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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Walk in the Present, Past, and Future

Lee took picked us up just after 6 this morning to avoid traffic — and the trip began with one of the unusual things about Johannesburg: it is the second largest city in sub-saharan Africa (after Lagos) — it looks and feels like any large city anywhere. And yet, 10-15 minutes out of town are bare brown hills — a bit like those just over the Golden Gate in California, but empty. I mean no cars on the road, no people walking, no animals on the hills, until you get closer to game areas. Wild life is right there next to the city — no suburbs, no exurbs, city, then nothing. Development will come, but for now that means that in 20 minutes Lee was opening a gate and a troop of baboons was there to watch us, and warthogs scampered ahead of us, and eagles circled in the sky — on the brown bare hills. It is hot today, record-breaking heat, dry heat. Then Lee drove his customized jeep over the bumpy dirt road (more like path) to Malapa. Sasha adds:
A walk in the park — that’s what the terrain looked like, it seemed that all you had to do was walk. Lee told us it wasn’t going to be that easy. I didn’t believe him. But then he said that he had turned around in this area walking for hours and had missed the fossil site. I realized that you need to fail, but then I questioned myself, was it really failing? If you didn’t fail you wouldn’t know what to not do. With failing, you learn what to do better next time. I asked myself again, is it failing, or is it learning. This, as Lee says, is the essence of science.
When we went into a big cave, which lee called a “distraction cave,” at first I thought, “this is huge, there has to stuff here, he himself came here because there were so many fossils.” I bet in my mind that I could find hominid fossill bone without even trying. Then he told me that in 17 years he found 7 fragments, 2 of which were teeth. But at the Malapa site, he found 240 pieces in 2 years without even digging. Lee started to teach my eye, to look for faults in the earth, and for things that did not belong (anomalies); we were in the fossil site and he said “look for the unsual rock.” I looked and I looked and couldn’t find it. He showed me a quartz rock that had been shaped. After he showed me that, I saw them all over the ground, and then I could see faults. I could see things I couldn’t see.
When we drove up, I didn’t have the eye, I didn’t know how to look for animals, but once we showed me, I knew where to look and how to look. He told me that having good eyes, knowing what to look for, is what you need to be a good scientist.

Well that report just about covers it. The excitment of this trip is not just what Lee discovered, but how he did, and his passion for sharing that with young people. Because he is sure there is so much more to be found. Indeed he took us to a huge mound, really a hillside, that is entirely made up of fossil vegetation and hominid materials — we saw a 600,000 year old stone axe just there in the ground at our feet — all waiting to be investigated. More soon.


  1. Lenore Look says:

    I love that — “having good eyes, knowing what to look for, is what you need to be a good scientist.” I’m going to steal it and use it in Alvin Ho. Thanks, Marc! Say hi to Sasha :) for me.