Why I didn't finish my spring reading list

There's a meme going around about plans for summer reading. While I was reading Sciencewoman's list, I realized that I was avoiding the meme. See, I didn't even manage to finish my spring reading list, so I'm not ready to talk about big plans for the summer.

I had good intentions. I read Dirt: the erosion of civilizations. I bought Last Child in the Woods, and brought it along on my spring break travels. And... I didn't finish it.

Here's the gist of the book: kids should go outside and play in wild, overgrown places. Really, they should. They'll be happier and healthier and more creative and more resilient and more likely to be scientists. Now, I'm an easy audience for this book - I'm a field geologist, and my formative experiences included things like playing in the woods behind my house and backpacking along the Appalachian Trail. And I've seen studies that suggest that people who become geologists had childhoods like mine.

So there I was, sitting in the front seat of our truck, driving into Arizona, reading this book that talked about how Americans spend too much time driving to get to places and not enough time exploring them. And my son was sitting behind me, drawing pictures on his pad of paper and flipping through his books. Is it any wonder that I kept putting the book down and talking to him about what we were driving through? Or that we stopped at Canyon de Chelly and let him use a stick to create his version of a sand painting? Or that, when we finally got to Petrified Forest National Park, we raced around a short trail and didn't spend nearly enough time in the museum with the archosaurs?


Note: you're not supposed to do things like this on the petrified trees.

We spent a half a day at Meteor Crater, and half a day in Flagstaff, and then we went to the Grand Canyon. But we didn't camp - we stayed in a hotel about a half an hour from the park entrance, because we were worried that it might be cold at night for a kid with a cheap sleeping bag. And although the Trail of Time is great, it's paved, and not exactly a place for getting in touch with Nature. So while we waited for my husband to finish his epic run-hike, we hung out in some Ponderosas near the lot where we parked. It was perfect. I sat and read Last Child in the Woods; my kid ran around with a stick, pretending to blast space aliens or something. There was even a fallen-over tree that made a perfect space ship.

And then it happened. There was this crash, and a thud, and one of those screams. The screams that say "I'm really hurt, or maybe a little hurt and really scared, but I don't know and I NEED YOU RIGHT NOW." He had fallen off the tree, and landed hard on one side, and was bleeding from at least three different body parts.

It took a while to make sure that this was a case of "a little hurt and really scared," and even longer to clean off the scrapes. My husband got back in time to admire the wounds without seeing the tears, and we went back to the hotel.

We played outside around a tree in front of the hotel, but I didn't try to read the book again for several months.

i-7e36f850c9ace708e9a2cd59ef498879-arizona tree.jpg

Not the crashing spaceship tree. I didn't manage to take a picture of that one, for some strange reason.

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I made that same trip, Petrified Forest (Painted Desert), Meteor Crater and Grand Canyon (didn't go to Canyon de Chelly) as a 10 year old, in the early 60's. It is one of the most memorable times of my childhood. The Meteor Crater made the biggest impression on me, I could not get over how big a chunk of rock must have fallen from the sky to make that hole.

And at the Petrified Forest, if they still have the sign that says you will have bad luck if you take piece of petrified wood with you, I have it say it is not true. I have had a really good life.

Oh, and I grew up to become a scientist.

The rangers at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park tell tourists not to take lava or Pélé's Tears because it's against the law. They used to say that it would bring bad luck to the thief. Then they found that people were mailing back the stolen lava or Pélé's Tears if they had a run of bad luck, and the rangers don't want mailed-back stuff either.

That's an interesting refelction about what people actually hear. Clearly they do hear the rangers telling them not to steal and do it anyway, then afterwards get remorseful about Madam Pélé. There's probably a dissertation's worth of psychology there!