Autumn leaves flutter through the air and come to rest on a muddy riverbank. Nothing unusual about that, really–it’s a sight I’ve seen many times. But these particular leaves landed on this particular mudbank a long time ago. About 68 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous.
This is part of an exhibit in the Smithsonian, filled with giant skeletons and fossilized claws and fangs. Leaves being softer than teeth, there aren’t as many plant fossils. But these delicate prints conjure up a long-vanished world vividly.
It was quite a different world back then. More peaceful, less scary than today. Only Tyrannosaurus Rex and Diplodocus and Hadrosaurus were stomping around, no politicians to worry about. There were also trees and bees and all sorts of creatures that look a lot like they do today.
Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for time travel movies and books. It’s intriguing to ponder how different things were back then–no Google, no cell phones, no electricity. Imagine a world of hoop skirts and candlelight and swords, or even farther back, knights in shining armor, or pharaohs or Neanderthals, or dinosaurs. It’s fun to reflect on how different it all was back then. But looking at those familiar-looking leaf-prints, it’s oddly comforting to reflect on how much the same things were years ago. The basic shape and structure of a leaf hasn’t changed in all those millennia.