When I was 12 years old I spent the summer with my grandmother, Julia (called Julie by her family including all her grandchildren), in Maine. My grandmother had lived for years in Italy but left because of WW II. She and I were staying at the house of her friend, Elizabeth Holt. Elizabeth wrote books on art history, and my grandmother made herself useful by translating Italian articles and documents.
By the time she was a widow, Julie had gone through most of her capital – some was lost in the depression. She was a good-looking, witty and charming woman (sometimes known in her family as the Duchess) and she had many friends who found it agreeable to have her stay for extended periods. She found it convenient and profitable to live on friends when possible.
I am not sure I was a desirable adjunct in Elizabeth’s household, but they found uses for me. I was supposed to baby sit Elizabeth’s two pale, skinny kids, and every few days I rowed the garbage out to a channel in the bay where it could be dumped overboard.
I don’t remember actually doing much babysitting, but I really enjoyed the second chore. As soon as I pushed off in the row boat swarms of sea gulls would glide over and follow me out to the channel. When I threw the garbage over the side they screamed with excitement, fighting and diving for the delicious treasures, like orange peels and fish heads.
It was a wonderful summer. There was a boy who took me sailing, and the last evening of the summer we walked together on the beach and we held hands. I can’t remember his name.
The house was a summer place, simply furnished and minimally equipped. My grandmother had a few gramophone records which she sometimes let me play, and I grew to love the music from the Cosi Fan Tutte, an opera by Mozart. There wasn’t much to read, but I found an old textbook of geology. For some reason it fascinated me, and I learned about igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. Maine had plenty of rocks for me to examine.
When I went to college I remembered my early love for rocks. At Northwestern, where I began, I took a class in geology. It was deadly boring. We spent hours measuring things on relief maps. I got mono and dropped all my classes.
As a biology major I made another stab at geology and signed up for a class in paleontology. That was another interest killer. The professor was writing a paper, so he made use of students for the tedious parts. The paper was about small changes in fossil clam shells over time. Students sorted and classified fossil clam shells. That was the entire content of the class. I dropped it.
All this was before the discovery (really rediscovery) of plate tectonics and continental drift. That set the world of geology upside down. There was seething controversy: what had been dry and plodding became dynamic and fast changing. People got furious with each other and called each other names. Some actually came to blows. But by that time I had moved on. Babies and biology had taken over my life.
Half a century later I am reading (bedtime reading aloud to Jerry) a book by John McPhee: Annals of the Former World. The book is over 600 pages and we are almost to the end. It is about the history of the world, how it formed, how it changed, how the oceans and land masses came to be and how they change over time. How life came to be on earth, how the physical world affects life, how life changes the physical world and how they are actually parts of a single whole. It’s about eruptions and earthquakes and unimaginable catastrophes and periods of time so vast that a human life is no more than the blink of an eye. It’s about rocks: how they form, what they are made of and forces that bend them, fold them, destroy them and recreate them. Now I am really hooked on geology. I have to know more.
Geology has an enormous special vocabulary, much of it new to me. Words like ophiolite, gabbro, diabase, peridotite, syncline, unconformity, zone of subduction, pillow lava and many many more. I look them up on the Wikipedia. But I have to know more.
The first course, which we are about half way through, is taught by John Renton of West Virginia University. I learned from the internet that Bill Gates likes this course and says it is “phenomenal.”
Dr. Renton is a plump, down to earth fellow. He presents his material in simple folksy language with concrete examples and explanations. I am slightly distracted by his luxuriant and shiny red toupee, and his Dali moustache (I found out from Wikipedia that those twirly moustaches are called that). But I am enjoying the course, and firmly planting in my head all sorts of new (to me) knowledge. Some of these things I sort of knew, but now they have a structure.
I know that the earth began from a cloud of cosmic debris about 4 ½ billion years ago, and that life began about a billion years later. In another billion years plate tectonics began, and the continents and oceans formed and began their cyclic breaking apart and coalescing a billion years after that. These things are happening now, and the Atlantic Ocean is expanding at about the same rate as our finger nails grow.
I know something about the inside of the earth, something about volcanoes, and I know that Yellowstone Park is going to explode any time now with such force that it may destroy civilization as we know it, and perhaps the human race. There have been great mass extinctions in the past that have killed large numbers of species from just such catastrophes.
Sometimes I ask myself what good it is to learn a lot of new stuff at my age. My head is already quite full of unused knowledge. I think of the inside of my head as an endless collection of caverns connected by tunnels and crevasse. Some of what I knew has fallen into the crevasses. Some of it is in remote caves but still retrievable. But I will never again have any practical use for it.
When I die it will all be wasted. So why bother? I guess because it gives me pleasure, and that is what is left in old age. It is something that Jerry and I share and enjoy together. As we drive to Alaska soon we will look at the mountains and rocks with new insight into their origin and dynamic, knowing that they are always changing.