Fire and Water for Elephants

Philip Alan Sandberg

It all happened because of the fire in our old, creaky Geology Building—well, that and the Tabasco Sauce fire in my mouth, which came later. As on many campuses, Geology was housed in an ancient building, a pine-timbered firetrap. A construction worker’s blowtorch ignited a blaze in the fourth floor ceiling, and everyone evacuated across the street. Watching the rising column of smoke, our students probably thought: “great, no classes.” We faculty members mostly thought: “career burnout” or “forced early retirement.”

Torrents of water pumped into the building partly collapsed the ceiling over the first floor exhibit on Ice Age elephants. The next day, I walked through that catastrophic fire and water damage. Now, scientists are human—really—and have human failings, but we are trained to be observant. Something told me a tiny nick in the dark brown patina of one elephant cranium was really, really important. The interior was white and chalky, unlike any bone I had ever seen. I used my pocketknife to scrape a small sample from that nick. Remember, the elephant head was already damaged—and I am a scientist.

The x-ray pattern of jagged peaks and valleys produced by that powder showed it was gypsum, the calcium sulfate mineral in plaster of Paris and wallboard. I was amazed. Every other vertebrate I knew had calcium phosphate bones. Dreams of a featured report in Science, full professorship, maybe even a trip to Washington, D.C., to accept a Presidential Award and a National Academy of Sciences membership swirled in my mind. But I had to hurry before my discovery was scooped by another carefully observant, desperate, junior faculty member in a different burned-out Geology firetrap.

I needed a strong hook for my article, one that could start me on my journey to career superstar status, complete with fifteen minutes of fame on national TV. I wandered around town pondering, ending up in a Mexican restaurant near campus. The peppery aroma of the Tabasco Sauce I splashed on my burrito confirmed Proust’s view that smell is the strongest evoker of memories.

That smell transported me back many years to an LSU Museum of Natural History expedition to Avery Island, Louisiana, home of the McIlhenny family's Tabasco Sauce factory. If you have traveled through southern Louisiana, you may have seen that Avery Island and other similar “islands” are not out in the sea, but are merely higher spots in the flat, coastal marsh. They are being pushed up by gypsum-capped salt domes—rising underground pillars of ancient salt, none of which resemble Lot’s wife.

On our weeklong collecting trip, we worked in an old, vaulted brick warehouse, preparing herons, egrets, and plants for a museum exhibit. Around us, hundreds of barrels of Tabasco’s pungent pepper-vinegar-salt concentrate were aging into the ultimate macho-man sour mash, one that no Kentucky distiller could imagine.

Now, years later, in this Mexican restaurant, the decorations of skeletons and skulls for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) brought my thoughts back here to the Midwest and to the Ice Age elephant exhibit and our geology building fire. Just then, the Tabasco Sauce fire hit my mouth. In the resulting fire-on-fire fusion, everything was illuminated.

Of course, I thought, Avery Island…salt domes…elephants…gypsum cap rock. All those parts linked together as clearly as the atoms in August Kekule’s dream that revealed the ring structure of benzene. In that ah-hah moment, I found my hook.

Any rancher or deer hunter knows salt licks attract large herbivorous mammals. Obviously, elephants, the largest Ice Age land mammals, traveled to the largest salt licks, the salt domes. Then, they stayed there, living, breeding, andhere’s the important partdying there. Over geologic time, masses of elephant skulls (which my startling x-ray data showed are made of gypsum) accumulated above the salt, creating the cap rock.

I not only had developed a bold new theory on the origin of the gypsum atop salt domes, I had also solved the age-old mystery of the elusive “elephant graveyards.” This was a triumph of cross-disciplinary research.

Then, I started crying. Naturally, I assumed it was tears of joy over my imminent eminence. Turned out it was just too much Tabasco Sauce on my burrito.


About the Author

Philip Alan Sandberg is a sedimentary geologist who also writes short fiction, essays, middle grade and young adult novels, and travels the Gulf Coast region in search of the best Shrimp and Grits. He lives in the Finger Lakes wine country of western New York State, a region where grits are inedible sediments (shrimp not included) used to get your car unstuck from icy roads or snowbanks.