#484: The Man in the Dinosaur Hat

June 1st, 2015

Through a jeweler’s glass, I stared at a monster’s stalk.

It was round and small, with a perfect hole in the center allowing me to fantasize it could have been along the lines of a spine. But it was a stalk of a crinoid, a sea lily, a tiny monster from before time, a stalked starfish waving in the undersea breeze to gobble up tiny life 330 million years in the past.

A horn honked behind me. I turned to see the wandering tourists and crawling SUVs of Michigan Avenue.

The tours downtown talk about buildings or history or crime, speak in impish terms of Col. McCormick, Al Capone or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. They talk about the people who wandered these stone and steel streets.

But only Asa Kaplan’s fossil tour of downtown Chicago talks about the stone itself.

Kaplan, a soft-spoken, always smiling man wearing a hat shaped like the top half of a T-Rex head, graduated from Yale with a degree in biology and did graduate work at the University of Michigan in geology with a specialization with invertebrate paleontology.

Paleobiology, he said, lends itself to storytelling.

“The history of paleontology is that a lot of it proceeded through the oil companies and through industrial training. And those folks don’t need to know how animals lived, they need to know what the animals tell you about the rocks you’re about to exploit for industrial society,” Kaplan said.

“A paleobiologist comes in and says, that’s great, but I just want to use to rocks to tell me about the actual animals and their lives and what the environment looked like and what’s the history of this place through time.”

On a rainy, chill Saturday morning, a group of about 10 people who heard about Kaplan’s tour through Facebook or Dabble.co gathered by a boat tour dock to search downtown for the fossils that built the city.

Wandering in the cold, jeweler’s eyepieces in hand, we saw bryozoan colonies in the Wabash Avenue bridge, ammonites in a 1920s skyscraper doorway, rudist oyster reefs captured by the Marshall Field’s elevator and Tommy Hilfiger kiosk. We learned of Indiana limestone and saw Riverwalk trails of ancient worms — fossils in that case of behavior, not bodies.

As Chicago grew and the wealthy flaunted their prowess by carting more exotic stone for their castles, more exotic fossils came in to be thrown at passersby’s feet. It’s this confluence of “aesthetics and economics and paleohistory” that fascinates Kaplan and led to the tour’s founding.

“It started when National Park Service started their National Fossil Day, which was 2011. And no one was doing anything with it in Chicago and I was like, ‘That’s sort of BS. I’m going to do something,’” he said, laughing.

He first tried to work with the park service before realizing he was happier doing this on his own any day, rather than just Fossil Day.

“I think that everyone has something like this to offer. Not necessarily something that only they could do, but something that they can give as a gift to people that will really open up people’s eyes and let people have a really unique perspective or time together. To see things in a new way,” he said, standing in the cold before the tour, shielded from the icy sprinkle by a boat tour awning and a hat shaped like a T-Rex head.

“I walk down these streets every day and I don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on around me. I wish that I would. This is a way of relating to that sentiment, and maybe helping bring that out in others. It’s a personal value and it’s what I can offer,” said the man in the dinosaur hat.

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