NEBRASKAland

NEBRASKAland June 2016

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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JUNE 2016 • NEBRASKAland 71 F or some reason I am thinking about teeth this morning. Maybe it's because yesterday I had the occasion to enjoy a root canal. As the dentist spent an hour with a diamond bit drill, blasting powder and a backhoe chiseling his way down through my molar, I was once again struck by the remarkable durability of teeth. Even though this particular one had decided to fail me and require repair. From what little I have learned about archeology and paleontology I know that teeth are the most enduring part of organic substances. Flesh fails, bone disintegrates, but those teeth hang in there to the very last and are therefore what we often find when nothing else remains. I've been skinny dipping down here in the Loup River for almost 40 years, something readers downstream might be dismayed to learn I know, and so I know the sandbars fairly well. And the riverbed. Even the great anthropologist, essayist and poet commented on the joys of "floating down the incline of the continent" as he butt-bounced his way down the Platte River a century ago. I imagine it is a part of the story of the survival of the human race that my ancestors learned long ago to pay some attention to what lies beneath them under the water, in the sands and directly below my… Well, directly below me. The sand bottoms of the Middle Loup are fairly fine; there are few pebbles, let alone rocks. An occasional bit of wood, but not even much of that. So when one's bottom contacts something hard down there, unseen, it tends to focus the mind. So what is down there under the water? I've come up with a lot of bones over the years and not the sort of livestock you might imagine. I've found bison rib bones and a half dozen skulls – one a truly ancient Pleistocene example of bison antiquus, the species that roamed the Plains even before the modern buffalo, bison bison. There have been vertebrae, leg bones, bits and fragments, but most of all … teeth. Buffalo teeth, prehistoric horse teeth, camel teeth (yes, camels did once roam the Great American Desert) and rarest and most exciting … elephant teeth. There is some romance in knowing that this same ground where I now see fauna like deer, muskrats and raccoons was once grazed by mammoths and mastodons. And that the evidence for that is right here, in my hand. Sure, that was a long time ago, but not so long ago that I can't still find the occasional tooth, not all that different after all than the molar Dr. Destructo was grinding away at just yesterday at this very hour. Of all the teeth I have picked up along the way the one that means the most to me is an ordinary dogtooth I sometimes wear on a cord around my neck. I have written here and elsewhere about my love for dogs. Dogs are my favorite kind of people. But this tooth has special meaning for me. It was in a discard midden pile from an archeological dig not far from my home, an excavation of an ancient Pawnee earthlodge. Among the potsherds, flint fragments, charred bits of wood and unidentifiable and insignificant debris the researchers dug from the site there was this dog tooth. The tooth is interesting to me because this dog was part of Pawnee village life long ago but also because it was part of family life. The tooth was found inside the lodge, so this wasn't just some stray that wandered the village. It was inside the lodge, perhaps someone's favorite. Even though his life may have been a tough one and his death in the lodge fire a terrible one, he was a dog. A household dog. And for that I hold him in regard … even as he is represented only by this one tooth. Notably … a canine. This dog knew things, saw things, heard things, tasted things, lived things that still fascinate me and so I honor that dog in this little bit of him left on this earth. Maybe some day far in the future someone will find my tooth, showing signs of a root canal and cap, and think, "You know, this old dog knew things, saw things, heard things, tasted things, lived things that are now long gone." Or maybe it's just the anesthesia. ■ Roger Welsch is an author, humorist and folklorist. He has written for NEBRASKAland Magazine since 1977. Root Canals, Archeology and an Old Dog Tooth By Roger Welsch Questions always arise when teeth are found. "My precious!" PHOTO BY ROGER WELSCH

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