Exploring the Language of Fossils 2016 Agate Teacher's workshop

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, in partnership with the Nebraska Writing Project, opened its doors to twelve Nebraska teachers for a three-day writing workshop. The workshop focused on paleontology and exploring the language of fossils. It was the second of its kind in the state of Nebraska.

Activities were centered on and modeled after the Nebraska Writing Project's (NeWP) mission to provide opportunities to improve, enhance and celebrate writing for classrooms and communities across Nebraska. Ranger Fred MacVaugh and NeWP board member, Diana Weis immersed participants in place-based writing activities combining the study of fossil and science with creative writing.

Dr. Bob Hunt, Emeritus curator and professor from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, joined the teachers on Monday. He shared the unique history and importance of Agate's bone bed as well as Nebraska's extraordinary geographic structure.

Writing activities highlighted Agate's uniques geologic, paleontological, and Native American histories. Written incorporated primary sources, illustrative journaling, descriptive writing, and examining the works of placed-based writers Loren Eisely and Ted Kooser. One participant

"greatly appreciated the continual return to discussion of the value of language, naming, the opportunities offered by consideration of the cultural importance of knowledge as it relates to words, the chance to see the language of science alongside the common tongue, and to hear the voices of teaching peers as they made sense of our immersion."

Time on the trails was spent learning about plants, fossils, and the scientist's journey into place. Richer moments came when the teachers immersed themselves as writers reflecting on the historical and scientific aspects of the park.

"The place inspired so many words I could not write fast enough."

The workshop's writing marathon remained a favorite activity with the teachers. The writing marathon, a common placed-based writing experience promoted by the Nebraska Writing Project, 'involves a small group of writers moving together through a landscape, writing and sharing along the way. Marathons help writers draw inspiration from their surroundings and from their fellow writers.'

At the close of the workshop, participants left with a sincere appreciation for Agate's geographic, paleontologic, and Native American stories. Many expressed their appreciation for a fuller opportunity to examine what makes Agate and place-based writing so unique.

The dates for the 2017 workshop at Agate are being set. The suggested topic for the workshop centers on the influence and history of the women of Agate and their stories. For more information about the workshop or any of the events, click below to contact the Nebraska Writing Project or Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.

2016 Participant's Writing

“I have enjoyed the friendships of many among the last of those whose footsteps will never again follow the trails and customs of their ancestors” –James Cook

Men who Face Forward

By Kelsey


Stone cold

A face

Facing the man

Who found his


Occupied the same soil

History unearthed and uplifted

In a,

Congenial handshake

The man who found his destiny

Faces the camera

Eyes fixed forward

Always forward

For if he looks to the past

The red dyed Golden Eagle feathers,

Porcupine hairbrushes-

Trying to untangle the prairie wind,

Good Road’s limestone-

Hitting the earth,

Proving with every pounding movement

That Lakota women are home

He need only look to his left

To see Little Jack Red Cloud grasping at

A beaded lizard, red in the face

Born in the same soil as

His destiny

The lizard given to children

To hold their umbilical cord

An origin story,

So they never forget where they are from

A story caught up in the smoke of

Promises and dreams

Of men who face forward

Men who were given

The bowl of the People,

The stem of Animal Life,

The red stone of Past generations


Men who were trusted

He need only look to his left

To see he now had Good Road’s limestone pounder in his hand

Crushing the bones of the Lakota

Taking the marrow

Leaving Jack Red Cloud

With no footprints to follow

Tipi Thoughts

by Deron Larson


twirl of ascendant

memory of growing

leads ash of split softwood

to intersection of lashed, leaning

lengths above


another force composes irregular hoofbeat

stretches, unstreches lonely skin of lodge’s wall


water, always water, makes every message possible

thirst lingering above the continent and incontinent alike


feel of language pools no sense, caches no understanding except these

times it does


single spar of forgotten-marrowed vertebrate tumbled between stones_____ links

something of Wasichus meaningful before _____________________________with now

Too Much of a Good Thing

By Tess N. Sykes

Invasive - exotic and dangerous

Easily tempting

Too much of a good thing.

As roses have their thorns,

the Yellow-Flag Iris has its poison

protection, insurance

Who can blame it?

Stranger plant in a strange land

here to make its mark

A new killer, or an old one?

Scientist – curious and intelligent

In search of treasure, discovered

Not truly agate, diamond, gold, but:

Bone roses whose silver thorns of bad medicine

saved them respected, untouched, skirted

by myth and maybe wisdom, once-upon-a-time.

Until the strangers with gloves, picks and dynamite

hauled the priceless, precious beasts away in one-ton chunks.

Uncovering 23-million year old murder mystery

ripe for gross study and speculation.

Meteors, giant volcanoes and floods spark the imagination.

And killed the dinosaurs? Maybe not.

Perhaps something as mundane as drought.

Brought these ancient herds together to die.

A bone pool of record to quench the search for answers.

Or did it?

Evidence – fact and fallacy

In a land of mustard, prickly lettuce

Sweet wort, short grass and sage

The Yellow Flag Iris

stages its own deadly war against the river.

What if that ancient ephemeral lake

Had its own iris ... Its own poison

blown on the winds, weather or fire.

Odorless, colorless, invisible and deadly.

Eventually erased from the record.

No marks to miss.

Wrong water. Wrong chemicals.

Now only the fossil bone remains.

Is invasive a uniquely modern story?

Or is this watery highway of least resistance

universal over time?

On Dying, Oct. 1941

By Fred MacVaugh

America not yet at war,

A steady wind and sadness reigned

Over Nebraska’s high plains.

In the midst of the thigh-high mixed-grass prairie,

They could almost touch the sky.

Here, in the earth edging the running water,

The Niobrara River,

They planted his body—John,

Elder brother and uncle.

Except to the land he’d claimed,

He’d remained unwed.

His dying wish?

To lie with a view to his homestead,

Its cattails and mule deer, that unencumbered sky and wind

That had claimed his heart and soul,

His everlasting love.

Temptation June 8, 2017

By Jackie Byers

on the trail

a tiny, shiny fossil points at me

a tooth blackened by millennia

stands out against white shards

it whispers to me

"Here I am"

an ancient little cone

complete with hollowed center

able to hold drips from

pea-sized scoop of chocolate

it speaks to me

"Pick me up"

it nestles in my palm

I am entranced, believing

it belongs in my pocket

"Take me home"

Phil Collins rings in my ear

again bending down

pretending to put it back

I palm it with clumsy magic and pocket it

immediately, Alvis appears, carable of his own magic

cuffs in hand and smile on face

proud of catching a perp

#DeathGoals by Jodie Morgenson

Tonight, at the saloon across from the bed and breakfast where I'm staying, the bartender, Becky, who is not actually a bartender, told us about time she went outside to mow her lawn dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, and whilst in transit, a baby copperhead bit her on the big toe.

It sounds like something that would be sort of cute --being bit by a baby copperhead— depending on how old it is, of course. If it’s a newborn, its head is probably all pointy and bloated and its body is probably covered in a cream cheese-like substance. I can't hold up its own head and it certainly can't strike you. It’s mother probably thinks it’s cute and its relatives all pretend to think it’s cute, but it’s not really that cute, until it’s about six months old. But, I'm thinking not of a newborn copperhead. I’m imagining the snake equivalent of a six-month-old human biting another person. Gummy and slobbery and smiling--naughty but in a very cute way.

However, according to Becky (who is not really a bartender) being bitten by a baby copperhead is way worse than being bitten by its mama because baby copperheads, like baby rattlesnakes, deliver all of their venom when they bite. A mama copperhead will only inject some venom because she is smarter than her stupid baby and she saves some of her venom for the next bite. She is old enough to have some self control forGod'ssake! Our bartender (who is not really a bartender) said her leg and foot swelled up so much that you couldn’t tell she had toes.

Now, I’m imagining this adorable, petite lady with one regular sized leg and one fleshy elephantine peg leg. I won’t be able to shake that image for a while; nor do I really want to because frankly, it's hilarious (since she didn't die it can be hilarious). I wonder what that would feel like--having a giant leg on a regular sized body. She said the swelling lasted for a month. What would you do? Heave that big old leg around wherever you go? or remain in bed for the month, jingling a little bell for the butler to help you when you needed something? If I get bit by a rattlesnake, will I need to hire a butler?

I've always been a little obsessed with death--my own or otherwise. I think decomposition is fascinating. I think that fossilization is enchanting. If I could figure out a way to fossilize myself, I would. I mean -- not now -- but when the time is right -- when it's my time to die. When I sense the time is nigh, I can find the nearest watering hole, coat myself in mud and wait for the sediments to cover me--for the minerals to deposit themselves in me. In 22 million years, I can be a fine specimen for the robot paleontologists to uncover. Actually, I've always thought that cremation would be my first choice, but I did read somewhere that you can slip a body into a mushroom suit and return it to the earth. I also saw that you can get put into an urn with a tree seed and become a tree. Those options all sound nice. Fossilization would be wicked cool though. The main thing though is the gravestone. Even if I am turned to ash, earth, tree, or fossil, I still want some sort of headstone because I'm concerned about having an epitaph. I used to think I wanted it to say something like Jodie Morgenson: She was really funny. But now the older I get and (presumably) the closer to death I get, the more I realize that I want to be more than just funny. I want to be interesting. Maybe my epitaph should read, Here lies the swollen, bloated body of Jodie Morgenson, dead of venom. THAT would be interesting. I might even forego cremation in order to hold true to that particular epitaph.

“Can you die from a copperhead bite?” I asked her. She shook her head ominously. “They rushed me to the hospital and doped me up on morphine and antihistamines.” She said that one of her nurses pulled the sheet away from her leg to take a look, and when she laid the sheet gently back down, it felt like she was laying a sledgehammer on top of her leg.

Why is this relevant? Because I'm in Western Nebraska: Rattlesnake Country. Now I'm not only concerned about rattlesnakes, but about baby rattlesnakes specifically. At first I thought I had to be concerned about baby copperheads too, but come to find out, Becky was in Oklahoma when she was bit by the copperhead. But, now I have to be on the lookout for nests of writhing toddler rattlesnakes, ready to deliver death blows because they can't control their venom output. I'm imagining that it will be something like the snake pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, except all of the snakes will be be wearing diapers and demanding to be fed.

Before I came to Harrison, my husband warned me about the rattlesnakes. He was actually mostly concerned about the side trip to Carhenge that I plan to take after my writing workshop. He knows I’ll be alone then. When I’m at the workshop, he figures I can yell, “I’ve been bitten!” and someone will know what to do. At Carhenge, I might --oblivious to my surroundings-- get bit by a rattlesnake, and then lay down at the base of the sculpture and die a slow death, unable to call for help due to solitude and lack of cell phone service. I speculated that a bunch of cars upended in the sandy soil of Western Nebraska would make an ideal rattlesnake habitat. He laughed and then quite soberly agreed with me. “Seriously,” he said. “It would be perfect.” It's nice that he doesn't want me to die.

As I get older, I know more people who have died. It's just how it works. The longer I stay alive, the older I get and the older everyone else gets and the more time passes increasing the likelihood of death for everyone I know. I have decided that dying is nothing to be afraid of--no matter what. The suffering that precedes death is what worries me. A snakebite seems like it would be painful and then the symptoms of the snakebite seems even more awful. But I have to say I don't know anyone who has been bitten by a snake before (except for Becky, but I will probably never see her again), and I certainly don't know anyone who has DIED from a snakebite. It's not a common death. People would always remember me, if I died from a rattlesnake bite.

Here lies the body of Jodie Morgenson, who died of a rattlesnake bite. Methinks that's an epitaph even strangers would be interested in reading.

As I left the hotel this morning, three local women, in matching sun visors and culottes stopped to talk to my colleague and me. My colleague explained that we were there for a writer’s workshop at Agate Fossil Beds and they seemed to think that was pretty swell. The last thing that one of them said before going into the hotel for coffee was “Watch out for rattlesnakes.” She smiled as she said it, but then her face became stern and she said, “Really.” Then, she looked into my eyes, and tipped her chin to her neck to further underscore her eye contact with me.

Now we are engaging in our day 1 writing activity. We are supposed to be observing the environment through description, interpretation, and speculation (in the way of essayist John Tallmadge). We can go anywhere in the general vicinity of the visitor’s center—inside or outside. I intended to find a spot to sit along one of the walking trails. My first thought as I opened the door to go outside was, “I bet the snakes like the pavement on that trail.” The snakes near my home (bull snakes mostly) love to sun themselves on concrete. As I approached the trailhead, I saw this sign:

My friend Tess pointed out that this looks like an advertisement for a rattlesnake app (which would be very helpful in this sort of situation--an app that warns you of your impending doom). I carried on and came to yet another sign:

Message received. There might as well have been a third sign that said,

It sort of reminded me of the time my boyfriend (now-husband) took me to Montana to hang out with his uber-athletic park ranger friends and we were on our way to hike when we happened upon a sign warning hikers of two aggressive juvenile grizzly bears in the vicinity. I thought that sign would exempt me from the hike, but we trudged on yelling, “Hey bear!” as we travelled. This seemed like the wrong thing to do. I mean, why would you call out to the bear? They said it was because the bears didn't want to be around you, so if they heard you call, "Hey bear!" they would run away. I was thinking to myself, "YES, but these are special bears. They are both juvenile AND aggressive. Their brains aren't fully developed. They have poor decision-making skills and this means they might make a bad decision and hear us calling and seek us out," but I didn't because apparently my brain wasn't fully developed at that point either. I just wept inwardly on the way up, and wept outwardly when we arrived safely, but in so much pain from blistered feet and general out-of-shapeness that I was wishing for an aggressive juvenile Grizzly to maul me to death.

Frankly, sometimes death is a better option--for the person who's dying anyway. It can be hard on the people left living, but there are exceptions to that rule too.

I parked myself not too far from the second rattlesnake warning sign. I sat on the pavement, but not before checking around for anything that resembled a snake.

“Today may be the day I die,” I thought as a settled on a spot away from a large ant carrying the carcass of another large ant across the sidewalk. Death is everywhere, I thought. I noted how matter-of-fact that ant was being about his dead friend. He just picked him up and hauled him to some ant graveyard somewhere.

I opened my journal and looked around. The landscape of Agate Springs is breathtakingly beautiful and so different than the landscape of where I live. I soaked in the beauty for a moment, noting the fluctuating horizon, the stout buttes, the dreamy sky, the ragged grasses interspersed with pops of colorful wildflowers. Words. Words. I needed words. I needed the poetry to flow out of me, like blood from a gaping snakebite wound. I decided to personify one of the buttes. I made an attempt to wax poetic, but aside from what I wrote being awful, and cheesy, I was interrupted because my power of observation was too good. In addition to seeing everything, I was hearing everything as well, and I shit you not, I heard a rattling noise behind me. It sounded like the rattlesnake sound effect they use on TV, which meant it was probably NOT a rattlesnake, but today might be the day I die.

Really, any day could be that day.

Like I said before though, dying of a rattlesnake bite would be an interesting—maybe even honorable (?) way to die. It would prove that I approached nature, unafraid, head-on; I lived a life of adventure and intrigue. Signs be damned!

Or maybe ignoring signs both spoken and literal and winding up dead as a result is a stupid thing. Either way—honorable or stupid---it’d still make a helluva death story.

Tonight during our picnic, Callen, one of the seasonal employees told us she had finally caught a glimpse of a rattlesnake. I felt like I was sitting next to a celebrity. She said she had a picture of it and asked if I'd like to see it. I resisted the urge to hug her protectively, and demurely said yes. The photo was glorious. It was just like a picture from National Geographic, the snake curled seductively on the sandy road--its rattle erect--its forked tongue protruding from its mouth. Then it came to light that she not only had this gorgeous still photo of a rattlesnake, but she also had a video of her supervisor agitating it with a snake pole. He did this not to annoy the poor creature, who was clearly just minding her own business, but so that Callen would be able to recognize the sound. The video was a delight. The sound was both mesmerizing and sounded nothing like the rattling sound I heard my first day at Agate. The snake was not bothered by the pole; she was more intent on keeping her eye on Callen. As Callen moved (from a safe distance) the creature's eyes never sight of her, and she warned Callen stay away girl with a rattle.

One of my goals in life is to be an interesting adult. I believe it helps my own children and my students look forward to growing up. Children who see adults succumb to the drudgery of everyday life give adulthood a bad rap. So, if I have to die today, save for the numbness of face and limbs, horrific pain and swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting and nausea, blurred vision, and excessive salivation, dying from a rattlesnake bite would be an all right way to go. My death can become a story for my children and my students to tell.

If, while I am here in Western Nebraska, I happen to get bit by a rattlesnake and die, please make sure my gravestone is inscribed with the following: Here lies the ashes of Jodie Morgenson—who was interesting, both in life and in death.

Jen - Having a Woolly Moment:

Expert in Under 20 Minutes

By Diana Weis


Expertly treddling

working at a one to seven pace

pulling in order to let go.

Agate Springs June 8, 2016

By Jackie Byers

wind rules-- relentless

makes birds recalculate

scours land with sand tools

wind reveals stories

full of hunger, blood, and bones

from epochs long gone

wind carries thunder

lightning's rage blazes prairie

destroys to create

miocene creatures

left rock hardened bone puzzles

predator and prey

both thirsting for death

as water hole disappears

agonized dreaming

CABG June 12, 2016

By Jackie Byers

birdsong morning

full of butterfly breezes

under bright sky

dripping promise of heavy heat

dogs pursue squirrel smells

forever barking up unclimbable trees

wildflowers' welcoming bows

beckon me to go farther and further

out onto blacktop's sun slant sparkle

and into peace puncturing odd thought

universe may be thirteen billion plus years old

but that is lucky number for mankind

I hope-- literally and figuratively-- we don't blow it

Musk and his robots may build a habitable shelter on Mars

Will the robots be welcoming when we intrude?

What happened here?

By Kelsey Baldridge

It’s easy to become something else

Something indefinable

Man never loved the West

He just wanted to name it

Our lack of definition fit



Never ending

Because there is nothing to end

Everything and nothing

Is what we are

Until we too,

Make the same mistake as man

And no longer love

Invisible, Irresistible

By Deron Larson

Ancient Dunes

by Diana Weis


To be an single grain of sand

being swallowed up and

carried off by the prairie wind,

tumbling freely like a sand leaf

on a late fall day,

scurring down the other side

in scattered hope of




a part in the newly

constructed landsacpe

careening across the high plains.


Thousands of years apart,

I stand

wanting only

to reach,

to touch,

to trace the striated paths of

the porous white roughness.

To follow each crafted groove as it

crested and carried

sand grain by grain

down the other side

stepping their way into the distant horizon.

Perhaps if I remain still,

the benevolent will

wash a few grains of self

into that new beginning.


By Deron Larson

Created By
Diana Weis

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