One day in 1969, when I was about three years old, my parents gave me the earth and the universe.
They’d already given my six older siblings the forest, the fishes, the insects and the plants, years before. And we’d soon possess the mountains and the desert, too.
We were fortunate kids, because, it seems, my mom and/or my dad said “yes” to a pushy door-to-door salesman sometime in the mid 1960s and ended up with a subscription to the “Time-Life Nature Library” series of books.
Slender volumes jam-packed with colorful pictures, intricate diagrams and essays written “for the layman, by the editors of Time-Life,” these 25 hardcover books placed an endless amount of knowledge right at our young fingertips decades before the internet arrived.
My siblings and I would turn to these books time after time whenever a science project was due for school. We were strictly forbidden from cutting out any of the pictures for whatever “poster-project” needed to be handed in the next morning, so my two brothers and four sisters and I developed impressive tracing skills. Mom and dad certainly got their money’s worth from the Time-Life Nature Library series.
I still have two books from the original set – The Earth and The Universe – and they still smell like the basement of the house we grew up in. It’s a lovely smell. I don’t smoke weed, but every now and then I’ll snort a little bit of The Earth book and I’ll momentarily leave my body – overwhelmed by the scent and the pictures, transported home by the memories they evoke.
The Universe book was pretty cool, as it included a number of pre-Hubble Telescope images of faraway galaxies. But my favorite was, and still is, The Earth book.
As a grade-schooler – aged, what, eight or nine? — I was filled with wonder and hope and dread and anxiety at many of the photos in the Earth book: the woman hit by a meteorite; the enormous storm waves crashing over a beach wall (not far from my house!); the epic lightning strikes caught on film; the entire planet frozen solid in the inevitable apocalypse when our sun dies out, the cold moon looking on.
At the risk of being sued for copyright infringement by the good people of the Time-Life Company, allow me share a few of the photos that made this book, The Earth, so riveting then. And so riveting now.
My mom recently turned 88 years old, and I texted her last week to ask if she remembered these books.
Of course she didn’t have time to open them! She had seven kids and worked nights to pay for the Time-Life Nature Library book subscription, and for all the other treats we enjoyed. Meanwhile, dad worked days at the bank to keep a roof over our heads so we could keep working on our poster-projects.
So, hear this mom (and dad, gone now, but remembered as fondly as that basement smell): we opened those books. Time and again.
And I still do.