Sarah Acton is the Jurassic Coast’s poet-in-residence. She is exploring the poetry of East Devon and West Dorset as part of a residency spanning the Jurassic Coastline, taking inspiration from natural landmarks and earth history, and working with local museums, schools, and other organisations along the way to create a body of site-specific poetry.
When I first saw Dippy at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, his presence in the great hall seemed epic. It wasn’t just the eerie glow of mood-lighting, or the thrill of the opening night fanfare. As I stood beneath his leg columns looking up, I tried to imagine what it would be like to encounter such a huge creature in his own lifetime. The vast exhibition hall seemed to barely contain his/her frame, and that is without the flesh, muscle, and weight of shifting movement. I know that people and dinosaurs never really interacted in the same timeframe, but we always write the story in our minds from our own perspective, and we’ve all seen the impossible happening on the big screen, the latest in the series, Jurassic World, is out now.
So Dippy helps answer that fascinating question in many of our minds –
What would it be like to meet a dinosaur?
When it came to delivering part of the Dippy outreach project at Mill Water Special School in East Devon, I wanted to carry to the poetry workshops the same sense of awe I’d felt in the room with Dippy, as my imagination filled in the gaps between the empty rib cage of the iconic Diplodocus cast. Dippy’s physical presence opened up a portal, a suspension of disbelief that allows us to step back over centuries and millennia. I know from my work as Jurassic Coast poet-in-residence that time is a shape-shifting dimension in poetry and geology, deep rock-time holds its own cosmic shape and weight, and now I find that dinosaurs may offer the possibility of time-travel too.
Mill Water School is set in the beautiful grounds of the Bicton Estate, and educates children of all ages with severe and profound learning difficulties. Of course, when I arrived, I found that Year 9 and Year 11 (ages 11 and 14) already know so much more than I do about dinosaurs, like how they might have moved, and what they ate. But luckily for me, poetry isn’t just about capturing facts, so we eased our way back through time with an empty box…
I was delighted to hear what the pupils thought was inside my large and very heavy box in the centre of the classroom: a canopy of stars, someone driving a fast car, rainbows, a unicorn, chickens, dogs, and lots of siblings and parents, all right there in the box in front of us.
Luckily when we went to look inside to find out what was really there, it was something just as exciting: a 160 million year old fossilised dinosaur bone found on the Jurassic Coast. This fossilised bone is an amazing and strange object to hold. It feels cool to the touch and slightly tacky, and the stone is surprisingly heavy.
From this one bone, which comprised fused sections of a spine or neck, we created a living beast. We fleshed out the shape and size and character of the dinosaur (or dragon) that this creature had been, who he/she was, and what it would be like to meet him or her, much as I had done in my head as I stood beneath the frame of the Dippy cast in Dorchester.
We played lots of word games, and sound games, but mainly, we had fun putting words together in lines and writing group poems that all of the class contributed to. It was such a pleasure to work with the gambolling leaping imaginations of the kids, their associations and sense of play. By the end of the sessions we had some surprising and fabulous dinosaur poems…like this one from pupils in year 9:
My dinosaur is a four legged zigzag walking through trees –
she looks like a mountain, and is as green as the fields.
My dinosaur flies and glides like a kite in the sky,
but his back is slippery like a death slide.
My dinosaur is an electric dragon,
a scary shape, or a camel with a hump.
My dinosaur has a long tail and a pink tongue,
he sits guarding the land, still as a tree stump.
And with the pupils in Year 11, we also collected a hoard of exciting words to use when thinking and writing about dinosaurs. I wrote a poem using their words and thoughts, it starts like this:
I held his vertebrae right here in my palms,
I felt the weight of his stone-quiet calm,
But when I think of dinosaurs extinct for so long –
I get the dinosaur blues.
Yes, I get the dinosaur blues.
I was thrilled with the poems written in the classroom. After all of their hard work indoors, we all headed outside to the fabulous school treehouse to look and listen to all of the nature on our doorstep, landing back in our own time to appreciate the here and now.
By the time I left the school after the workshops, I was thinking more about footprints than bones and skeletons. Did Dippy leave his footprints on the floor of Dorset County Museum for people to find years later? Did our poems in these workshops leave imprints, like footprints, that the pupils can follow back to poetry or dinosaurs or nature study one day in the future? I do hope so, let’s hope Dippy makes time-travellers of us all.