Occasionally, I while away sleepless nights turning the pages of Zdeněk Kopal’s A New Photographic Atlas of the Moon. I discovered it in a second hand bookshop on the Isle of Man. It’s an intriguing book, packed with full-page photos of the lunar surface, photos dating from the earliest unmanned Russian missions to the Apollo programme. Especially interesting are the images of the elusive far side of the moon. (One cannot help but be reminded how much the Russian space programme achieved where the moon is concerned, despite the fact that no cosmonaut has yet set foot on it).
Reading it at night, on the verge of sleep, it is easy to imagine yourself dropping into the pages and walking on the surface, trecking, for example, across the floor of the crater Ptolemeus, towards its distant, mountainous rim, or traversing the uncanny, double-walled basin of Schrodinger on the far side. Since the gravity of the moon is one sixth that of the Earth, it seems reasonable to assume one could cover, roughly, six times the distance on a moon walk as one could walking on Earth.
However, despite the fantastic landscape and the starlit sky, there is something missing from my moon walks. They lack something I inevitably encounter on my real walks across the earth’s surface: signs of human activity. It strikes me as interesting that, although I seek out wild places, there is a satisfaction to be found in encountering faint paths, ruins, the traces of earthworks and so on.
Thinking along these lines, I happened to pick up Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways and read this quote from Emerson:
All things are engaged in writing their history… Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints. In nature, this self registration is incessant, and the narrative is the print of a seal.
Perhaps when out walking I’m seeking not wilderness but a wildness where my species’ presence feels not overwhelming but proportional, like the presence of one species among many. And perhaps, although history can seem nightmarish when written or spoken about, perhaps there is comfort to be found in the unspoken history, the traces. It strikes me that, whether or not I care to admit it, were I walking on the moon in real life, even though I had travelled through space for days to get there, to encounter the landing site of a probe or an Apollo mission would be a highlight of the trip.