The Lesson of a Petrified Tree

Petrified log and Painted Desert. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf
Petrified log and Painted Desert. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

There couldn’t have been more than a couple of dozen people in the entire Petrified Forest when we visited. A pity. Walking the paths between these gargantuan Triassic fossils, then reading the climatic history of this region in the layers of the adjacent Painted Desert was a lesson in mortality as well as geology.

A child near us asked her father how long 200 million years was. “Well, I’m 40. So five times that long is 200 years. Now a million times that, and you’re still 25 million years from when these trees fell.” Visiting these ancient giants a week before I turned fifty, I felt like a house fly.

The quiet of the park made me realize how much we have turned into a mass transit culture. Don’t get me wrong: I am an unabashed fan of boats, busses, trains and planes, and believe that these conveyances each have their place.

But sacrificing our freedom to roam as individuals, the kernel of the frontier promise at the heart of our California car culture, would do more than surrender some abstract sense of freedom. It would limit us forever to somebody else’s choices about where we should go, how we should get there, and what we should see.

You cannot enjoy places of wonder like the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert from the dining car on the Southwest Chief any more than you can from an aisle seat in the Southwest 737 five miles overhead. However the prospect might tittilate the environmental extremist, I don’t think that Teddy Roosevelt would have approved.

We can find cleaner ways to cross the country, but we can never take the road less travelled as glorified commuters. If we are to remain true to our essence without sacrificing our souls, we must apply our creativity to the problem of eliminating the carbon without burying the car.

The Petrified Forest taught me, my wife, and my son important lessons that changed our lives. We need more people to learn those lessons in a way that goes beyond a book, a TED talk, the Discovery Channel, or whatever you can see out of your window at 30,000 feet.





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