The story of a volcano

This is the third part of our volcano experience. If you’re only just joining us, you can go read How to build a better volcano part 1 and part 2 first. I’ll wait. 🙂

The night between painting and erupting our volcano, this Mama had been perusing Netflix looking for something to watch while knitting when I found a documentary / docu-drama on Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. I had watched it right then, a sign that volcano fever had infected not only the littler members of the family but this big one as well, and I found it tragic and horrifying and awe-inspiring and fascinating all at once. It was compelling, absolutely compelling, in a way all the other documentaries I’ve seen are not.

With the kids so engrossed in all things Pompeii, what else was this Mama to do but watch it again with them? So we did. With bowls of popcorn and blankets to cuddle under, we watched and watched and watched. They were fascinated.

I don’t think they had realized until then how very big volcanoes are. Or how loud. Or how smelly. They sat on the couch, one on each side of me, pressed together for warmth and comfort as we watched the ground tremble and the air roar and the sun vanish while a hail of pumice and other rocks fell from the skies like a hideous parody of rain. They watched people react in shock and fear and wonder. They watched great pyroclastic clouds of smoke and ash roll down the sides of the mountain and smother the cities below. And they watched footage of what’s left, of what’s been excavated, and of the casts of those poor souls who were caught in the ash forever.

I don’t think they realized until that moment how unfriendly this planet of ours can be. They had seen the news of Haiti, and of the miners trapped underground, and of the flooding in Australia, to be sure. They knew, intellectually, that phenomenal acts of nature do happen. And that many, many people are affected by them. But up until that docu-drama, that vivid visual re-enactment of that day two thousand years ago, they hadn’t felt connected to it. It was all sort of remote, in a way. Academic, almost, in the same way your history books can be.

So what made the difference?

I pondered that question long into the night while the kids slept peacefully in their beds. We’ve always tried as parents to help our children understand what they are seeing, and to feel it at a gut level. We don’t just look at pictures of tree species, we take our book out into the woods and try to find them. Touch them. Smell them. Examine their leaves and bark and branches and how they change from season to season. We get our hands dirty with science experiments. We try out new skills like sawing boards and using a soldering iron to build a simple circuit. And we read, and read, and talk about what we’ve read, over and over and over again.

And yet, despite all that effort, they only half get it.

What was it about the documentary we watched that touched them in a way that all the books they’ve read and streaming video coverage of the miners underground and tv coverage of Haiti and Australia, and even a real life visit to a mock refugee camp right here in our own city… didn’t?

How could we have spent so much time already trying to wrap their minds around ideas and concepts and events with only marginal success, only to have a tv show manage to burrow deeper into their understanding in a mere 45 minutes?

It was the people.

Or rather, the stories of people. For you see, rather than showing us heartbreaking photos of people in crisis and expecting us to care because we should, the documentary first showed us the lives of the people beforehand. Or rather, they showed us the lives of a few select people, ordinary people with ordinary concerns doing ordinary things as they went about their day. They had names. They had jobs. They had worries. They had families.

Like with a good book, these characters came alive. They became real people to us, people we knew. People we cared about.

We watched them wonder at the loud crack of thunder that prefaced the explosion. We watched them fear and then delight in the rock that fell from the sky. Rock that floats. We cried out in shock when a much harder and denser rock struck one of them on the head, injuring him. We watched with dread as dark clouds of ash filled the sky and a pyroclastic flow rolled down the mountainside to smother the cities below.

The characters became, in that fragment of an hour, people we knew. People we liked. People we cared for.

We cared.

We cared, and that intensity of caring led to an intensity of learning and a depth of emotional understanding that is often lacking in this world. I wonder what it would be like if all our newscasts made us care so deeply for the people we see on our screens. Would we be the better for it?

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