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Local fossil hunter and school volunteer Herb Bastuscheck of Misawa, Japan, found the first tortoise fossil in Aomori Prefecture, dating back some 15 million years.
Local fossil hunter and school volunteer Herb Bastuscheck of Misawa, Japan, found the first tortoise fossil in Aomori Prefecture, dating back some 15 million years. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Local fossil hunter and school volunteer Herb Bastuscheck of Misawa, Japan, found the first tortoise fossil in Aomori Prefecture, dating back some 15 million years.
Local fossil hunter and school volunteer Herb Bastuscheck of Misawa, Japan, found the first tortoise fossil in Aomori Prefecture, dating back some 15 million years. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
A glimpse of some the fossils, rocks and artifacts belonging to local fossil hunter and school volunteer Herb Bastuscheck of Misawa, Japan.
A glimpse of some the fossils, rocks and artifacts belonging to local fossil hunter and school volunteer Herb Bastuscheck of Misawa, Japan. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The kids in Eva Adams’ first-grade class shriek upon hearing the origins of the big brown rock they just touched.

“Dinosaur dung,” says Herb Bastuscheck. “Doodoo.”

The revelation, despite the giggles and exaggerated hand wiping, is an enlightening moment for the 6-year-olds: Adams and Bastuscheck explain that anything water can soak and deposit minerals into can become fossils.

Bastuscheck was about the same age as the wide-eyed pupils when he began a lifelong hobby to collect relics from the earth.

On a whim at 44, he ventured to northern Japan to teach English for two years. An elementary and junior high school teacher in Oregon, he was divorced, his kids grown. That was 21 years ago.

Marriage to a Japanese junior high school teacher kept him on this side of the Pacific.

It was a second chance in life in a new land of fossils, rocks and artifacts.

For the last 12 years, Bastuscheck has been sharing his passion for discovery with nearly every student who has passed through Misawa schools.

“He’s a very treasured presenter for all grades,” said Brenda Fine, a Cummings Elementary School educator. “He’s worked with all ages, sharing his talent and love of learning.”

Fine helps arrange a yearly pass for Bastuscheck to the base’s three schools. He also presents to the Girl Scouts and displays his collections in the school libraries. Last year alone, Bastuscheck — known fondly as “Mr. B” — gave 75 presentations, he said.

“There’s a lot of fun in collecting, but there’s also fun in sharing,” he said. “It’s a rush for me: Seeing a bunch of kids going ‘Wow’ over some kind of fossil or their reaction when they’re passing around the dung, the dinosaur doo — ‘ew.’”

He always shows his most cherished fossil — that of a 60-million-year-old four-leaf clover branded on a piece of volcanic rock picked from an Oregon field. “This was growing when the dinosaurs lived,” he says.

But his favorite stomping ground is “shipwrecked beach” in northern Japan, a desolate stretch of sandy shore on the Shimokita Peninsula.

“I’ve not found another place, even in America, that has such a wide variety” of rocks, he said. “Ninety percent of the time, I’m the only person there.”

Among the countless agate, jasper, petrified wood, jade and onyx, Bastuscheck has found four horse teeth dating back 1.5 million years. The fossils are from a new species and have been deemed a national treasure, Bastuscheck said.

“There’s a possibility I could get ‘herbi’ on the scientific name,” he said.

He combs more than just beaches. Over the years, Bastuscheck has befriended several Japanese farmers with fields that have yielded crops of Jomon artifacts. The Jomon were a prehistoric people who lived in Northern Japan more than 10,000 years ago.

When conditions are just right — after a fall harvest and a typhoon — Bastuscheck has seen Jomon artifacts standing “like little toadstools” in the field. He’s collected a few thousand pieces — always with prior approval. He’s given the more rare items to museums.

What keeps the hunt fresh?

“That of expectancy,” he said. “There’s always a chance of finding something really nice.”

With plans to retire from his various teaching jobs in April and return to Oregon with his wife, Bastuscheck is on his last round of school presentations at Misawa. But he’ll continue sharing his love of archaeology and geology with future generations.

“As long as I can hobble from one classroom to another, I’ll be showing fossils,” he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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