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Where 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 ago.

At 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.

Horticultural consultant 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.

"The Hartman 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..."

"This garden 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 of life."

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 really like.

 
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