Traveling with a sense of history — the really old kind

An acquaintance recently sent me to Millard Filmore’s Bathtub, a site about history, education, and ideas for meaningful teaching (as in, going beyond the pointless testing requirements). He thought I’d be interested (and I was), since my day job involves editing children’s textbooks. The part where I criticize their contents goes on only in my head, but it’s nice to know that there’s a teacher out there who’s trying to improve actual education standards — that is, actually teaching.

The first post I read was about the swelling caldera in Yellowstone National Park. For those who don’t know, a caldera is a sort of inverted, underground volcano (in simple terms). When a caldera blows, it doesn’t just scatter ash over hundreds of miles. Because of the magnified force of an underground volcano, and depending on its size, an eruption can completely destroy thousands of square miles. When the Yellowstone caldera goes again, as the Filmore post says, “That day will make Mt. St. Helens’ more recent eruption look like a quiet hiccough.”

Reading about it brought forcibly to mind my 7th-grade earth science teacher’s drilling into her students the fact that the massive forest fires burning in Yellowstone that year were not a problem for the environment (despite making us all a bit wheezy), which knew what it needed. The problem we needed to be concerned about, she said, were the roiling tons of lava hidden beneath Yellowstone Lake, which, when it blew, would pretty much take out the Western U.S. Of course, as she pointed out, there really wasn’t anything we could do about it.

Fun stuff. Okay, I find it fun. But then, I grew up in a place where both the current environment and geological history were an open, active part of everyday life. When I was eight, I scrambled with other kids to get on the Children’s Board of the Museum of the Rockies, where we got to mess around with dinosaur fossil casts and capture the stories of our mountains in learning about the forces that shaped tortured layers of rock.

Believe it or not, this stuff really interests kids. It’s real; it means something. They can touch it. Besides, kids like learning about anything in nature that explodes. Millard Filmore’s Bathtub, while focusing on the teaching opportunities related to news of the swelling caldera, points out some great travel opportunities, whether you’re eight or fifty-seven. Most important, of course, is to go to Yellowstone itself. As he points out, our national parks are woefully under-visited. And most people who visit Yellowstone don’t know or care that a massive underground volcano is what generates the sulfurous hot springs and makes Old Faithful spew.

Beyond that, you can get a sense of geological history by traveling to the outskirts of the devastation caused by the last time Yellowstone blew. Here’s two recommendations from Millard Filmore: “Nebraska, for example, has a state park, Ashfall Beds, containing fossils of animals burned and smothered by hot ash from a volcano in the Yellowstone Caldera (now it’s a National Natural Landmark).” And, “Check out the lava flows in southern Idaho, around Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Those flows, and their nearby cinder cones, used to be over the hot spot which now makes the Yellowstone Caldera dangerous. How far does lava flow? How much of the U.S. is moved from where it was? Did you know astronauts bound for the Moon actually trained at Craters of the Moon?”

Craters of the Moon used to be one of my favorite places as a kid. (Of course, I had ample time to explore it on my first visit, as the radiator hose blew in my family’s van and we were stuck for a few days, but that’s another story.) It’s so, well, moon-like, that only the biggest double-page magazine spread photo could ever begin to capture its eeriness. And Yellowstone National Park was the backyard of my childhood. The curiosity and interest from treading these places with some knowledge of their weighty millions of years has stuck with me long past youth.

Traveling to places like this sparks the imagination with an immediacy that any number of textbooks, lessons, or Discovery Channel documentaries can never attain.

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