When I was a boy

40 million years in the making, 40 years in getting there

When I was a boy, around 12 years old, I was given a set of encyclopedias. They were heavy, each one had a different color cover and the pages were shiny and I did not like the feel of turning the pages. There were 12 of them and they ran from Aardvark to Zygote. At night I would pull one off the shelf and dip in and consume the most arcane facts I could find.

Inside the front and back cover of each book was a different map. Sometimes a historical map of the world with the half the world colored pink for the British Empire. One map was a religious map showing the Exodus and the key sites of the Holy Land. Another map a political map showing the east and the west and border between them that carved Germany in two. Another a geological map, a natural resources map, an ethnicity map, foods, exports … so many maps all superimposed on the familiar Mercator projection with Britain at the middle. When I was too tired to read I would just study the maps feature by feature and my party trick became the ability to draw a map of the world from memory without ever taking my pen off the page. Today when people ask me if I would do anything differently in my career; I confess I think I would have enjoyed being a cartographer.

For most of my life I have been fascinated by the majesty of the Giant Redwoods. I’ve watched every documentary, read everything I can find, I even make sure I am on the left-side of the plane so I can see them from above when I come to land at San Fransisco airport. But I had never seen them in person. So, last year, close to my birthday, I hiked Muir Woods in Marin County just north of San Francisco. The picture in my head from my childhood did not do justice the majesty of the woods themselves. It was a very happy day for me to be surrounded by these silent sentinels.

After hiking all day I turned for the parking lot and came upon a grove: it took my breath away: it was exactly the picture from my childhood encyclopedia. It stopped me in my tracks. It winded me and made me cry. 40 years later here I was a 12-year old once more experiencing wonder and joy and amazement and curiosity. I stood for a very long time and felt very happy.

On Sunday I had that same experience once again. I went to visit the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim on the north coast of Ulster. I hiked to the Causeway via the reverse route. Came down the steps, saw the basalt columns in the distance, accepted that I understood the geology and physics that created them and I looked forward to being up close to them in person finally.

As I turned the corner to see the columns disappearing into the Atlantic foam I saw that exact image from my encyclopedia, unchanged in 40 years, unchanged in 40 million years, and was once more that little boy buried under the covers with a flash-light dreaming of far away places and the mysteries they held. I climbed the columns, sat and stared as they marched into the water and I sobbed. I sobbed with joy and with sadness. Thrilled to have brought my memory to life: disappointed that it had taken so long. Excited to experience the wonder of geology under my feet and joyful to feel and hear water all around me. But most of all; disappointed for the loss of that little boy.

The wonderment and carefree abandonment of youth is replaced too quickly by the responsibility and seriousness of adulthood. We rarely treat ourselves to a date with our own-inner child. I can now certainly recommend it. Let your little boy (or girl) out today and play with them. Kick a ball, climb a tree, skip down the road, stare at the sky. Who you are today was shaped by who you once were.

Today my bookshelves are covered in maps. I live on a boat with the sound of water all around me. I live in one of the most geologically interesting places in the world, called Redwood City, just 50 miles from the giant redwoods. Can any of this be coincidence?

I am speaking in London today. I walked through Hyde Park and stared at the sky. It was fun.

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