Outward Reviews: All Yesterdays

You know that kid who screamed out the scientific names of dinosaurs he saw during a movie trailer? That kid whom everyone smirked at and whose parents and sibling leaned away from a little too casually? That little guy was me. So with that knowledge, I give you my first book review —

If anything, we dinosaur fans are gluttons for punishment. It’s not like we have anything better to do than slog through the latest iteration of Cretaceous Battle Royal for the umpteenth time. For us, it’s just another day at the office. We really don’t have much of a choice. Hollywood movie monsters garner attention and sadly, that’s about all the seriousness popular media wishes to bestow on the subject of ancient reptiles.

Well known creatures in ways you’ve never seen them: par for the course with All Yesterdays. A plesiosaur uses a camouflage hunting strategy here.

It’s a precipitous and very slippery slope. You’re pretty much guaranteed schlock, even from heavy hitters like the Discovery Channel and the BBC.

Yet we come running every time. It’s like an abusive relationship. It’s the only show in town. We’ll put up with nearly any amount of punishment to get our fix of X-treme archosaurs, shot through the corneas to a soundtrack of overdone roars and bellows.

With stereotypes and clichés so ubiquitous, us paleo-buffs have had to produce some pretty thick skins over the years. I myself have become jaded; bracing for the parade of Mesozoic tropes I know are in store. I’ve got my checklist, derisive snorts at the ready.

How many of us have gathered around our TV’s to chuck popcorn and soda cans at every single tired and over-the-top “seen-it-a-million-times” moments? Rolled our eyes at the scientific inaccuracies *where are the goddamn feathers?!* and taken too much joy in pointing out facts nobody cares about?

Almost any recreation will focus on the Hollywood aspect of the animals. Predators bellow victoriously over fallen enemies every other second. Herbivores are nothing but glorified redshirts, glancing around fearfully before the clawed hammer falls in the next scene. It gets to be a bit much.

Animals do strange things seemingly outside their bodily adaptations, hence Protoceratops forage in a tree to get some tasty morsels.

So when such a cool, tall glass of sanity broaches the genre; I sit up and take notice.

All Yesterdays is the first book to confront these overblown notions and call it out for the nonsense that it is. That’s what stood out to me immediately upon reading it. The level-headed assuredness with which it builds a case for what a younger, Mesozoic earth might actually have been like without all the flashing neon. There is a boldness to openly and beautifully speculate within this book. Couple this with a sound scientific foundation for each and every idea and you have yourself a rare cocktail indeed.

It’s a marvel. It’s addicting. And might I reiterate again: It’s so damn refreshing.

But I need to backtrack from here:

All Yesterdays is the brainchild of several well-known names in the field of paleontology and paleontological artistry. Paleozoologist Darren Naish, known for other dinosaur publications such as Walking with Dinosaurs: The Evidence as well as his unbeatable blog Tetrapod Zoology; and artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen combine their talents and ideas with inspired success.  All Yesterdays is a book that does more than celebrate paleoart. It joyfully turns the subject on its head and forces the reader to look at it from a new perspective.

Some of my most memorable sections were the quiet moments. Several entries juxtapose the incessant carnage seen elsewhere with the doldrums we almost never hear about. A lethargic tyrannosaur, sleeping off its latest kill. Allosaurus and Camptosaurus (mortal enemies in any other light) exchanging an unobtrusive glance at a watering hole. The best was a Tenontosaurus simply walking through its wooded habitat with nary a sickle-claw in sight.

How much of the “external bits” would cover up that familiar dinosaurian outline? If this ain’t too weird for you, you can handle the rest. Think of fluffy Antarctic dinos as the whack-a-zoo bar for entrance.

What All Yesterdays does exceptionally well is the speculation. Obviously my favorite. The authors lead you into each piece of art confidently. They lay out the thought process behind each one, comparing behaviors based firmly in reality, but at the same time making it clear that any such proofs would be impossible to confirm without a time machine at hand. In a way, I found it exciting to finally think of these ancient creatures as animals again.

Knowing that there’s plenty of boisterous mating displays, mud-rolling, unanticipated climbing, and chronic sleeping mixed in with all that unrestrained killing really levels the playing field. What is usually so one-sided becomes illuminated. Its horizon made colorful.

All Yesterdays doesn’t impose to preach about “What it was really like”. It simply gives you the tools and insight to realize that there are many facets of the past that we’ll never know. Brilliant, stunning things that are forever lost in time.

In the end, this is All Yesterdays’ achievement. It’s its sheer power to change your perception using pretty (and at the same time deeply thought out) pictures of awesome dinosaurs.

In the latter half of the book, All Yesterdays even turns a mirror onto itself. It projects a future where the next intelligence of earth discovers long extinct ‘currently extant’ species. It postulates what sorts of reconstructions these beings might produce: a cat, a hummingbird, a baboon etc. (Human killer/parasite/venomous predator, respectively) This is the most tongue-in-cheek segment of the book**, highlighting the kinds of mistakes modern scientists and artists make when visualizing extinct creatures.

It’s expertly done, eye-opening, and I loved every minute of it.

**I adored how everything was tainted towards the vicious and merciless. Baleen whales and elephants became the stuff of nightmares. Also, hippo based on the skull: Just back away slowly and hope it didn’t see you.

For those of you in desperate need of a reprieve from DinosaurusX style programming, you should jump at this chance. As a fellow dino-nazi, I can’t recommend this book any higher. The artwork is stunning. The ideas are fresh and thoroughly backed up, leaving your head spinning with the sheer ingenuity involved.

Even familiar faces aren’t safe. Here, Triceratops sees a facelift thanks to recent quill-nob discoveries way down its ancestral line.

There are lessons here that should absolutely be taken to heart.

If only more would.

Oh, and snag a printed version. A kindle’s black-and-white just doesn’t do it justice.

UPDATE: I’ve just been informed by one of the ‘high ups’ (holy crap actual feedback!) that most of you lovely people will get to see the artwork generously colored. Smartphones, tablets and computers are the way to go. Don’t let my Black and White Kindle shriveled heart dissuade you. Now there is literally no reason for you not to get this book.

So off with you! Go find Majungasaurus.

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