Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I Heart Cliff Spencer

The following letter arrived in the mail for my twelve-year-old son, complete with a real signature, official letterhead, and a Department of the Interior envelope.

Dear Mr. Horan:

This letter is in response to your question received on July 27, 2008 about if the area around the geological (survey) marker near the Painted Desert Inn has magnetite.

The area about the Painted Desert Inn is part of a large volcanic rock outcrop which forms the Painted Desert overlooks. This rock is a basaltic lava flow from an old volcano that was active about 10-15 million years ago, thus much more recent than the colorful Painted Desert rocks that contain the fossilized wood and dinosaurs which have been dated to be about 210-220 million years old.

Basaltic rocks belong to a group of rock called mafic volcanic rocks. These rocks are mostly comprised of silica but contain high quantities of iron and magnesium as well as minor amounts of iron oxides such as magnetite. So your observations regarding the rocks are right on.

Thank you for your interest in the resources of the Petrified Forest National Park.


Cliff Spencer

I think it would come as no surprise to the people who know me that I was even more of a letter-writing crank in my youth than my offspring are and that I delighted in sending mail to the authors I admired, the management of theme parks, and the President of the United States and in opening the highly formal and often generous responses that I received in return.

What Dubrovsky has called the "equalization phenomenon" of e-mail can sound empowering, but -- in practice -- from the perspective of a child or other relatively disenfranchised citizen, I might argue that receiving an e-mail from someone who seems to be a powerful stakeholder is much less exhilarating than possessing and displaying the physical artifact of a letter with all its tangible markers of authority.

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