When I was a five-year old child, my whole family went on a trip out west. We traveled from Utah up through Wyoming, Boulder, and Idaho. My parents rented a big taupe car, but my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin all had trucks with campers (my cousin even had a CB radio!). It was amazing fun and the undiluted beauty of the mountains and the joy of family time made up for the long days of being trapped in a car with leg cramps from running up and down said mountains. Many are the storied adventures we had…and the western legends have grown in the telling. A particular favorite is the tale of how my grandfather and my uncle obtained a special blacklight so they could spot uranium ore (which was at a great premium in the seventies). They turned the light on in some forsaken midnight desert and not only did they discover a shocking number of scorpions EVERYWHERE, they also found huge mounds of uranium ore in immense abundance—a multi-million dollar strike! But when they picked up the precious ore it was soft and friable, and when they fumbled their flashlights on, it turned out to be cow manure covered with a fungus that glows under black light….
At any rate, among all of these travel yarns, a story shines out in my mind as being unusually important. Sadly the story paints me as a callow & greedy brat, but it is still worth recounting, because of the tremendous lesson embedded in it like a razorblade in a mallomar. My great grandmother was traveling with us on the trip. She would switch between vehicles and share her stories of the days before airplanes, motorcar, great wars, or radios. It was wonderful to have her with us and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to know her and hear her stories, however some of her folk traditions caused…trouble…when I attempted to apply their mythical wisdom to the real world.
For example: we were camped in some paradisiacal glade in Wyoming, when I found a winsome wildflower with little golden anthers (in my memory, this flower looks like a cross between a mimulus and a columbine, but who can say what it really was) and I rashly picked one for grandma. She was delighted by it and she said, “if you leave these out overnight, the fairies will turn them to gold” Just what I would have done with whole bushels of gold was somewhat unclear, but I was a tourist out west where every little tourist-trap is all about GOLD, plus I had some heady ideas from old-fashioned chivalric tales of dragons, knights, and kings.
I began making an altar of flower heads, when my mother, a modern woman with an abiding love for nature (and for rules) found me decapitating unknown wildflowers in a park in order to transmute them to gold via fairy magic. This was the beginning of a stringent & powerful LESSON concerning (A) the nature of endangered plants, (B) wise environmental stewardship, and (C) national park rules. I tried to interrupt the flow of the moral lecture with the puissant rejoinder that “Great Grandma says the fairies will transform them into gold!” However this did not have the desired effect. In fact, in addition to learning about wildflowers in national parks, I also learned that (D) the mythical wisdom of beloved superannuated ancestors does not overrule parental fiat (or park rules). Not at all.
Of course there is only one truly ironclad rule in life, which all other things must pay obeisance to…and that is the primacy of what actually happens. I assumed that after that long-ago summer night had passed I would have a great rock heaped with gold which would convince my mother that she was wrong and great grandma and I were right. However, sadly, in the pink dawn light when I went out to my flat mudstone to look at the gold (maybe I would share some with my parents so they could see how foolish they had been) all that was there were a bunch of mangled wildflowers which I had mutilated with my lust for gold. Come to think of it, this was a real lesson about world history too, I guess. Anyway it was obvious that dealing with the fairies is tricksy. Dealing with reality is inexorable. I killed a bunch of potentially endangered wildflowers for a pretty lie. I felt so ashamed. I still do.
After the fairy gold incident, the other supernatural entities in my life started to fall like big jeweled fabulated dominoes. The Easter Bunny was always pretty suspicious anyway—a magic rabbit who hands out chocolate malt balls (a confection which my mom and nobody else likes)? Soon he was gone, never to hop back. I learned to read, and I read up on UFOs and monsters: it became perfectly obvious to a second grader that they were all hallucinations of stressed or otherwise addled people. It wasn’t long before Santa himself, the great undead demigod of winter and giving was exposed…well, not as a fraud (I still have some of his wonderful toys) but certainly not exactly real in the way that you and I are, gentle reader. All that was left was the big bearded guys–the sort who flout the temple rules of the Pharisees or build allegorical gardens with forbidden trees–and the curiosity of adolescence (and knowledge of astronomy, biology, and history) put an end to them except as symbols. It’s a humorous story…but it isn’t so funny when I see my roommate wishing away her life on horoscopes and homeopathy or look at the NY Times and catch a glimpse of what ISIL is up to.
Everywhere, still, I find people who believe in the fairy gold despite the irrefutable evidence of the dawn. I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid somebody would push a wildflower towards extinction so they can make their car payments. What are we going to do? How are we going to make our way to Venus (or anywhere other than extinction) in a world where fairy gold is still so much in circulation, even if nobody has ever seen a single speck?