Have you ever been scared that a volcano might grow in your backyard?

As a child, I was - and I think that experience shows interesting things about childhood and about newsworthiness in general.

A primary school memory

It all started with a school worksheet. I think I was probably in Grade 5 at the time, and so probably 9 years old. The worksheet told the story of a farmer who one day found a volcano growing in his field (as one does).

I don’t know what the context of the worksheet was. Maybe we were specifically learning about volcanoes (though I don’t remember anything else about them). Or maybe it was just one of many English comprehension worksheets we did.

However, whatever message we were supposed to learn from it, the message that lodged in my mind was that this could happen anywhere and at any time. From then on, I was afraid that one day I’d go out to my backyard in suburban Melbourne and find a volcano growing. And then who knew what might happen to my nice, peaceful, safe world?

Volcanoes are scary

I don’t think this was the first time I had feared volcanoes. I have vague memories of us going to the house of a family friend for dinner and there starting reading Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure. I think this must have been before the worksheet experience, since I hadn’t yet read any of that series.

Back then, I very rarely gave up on a book without finishing it, but this book scared me so much that I didn’t finish it. And that memory also stayed for years - the book is fourth in a series of fourteen, but I think it was one of the last I read because I knew I’d been too scared by it previously.

So perhaps the school experience wasn’t the first time I feared volcanoes in the abstract. However, it was the first time that the threat came home with me.

After all, this wasn’t just something that affected adventurers travelling the world looking for volcanoes. It was just a farmer in his fields, carrying on his daily life. If it could happen to him, why couldn’t it happen to me?

The actual story

I think the actual story was the eruption of Parícutin. It started in a farmer’s cornfield, and grew fairly quickly: Within 24 hours it was 50m high, and it had perhaps reached 100 - 150m by the end of the week. It remained active for nine years, finally ending up 424m high. The flows of lava and the falling ash affected an area of over 200 km², two towns had to be evacuated, and three people were killed. Scary stuff.

Parícutin at night, 1943 (US Geological Survey)

However, when I looked for these details last week, I was startled by the facts that I had wrong. Clearly my memory had been vivid - but that didn’t make it accurate.

For example, up till then I had thought it was something that happened in the 1990s, but it actually happened in 1943. I also thought that we’d nicknamed the volcano “Pop-a-kettle” for ease of pronunciation, but I think that is actually Popocatépetl - still in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, but nearly 400 km away from Parícutin.

Perhaps I thought it was in the 1990s because school-me had thought it was something recent and a present threat. Or possibly we were told about both Parícutin and Popocatépetl at the same time and I got them confused. While Parícutin has been considered dormant since its first eruptive cycle ended in 1952, Popocatépetl was actually active in 1994 and so might have been fairly recent.

Interestingly, Popocatépetl is also currently in an active phase, with a number of eruptions this year.

Parícutin itself did give scientists an opportunity to observe the complete life-cycle of a new volcano. It also made a dramatic backdrop for the film Captain from Castile, though that was an expensive choice since volcanic ash often made the light difficult for shooting.

But I think it also serves as a reminder that our world continues to change. We may view hills and plains as fixed features in the landscape, but they too can change, sometimes dramatically. However, I think school-me severely over-estimated how common the dramatic changes shown in Parícutin are.

The fears of children

One of the things that I like about children is that they are not as locked in to ideas of what is possible and what is not as us adults. They can (and do) question social customs and ideas that we just take for granted. However, this also means that they can fear (or hope for) things that will never happen.

And I think that’s what happened here: I just heard the story of a volcano popping up in an ordinary farmer’s field, and thought it could happen anywhere. I didn’t realise that the field was, unlike Melbourne, in a known volcanic zone. I also didn’t realise how comparatively rare an event it was, even in that volcanic zone. After all, this happened in 1943, over 50 years before I heard of it, and Wikipedia tells me its immediate predecessor was El Jorullo, which erupted in 1759.

Perhaps few children have had that specific fear. However, I think many, perhaps most, have misunderstood something they’ve been told and been worried as a result. Probably my parents would have reassured me if I’d talked with them about that particular fear, but I don’t think I ever did.

Many children have very specific fears. In addition, general fears like fear of the dark are quite common. More generally, I think for children the unknown can be both more scary and more inviting than for adults, because they’re not so clear on what is possible and they’re not so used to accepting the status quo.

Things that are “newsworthy” are not normal

At the time, I must have thought we were told about Parícutin because it was a real risk. However, if volcanoes really did pop up in someone’s backyard at random every other week, we would be in a very different world, and it wouldn’t seem so newsworthy. Things like natural disasters, major wars, terrorist attacks, and major crimes can all grab attention, which makes them newsworthy. That doesn’t mean that they are normal, or that everyone everywhere reading about them should fear them.

I don’t think this just affects children. For example, when one crime that was committed by an immigrant is reported on, people can feel that all immigrants are dangerous and we need better border control. One crime committed by someone out on bail can convince people that everyone out on bail should be locked up. One crime committed by a Muslim can lead to calls for bans on Muslims (I know, Islam has some dangerous teachings - but so does Christianity, and, in common with many Australians, I know more Christians than Muslims).

One good memory

Thanks to the power of household chemistry, I do have one good memory of volcanoes from school. We made and decorated paper mache volcanoes with a good crater vent, added red food colouring to the vinegar, then mixed it with bicarb soda.

Result: One completely safe and colourful volcanic eruption.

We probably repeated the experiment at home, and perhaps many of my readers have done something similar.

The fear continues

By the time I was adult, I think I realised volcanoes weren’t about to pop up in my backyard. However, I still didn’t want to visit one in case it erupted while I was up there. I had seen other accounts, both fictional and non-fictional, and knew that volcanoes were violent and dangerous and should be avoided.

And that’s not a completely unreasonable fear. After all, volcanoes can be incredibly powerful, and humans in the wrong place at the wrong time don’t stand a chance.

However, next time I’ll talk about the experience that overcame my fear - or at least made me feel that volcanoes are more beautiful than they are dangerous (edit: here).