Max Fawcett

Book Reviewed: 
Sidetracked

Max Fawcett on Dooney's Cafe 

When Garnet Fraser, a Prince George doctor and amateur paleontologist, asked local author Vivien Lougheed to tell his story, he probably thought he had found a kindred spirit and a sympathetic ear. Along with a friend, Fraser had discovered a dinosaur trackway in Kakwa Provincial Park in early 2000, and had spent the ensuing seven years alternately working with and against local paleontologists and government officials to gain recognition for the site and document its contents. Lougheed is a keen hiker, an experienced and enthusiastic explorer of the north’s backcountry and no great friend of received wisdom and institutional authority. Surely, he must have thought, she would do justice to his side of the story.

Instead, in Sidetracked: The Struggle for BC’s Fossils, she does him one better. She tells the truth.

That’s more difficult than it might sound. After all, there are two potential narratives associated with Garnet Fraser’s experiences that more or less write themselves. In the first, you have a classic underdog story, with Dr. Fraser, an engaged but unqualified enthusiast in the field of paleontology, going up against accredited professionals who have an interest in keeping people like him out of their way or at the very least under their control.

In the second, you have a story of greed, envy and betrayal, complete with a helping of heavy-handed government bureaucracy, a proposed $50 million museum in nearby Tumbler Ridge and the ever-present possibility of fame and fortune (particularly rare dinosaur finds can fetch more than $1 million on the open market), that would be ripe for a Hollywood adaptation. Heck, it even comes with a dramatic climax scene involving a helicopter raid by the RCMP.

Lougheed decided to remain faithful to the trail that she’d set out to follow. Yes, she tells Fraser’s story and explores his frustrations, but she also tells the other side of it as well, offering an insight into the perspective of professional paleontologists who often find themselves torn between encouraging amateur participation and trying to minimize the potential damage that those amateurs can do to important finds. She draws out the important themes in the ongoing discussion between amateurs like Fraser and experts like Rich McCrae, the Tumbler Ridge paleontologist who first worked with before eventually working against Fraser’s efforts to participate in the documentation of his find. Equally importantly, she places them in the context of existing regulations surrounding paleontological excavation and the tension between getting it right and potentially losing it forever to erosion and resource exploration.

At its heart, the book is an examination of the relationship between scientists and hobbyists in the field of paleontology, as well as a reflection on the utility of titles like “expert” and “amateur”. On the one hand, paleontologists like McCrae engage in the kind of self-aggrandizing intellectual territorialism that seems to characterize so many of the so-called learned professions. As one of the characters in the book says, “only anthropologists have bigger egos than vertebrate paleontologists.” From this perspective, amateurs are useful only in as much as they’re willing to follow directions and fade into the background when major discoveries are made. It’s not quite exploitation, but it’s hard to avoid feeling like they’re being taken advantage of, particularly when all these committed hobbyists want is a bit of credit for their contributions.

Then again, the recent history of paleontological activity is full of stories of less altruistic amateurs who are more interested in digging something up so they can claim its value, whether it comes in the form of fame or fortune. This can do harm to the science of paleontology, as potentially significant finds are either lost to private collections and other locations that are beyond the reach of science or tainted by the work of people who aren’t willing to take the time that good science demands.

What makes Lougheed’s book so interesting is that it can be understood from both perspectives. Indeed, while the temptation to tilt the table in Dr. Fraser’s direction must have been strong, Lougheed resists it at every turn in the book. Even in her use of language she is meticulously impartial, never once slanting her description of events and interactions with loaded adverbs or adjectives. Instead, she takes a methodical, almost scientific approach to the material, letting the facts speak for themselves. In the end, they do just that.

Max Fawcett

A Vancouver-born journalist who now works as a magazine editor in Edmonton.