the Wild Things Were
by Linda Lehmusvirta
courtesy of Austin Home & Living, July/August 2002
Dinosaurs of storybooks
and movies seem almost mythical to a child whose concept of
history is momentary. But at the Hartman Prehistoric Garden
in Zilker Botanical Garden, children can walk in the footsteps
of real-life dinosaurs that lived in Austin 100 million years
that time, the area east of Mopac was a beach along an inland
sea, populated by dinosaurs and other reptiles that foraged
its forests and waters. Now a botanical garden representing
the Cretaceous Period, children can put their feet alongside
tracks left by Ornithomimus dinosaurs. They can picture the
sea through ponds filled with primitive fish, and see the
type of plants that fed the dinosaurs. A life-size Ornithomimus,
designed by local sculptor John Maisano, cast in bronze at
Deep in the Heart Art Foundry in Bastrop, illustrates the
ancient inhabitants. An overlook pavilion represents the dinosaur's
three toes in its design.
At one time, the
site in Zilker Botanical Garden was mined for limestone to
use in Zilker Park. In 1992, volunteers cleared the overgrowth
for a butterfly garden. When hard rains washed away the broken
earth, hikers found dinosaur tracks underneath. Once the tracks
were exposed, erosion endangered their historical imprint.
Claudette and David Hartman recognized the importance of their
preservation. "Several people were interested, but no
one was doing anything, and we were losing the tracks,"
she says. "We wanted to do something for Austin, so we
stepped up to it."
A member of the
Austin Area Garden Council, Zilker Botanical's board, Hartman
began raising funds. Contributions from the Council and its
affiliated garden clubs, pro bono and volunteer assistance,
and a major grant from The Hartman Foundation launched the
project. "One of the goals of The Hartman Foundation
is to support family education in the local community,"
she says. "We felt this fit the educational area as a
stimulus to interest children in science. And it provides
a place that families can enjoy and learn together."
To preserve the
dinosaur tracks in a garden that tells their story, the Hartmans
enlisted experts from many fields. Dr. Ed Theriot, Director
of the Texas Memorial Museum, serves with scientists from
around the country as primary advisor.
In the neglected
quarry, landscape architect Brian Larson, Larson/Burns Inc.,
designed a botanical garden that depicts the age of the dinosaurs.
Project manager Colleen Harris, land use planner, Larson/Burns,
coordinated scientific, artistic, and practical concerns to
create a dinosaur habitat as well as a garden that children
would like. "We wanted to make it an interactive garden
for them," she says. "Kids think it's cool!"
To encourage children
to interact, Bill Wilmont, hardscape manager for L & R
Landscaping Services, replicated petroforms, rocks that Native
Americans formed in the shape of animals. Children are delighted
when they spot the hidden alligator and other subtle sculptures.
Palm-size crystals meant for handling encourage impromptu
lessons in geology. A "forest" of petrified rocks
looks so real that even adults cannot resist touching them.
L & R built
the ponds, hardscape, and pavilion. Wilmont selected stones
from several quarries, including old abandoned pits that contained
some of the most unusual rock. "Most of the stonework
is limestone, but being sedimentary, it contains pockets of
plants, quartz crystals, fossils, and geodes, so it has an
interesting effect," he says. To represent the area's
former volcanic activity, at the entrance Wilmont placed black
basalt boulders from an extinct volcano chain near San Antonio.
Zilker Botanical Garden manager Melvin Hinson and his Parks
and Recreation Department crew were challenged to provide
electricity, lighting, and water without damaging the existing
gardens. The Education Program, directed by Dr. Molly Ogorzaly,
is training volunteer docents to conduct tours.
Craig Nazor selected plants of the Cretaceous Period. The
project represented a childhood dream come true. One of his
favorite books was The World We Live In, especially its illustration
of the dinosaur mural at the Peabody Museum. "This mural
is in chronological sequence, left to right," he says.
"On the extreme right-hand end is a beautiful late Cretaceous
forest of palms and cycads on the shores of an ancient sea,
fading off into the distance, growing in lush abandon on the
eve of the great comet strike that changed the world. As a
child, I would long to run into that forest. I could never
pass up the opportunity to help create that very forest. A
dream is a very powerful thing!"
Working with a
devoted cadre of volunteers, he installed over 50 mostly prehistoric
species, some donated from private gardens. Gardeners will
recognize cycads along with pines, junipers, yews, ferns,
primitive grasses, and palms. Flowering magnolias offset Montezuma
Cypress, related to the Bald Cypress, and Stone Pine, a stately
hardy evergreen. Cycads, one of the world's oldest seed-bearing
plants, include the familiar Sago palm as well as the Virgin's
Palm and the Bamboo Cycad from Mexico.
The tracks are
protected once again with layers of sand and soil. Casts and
a computer model of their location enable future scientific
study. Actual-size models of the tracks throughout the garden
allow safe hands-on discovery by little explorers.
Prehistoric Garden is a place to give us all a space to dream
about the distant past," Nazor says. "It is a place
to visualize the processes of evolution of which all life
is a part. It is a place to surround ourselves with where
life has been, so we can make better decisions about where
we are going. To dream, and to learn..."
is part of our heritage. I also think that botanical gardens
are an important cultural resource," says Hartman. "People
from all walks of life, income levels and nationalities enjoy
them. All ages find something beautiful in a botanical garden.
Children get excited about discovering new things, and the
adults have quiet time for reflection. It adds to our quality
This summer, when
the kids get restless, open up a new world for dreaming.
At the Hartman
Prehistoric Garden, they won't need a movie director's special
effects to get a glimpse of what "old Austin" was