodons superficially look much like another extinct proboscidean: the woolly mammoth. They both having a shaggy fur coat and long curving tusks; however, they are actually quite distantly related and can be easily told apart by their teeth. Mammoths had molars with long ridges (similar to modern elephant teeth) adapted for eating low-lying vegetation and mastodons had molars with large pointed cusps for chewing branches and other taller plant types.
Housed at the Western Science Center (WSC) in Hemet, California, Little Stevie was the most complete mammoth skeleton found in the Diamond Valley Lake site. Little Stevie is a Pacific Mastodon (Mammut pacificus), a species named in 2019 by scientists at the WSC. They noted that the mastodons found in California had somewhat different teeth, more vertebrae near the hips, and thicker femur bones than the American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) found elsewhere in North America, suggesting they are a separate species. Little Stevie was also noted as being close to fully grown based on how some portions of its vertebrae had yet to fuse together as they do in adult mastodons.
Christina Olson is the author of the poetry chapbook, The Last Mastodon, which was a winner of the Rattle 2019 Chapbook Contest. All the poems were inspired by time she spent in the company of paleontologists at the Western Science Center and their “Valley of Mastodons” exhibit in August 2017. As they say, “These poems, exploring the nature of history, assembly, and ownership, were inspired by that time spent among the paleontologists as well as Olson’s observations of the museum’s collections of fossils, particularly Max the Mastodon.” The poems touch on Max the Mastodon and other megafauna, as well as Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and her relationship with her father. The book is available for purchase on the Rattle website, or you may contact Christina directly for a signed copy.
Other poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in magazines including The Atlantic, The Normal School, Quarterly West, Passages North, Third Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume Three. She tweets as @olsonquest.
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