New Year's Tar Pits

The end of 2013 hit me hard. Shortly before Christmas, my husband and I felt like boxers pummeled in a ring, and not from any blows from one another. We soldiered on, committed to entertaining our kids during our preplanned trip to Los Angeles. One day we visited the Page Museum and La Brea tar pits. It's a rather strange site to discover alongside the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Warner Brothers Studio tour, and other attractions celebrating the silver screen -- a pocket of ancient history extracted from below our feet. The oil seeps remind us that the past bubbles up in the midst of human creations devoted to glamour and celluloid immortality. Our Page Museum tour began with an animated video that explains how so many fossils accumulated in the pits. It was this rather sad video -- and not our sighting of Tarantino in a yellow convertible nor our relaxed lunch in the sunshine on the beach -- that comprised my first dream of the new year.

For those who haven't been, the tar pits are a naturally occurring percolating marshy mixture of black oil and sand. Early twentieth century excavators discovered fossils of prehistoric animals that were forced into slow cruel death after becoming stuck in the tar. That deadly trap, however unfortunate for the animals, enables us, thousands of years later, to see skeletons from a long-gone past. Out of the tar, models of prehistoric beasts were built, models that now enthrall hordes of grade-schoolers filing through the museum. The very substance that wrote the tragic fates of so many ancient creatures also preserved their bones for those of us passing by in the present. The sticky liquid marks death, time, and knowledge.

I tried to translate my new year's dream onto paper. The thing is, I'm not a poet. But the writing exercise taught me what I can do when I feel stuck in the metaphorical tar pits. When the quicksand threatens, I need to embrace those writing dreams -- to mold my experience into words that can rise above the muck.

So I am posting my "non-poem" for those who didn't have a rockin' New Year's Eve or are simply having a day when the tar pits bubble up. It may be those sinking moments -- that entrapping tar -- produce meaning through which we mark our state of bring. Through imagination and productivity we can move from the skeleton to the model, from the fossilized bone to the reconfigured mammoth that enthralls a sixth grader. So this is for you, if you feel pulled into the tar pits.


Over fifty thousand of years ago,
A Western horse unsuspectingly stepped into a tar pit.
Thirst may have lured him to the entrapping reflective surface, like Narcissus.
Maybe he didn't even see the oily sheen and simply made one faulty step.
That was it -- his hoof began to sink.
The more the horse struggled to pull out of the viscous matter,
the more he shifted other parts of his body into the unforgiving liquid.

A saber-toothed cat spied the immobilized horse -- easy prey.
With piercing fangs in place, it leapt upon the poor beast's neck.
The delightful taste of fresh meat was eclipsed, moments later.
The cat felt its own paws pulled beneath.

From high above in the clear skies that would later become clouded by city smog, hawks' eyes zeroed in on the prize.
They swooped in to feast upon cat and horse flesh.
Full of hubris, the birds were accustomed to resisting earth's gravitational pull.
But they too felt a claw, a wing, or a feather, touched by warm tar.
Glimpsing abundance led them only to join the wolves, mastodons, sloths, mammoths, bison, and camels in the burial muck.

You would think that I, a scholar of memory and narrative,
would focus on the process of dusting off the archaeological finds, assembling the fossils, creating a story from the ruins.
But I can't stop thinking about that horse.
One wrong step, one simple mistake, was all he made.
If his hoof hadn't slid into the patch of tar,
the saber-toothed cat never would have had such easy access to his neck,
nor the hawks to his sinking body.
He could have lived a stress-free life,
perhaps living until old age surrounded by his horse grandchildren.
If only someone had warned that poor soul that there was deadly tar lurking.


"Touch the tar," my husband suggested to my children during our visit. Braver than I, each immersed an index finger in the area cordoned-off for a genuine tactile encounter. The sticky oil was hard to wipe off but my daughter made a clever turn. She wiped her finger to mark her initials on a wall where others had also scribbled names in tar. With the dark stain, she asserted her life.


Perhaps I should rethink the horse's predicament.
After all, the horse that fell into the tar is the one whose story and bones are preserved.
Will sticking our fingers into the tar pull us in or give us the tools to paint our way out?