I got frustrated with myself after re-reading my January post on human space exploration. Why? Halfway through it I talked myself out of most of my reservations about setting up a human colony on Mars.
Most of my readers favored colonization, but for different reasons. One took the Edmund Hillary viewpoint and argued that people need to explore the solar system in person “Because it’s there!” Another sided with Craig Venter’s idea of converting genetic information into digital information and launching encapsulated seeds of civilization (even encapsulated cognitive entities) for reconstitution on Mars and beyond – a kind of anthropogenic panspermia.
These are fine ideas, but I was more interested in promoting the extreme importance of all kinds of thoughtful vision, which I slipped in at the end: “Whether or not our vision is applied to spaceflight, we should liberate that which each of us has, even if it is slow to flower. Sprinkle its most precious fruits with wonder, let them loose but always within sight, and this will be a happier and more peaceful world.”
Otherwise, my wife chipped in, “All we can witness is what somebody else imagines.”
It was a Sunday morning and we were propped up in bed with our customary mugs of tea. We mused over Westerners’ disenchantment with today’s world and their life within it. We thought of the bad-news fixation of mass media, toying with the unhappy possibility that news sources thrive on schadenfreude – our rather strange and not entirely compassionate interest in the terrible things that are happening to other people, and not to us.
We also considered that perhaps this new millennium has discarded family memories of the Great Depression, World War II, and even the Cold War and its puppet wars. Yet some of our neighbors still remember food lines, ration books, and the need to barter food with neighbors. Should I mention darning socks and eating squirrel pie?
Those historic realities made the two of us more grateful for what we have, and more dismayed by the fictional Gordon Gekko’s seductive argument that greed is good. Personally I had it easy in my youth but am half-proud to say that I didn’t see white bread until I was 11, and remember fondly the tiny bony throwaway fish my dad would bring home for dinner and the fine pastries made by my mother with fillings of sweetened mashed potato or parsnip. As a child I flourished on cod-liver oil, reconstituted orange juice, and syrupy Virol malt extract.
In less prosperous times did the Great Spirit reward us with gifts to make up for the discomforts of material need? Perhaps not, but I do know that as a boy before the days of television I derived great pleasure from such simple things as crawling through fox-trail tunnels in the high grass, of lying on my belly to catch newts, and marveling at the synchronized swimming of Daphnia water fleas schooling in the lime-kiln pond. In my early twenties I reveled in the peaty smell of the English woodlands, in my thirties I saw metaphors of human life and human societies in the sponges and fish-life of Bermuda reefs, and in my forties on one dead-silent desert afternoon I was spellbound by the enchantingly sweet song of sand, trickling lightly down a dune, grain by grain. In New Mexico I came to appreciate, through observation, the special intelligence of eagles and earthworms, and their value to us all.
So why did I rail on about exploration of other planets in that blog post? It seems that, when dreaming up a story, the storyteller takes all the little bits of knowledge and wisdom that are up front in his or her mind and rattles them around like the tinseled stars in a kaleidoscope to see what images – or visions – take form. I think of Smallweed’s knee-jerk command in Bleak House, “Shake Me Up, Judy!” That’s what happened when the space exploration post took form. Then while I was critiquing that story the native returned to my cerebral kaleidoscope, a green man grinning. T.S. Eliot agonized, Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? I’d like to say confidently, “It’s all out there, Tommy! All we have to do is sieve it out of the common, synthetic substitutes for real life that swirl around us, enjoy an up-front, nose-to-nose acquaintance with the cosmos that is in our backyards – and maybe get better kaleidoscopes. It’s there!” And of course it’s up there too, through the telescope and in the images from the Curiosity rover.
Sorry to unload these ruminations this week, but it’s partly my wife’s fault for engaging philosophically with me when we were sipping our Sainsbury’s Red Label. We were talking about “vision,” or at least I was, when she said, “Well I have a vision of getting up now.” Which we did. Otherwise this tome would be even longer.
I imagine that soon my mind will be on Mars again, looking for the bones of ancestral newts in the dry and sandy rocks of Yellowknife Bay.
Live long and prosper!