Will Tattersdill, “A riotous tangle of living vegetation”: Brontosaurus and the Forests

In Murray Leinster’s ‘Sidewise in Time’ (Astounding Stories, June 1934), Cyrus Harding glances out of the back door of his Ohio home and notices that the “farmland flat as a floor” has been replaced with “a riotous tangle of living vegetation”. Time has fractured, and numerous historical possibilities have run together - the story is traditionally accounted one of science fiction’s first performances of ‘alternate history’ - with the result that “jungle such as palæobotanists have described as existing in the Carboniferous period” is suddenly present in, well, the present. As Harding watches, a long neck reaches out from the jungle and Harding’s wife becomes the subject of the narrative:

She looked through the open door and saw the jungle. She saw the jaws close upon her husband. She saw colossal, abstracted eyes half close as the something gulped, and partly choked, and swallowed – She saw a lump in the monstrous neck move from the relatively slender portion just behind the head to the feet-thick section projecting from the jungle. She saw the head withdraw into the jungle and instantly be lost to sight.

We need not let the snake-like description of “the something”, nor its choice of meal, prevent us from realising that it is a sauropod, most probably Brontosaurus. Carnivorous brontosaurs had popped up before – there’s one in King Kong (1933) – and the repeated appearance of hostile, violent dinosaurs across the SF of the interwar period allows Leinster to introduce his dinosaur without using any of the proper nouns which his Ohioan characters would not have known.

This is the solitary appearance of a dinosaur in Leinster’s story, which otherwise mixes together only distinctively human possibilities (for example, a reality in which the Chinese have colonised America). It reached my attention as yet another example of a dinosaur making a cameo at the beginning of a new genre of popular literature – a subject in which I’m much interested – but after this latest PopPalaeo, and in particular after Susannah Lydon’s brilliant paper on plant blindness, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the forest. “Carboniferous”: that’s about 143 million years before the first Brontosaurus, (very) roughly twice as long as ago from the present day. Yet Leinster isn’t using the technical term at random – he describes the forest as “the source of our coal beds”, as indeed the Carboniferous forests are.

Dr Lydon pointed out in her paper that nineteenth-century palaeoart was more willing to strive for botanical accuracy than contemporary work, citing the cultural importance of the coal industry as a possible explanation. In this story, the jungle not only precedes the dinosaur but is described in considerably more detail. Whilst the dinosaur is metonymically characterised, simply a “long, snaky neck, feet thick at its base and tapering to a mere sixteen inches behind a head the size of a barrel”, the jungle is rendered whole, entire, and every bit as upsetting:

Huge, spreading tree ferns soared upward a hundred feet. Lacy, foliated branches formed a roof of incredible density above sheer jungle such as no man on earth had ever seen before. The jungles of the Amazon basin were parklike by comparison with its thickness. It was a riotous tangle of living vegetation in which growth was battle, and battle was life, and life was deadly, merciless conflict.

Though the jungle itself never harms anyone – it is never seen again in the story – this language of implicit violence contrasts interestingly with the farmland which has been replaced. Particularly striking is that phrase “living vegetation”, which seems to imply a lack of vitality in our contemporary flora. These plants are somehow more alive than ours – and that’s bad.

How has the Brontosaurus ended up in this anachronistic environment? The story is about time periods being jumbled up, although other details about the way in which the mixup has happened make it unlikely that the animal has just wandered into the past. Is it Leinster’s own illiteracy or laziness? Possible – this is pulp SF, and would likely have been written too quickly for robust fact-checking. My preferred explanation, though, is thematic: it makes instinctive sense to have this grand jungle to set the stage, just as it makes sense to have the largest known land animal along to eat somebody. Whatever the explanation, the incident forces me to confront my own plant blindness: I’d paid so much attention to the vague sauropod that I’d overlooked the jungle entirely. With my research emphasis on palaeontology, I’d failed to notice that it’s palaeobotany Leinster evokes by name. Like Sam Neill’s character at the moment of revelation in Jurassic Park, I ignored the massive botanical revolution and concentrated on the charismatic megafauna. More fool me.