The photographer Sarah Wilson’s grandfather, Dr. John A. Wilson, was a paleontologist whose work took him to some of the most remote and rugged landscapes of the West Texas desert. About a year before he died, he gifted her with three boxes, filled with the Kodachrome slides he’d made during digs throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and used during his time as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I believe he gave these slides to me because I had been traveling out to West Texas and photographing the landscape myself,” the artist tells me now. “He knew I was falling in love with it.” Incredibly, she recognized many of the locations where he had worked and made discoveries. As she writes in her new book, Dig (Yoffy Press), she’d stood exactly where he had, decades after he did.
In 2008, Dr. Wilson was hospitalized due to pneumonia at the age of 93. During his hospitalization, his granddaughter brought a photograph she’d made in Big Bend National Park to show him. He recognized the rock formation immediately from his time in that strange and arid landscape.
In the months after her grandfather’s death, the photographer would continue to follow in his footsteps. She returned to his lab at the University of Texas and walked among the old bones and fossils. She saw the find of his career—the skull of a primate with nasal bones as delicate as paper. Since then, she’s gone on digs herself, picking up where he left off and making some discoveries of her own along the way.
Out there, against the backdrop of bones dating back millions of years, time stretches out for miles into the horizon. The past and present collide. On her first dig, Wilson brought her grandfather’s ashes with her, casting them across the landscape they both loved so much.
Can you share some of your earliest memories of your grandfather?
“My grandparents lived at a funky, mid-century lake house on a beautiful spot overlooking Lake Travis, on the outskirts of Austin. My hazy golden memories are from when we would spend weekends there, swimming, fishing, and sailing. I remember Grandpa heading down to the dock with us, a cheap beer in hand. He was enjoying his retirement. I have vivid memories of him, shoulder-deep in his tomato plants. I thought I didn’t like tomatoes at the time. Unfortunately, I was too young to know what was good for me.”
What about your earliest memories of paleontology and geology?
“My grandfather used to come to elementary school for show and tell. He would bring a cast of a huge Albertosaurus skull (cousin of the T-rex), and mammoth teeth and femurs of early mammals. I knew that I had one of the more interesting of grandfathers, but I don’t think I fully understood this work and his legacy until recently.”
What makes the landscapes of the West Texas desert unique, and when did you first start exploring these landscapes?
“So much of the West Texas landscape was, and still is, comprised of long stretches of private ranches with small towns connected by the Southern Pacific Railroad line. The land itself is varied: golden grass valleys interrupted by ancient volcanic uplifts, canyons carved by oceanic currents, and waterways that are long gone.
“My first trip to Big Bend National Park was in the eighth grade. While I was distracted by my friends and teenage crushes at the time, I did let some of the landscape sink in. I remember walking down to the Rio Grande from my campsite, laying down on the ground, and looking up at the stars. The sky was packed with them, and I was in awe.
“The next time I went was when I was 20. I worked for a photographer named James Evans for a summer in the tiny town of Marathon, TX. He had been photographing the Big Bend area for years. I learned about shooting and printing in the darkroom, and about the landscape itself and the pace of life.
“Years later, I was sent on assignment to photograph the area for Texas Monthly Magazine. I was out there alone, doing my best to translate the power of the place in photographs. I visited a few times after that, but now that I go with paleontologists on digs, I get to be out there every winter.
“I now have the privilege of traveling to gorgeous orange and white striped badlands crowned with cathedral-like rock formations and dramatic red sandstone hoodoos. The landscape is so foreign and remote that when I’m out there, the rest of my life at home falls away. There’s a feeling of vulnerability when I’m out there, out of range, and exposed to the elements. It helps me have perspective on what’s really important.”
When and how did you start working with paleontologists? How did you gain access to this first dig with the University of Texas?
“My grandfather’s slides were my passport to paleontology. One afternoon, several months after he died, I brought the slides to the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, a collection my grandfather assembled and organized back in 1949. I thought that the slides might be useful in some way to other paleontologists and students. I met some of my grandfather’s colleagues..some were familiar, but it was my first visit there since I was a kid.
“My interest in the place, full of bones and skeletons, maps, and wonderful mid-century office equipment, was piqued. I came back again and was told that there was a paleontologist named Chris Kirk who follows my grandfather’s field notes and footsteps through the West Texas desert, looking for more specimens of the early primate my grandfather discovered just north of the Rio Grande. Someone put us together, and then he invited me to join a dig. I went; I brought my cameras with me, and I’ve been joining him every year since, except the winter when my kid was a two-month-old.”
What is your most powerful memory from your time on a dig?
“On my second dig, I found a fossilized jaw bone sitting there on the surface of the silty hillside. Its shiny teeth caught my eye. We later found out that it’s the first known lower jaw of Texadon, a small, early deer-like mammal from 43 million years ago. It was my first significant find and it gave me the confidence to keep going.
“Now, they have to practically pry me off the hillside…I always want to stay and find one more fossil…just one more. Being out there is one of my favorite places to be. When we go in the winter, the air is crisp in the mornings, then warms up in the afternoons, but it’s still pleasant.
“But being on digs in the desert is hard on the body. The hillsides consist of hard-packed dirt and rock that we crawl on with our hands and knees. I wear knee pads and gloves to protect my palms. We each bring three liters of water with us each day, which is sometimes not enough.”
What was it like seeing Rooneyia viejaensis, a primate skull your grandfather found, for the first time?
“Rooneyia viejaensis is a 38 million-year-old primate my grandfather found in West Texas in 1964. It is a wonderful specimen, a compact little skull that has all of its upper teeth and many of the delicate bones in its nasal passages still intact. A fragment of the skull was missing, revealing the endocast of the brain which has been replaced with mineral, so it’s like a perfect brain-shaped stone under the skull.
“The first time I held it was a long time ago. It was before I knew just how hard it is to find complete skulls in the desert. On all of the digs I’ve been on, I think eleven now, we have only found one other skull. Where we’re looking, we often find teeth and jaws, but 40 million-year-old skulls are harder to come by. Either my grandfather got there first and wiped the place clean, or he had a really good eye, or both.”
Do you have any other favorite treasures from the lab?
“There are so many amazing specimens, but I love looking at the drawers from the La Brea Tarpits. There’s one drawer full of Dire Wolf bones that are so gorgeous. They have been seeped in tar and are shiny chocolatey-black. They smell like petroleum, from the sludge they came from, bubbling up from the ground.”
You still use your grandfather’s camera sometimes. How’d you find it, and what’s it like working with it?
“After my grandfather died, several family members got together to disperse some of the things he left behind. That day, I came away with several of his bolo ties and his Pentax Asahi 35 mm camera. I’ve started bringing it with me to the field and a few rolls of expired film.
“It’s a simple camera, with all manual settings. I kind of like it, but the challenge is that you don’t know what you’re going to get, with no LED screen and using expired film on top of that. But when I have that camera in my hands, I feel like I stop overthinking. I have to put away my tricks and just take simple pictures of what’s in front of me, which is freeing.”
You’ve dedicated Dig to your son, Theo. When will he be able to go on his first dig?
“Theo is now seven and a half years old and says he wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up. I’ve taken him on hikes in the creek beds around Austin, and we’ve found lots of ancient oyster fossils. We gave him an old chest of drawers that he calls his paleontology collection which he’s filled with shells, fossils, feathers, bones, and a complete raccoon skeleton we found in my parents’ backyard. Dead bugs go in there too.
“He’s still too young to join the digs that I go on. Our closest fossil localities are a two-mile, arduous hike into the canyon from the campsite, and some days we clock nine miles round trip. I’m hoping he will be able to come when he’s about 14, but I’m working on finding some sites that are a little easier to get to.”
Get your copy of Dig—the artist’s ode to family, time, and the West Texas desert—here.
All images © Sarah Wilson, courtesy Yoffy Press