A Walk on the Moon

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 ManIt’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.

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Astronomy Begins at Home

However you look at it, the recent discovery that insect life on earth seems to have declined by eighty percent  over the last thirty years is bad news. It fits in with all the other things we read about the mass extinction that seems to be quietly underway on planet earth. (It’s not long since I read that seabird populations have plummeted by seventy percent over the last sixty years).

I don’t need to be convinced that we are contributing in a big way to the catastrophe we’re facing. There are things we should be doing but either we’re not doing them or we’re not doing them enough. We also -and this perhaps applies more to some cultural traditions than others- are not well equipped to see the nature of the crisis we’re facing for what it is. Many traditions have taught people to see humans as set apart from and superior to other species and to think of the earth as being specially created for their benefit. Although these views hold less sway than they once did, the attitudes they fostered can still be ingrained in our outlooks, even if we decide to reject them. We tend to treat the rest of life on this planet as a resource, a source of food, clothing and raw materials. We sentimentalise animals – just as we tend to sentimentalise all that we subjugate. One minute we’re stroking them and taking them for walks, the next we’re eating them or turning them into coats or -literally, here in the UK- into five pound notes.

As our concern for the future of life on earth has grown, so has our desire to find extraterrestrial life and planets orbiting other stars. We need to know we’re not alone and we’re intrigued to discover if there are other planets in the universe humanity might inhabit.  Steven Hawking is currently working on a scheme to send a probe to observe an exoplanet and has said that humanity should seriously consider emigrating from earth.

Although I tend to be in favour of our efforts to get into space and explore exoplanets, I have one or two misgivings about us attempting to emigrate. If conscious, intelligent life is to be found throughout the universe, why should we? What are we seeking to preserve? There is no conscious continuity from one generation to another. It may be, as someone famously said, that death is the one thing in life we don’t experience: when I die, for all I know, the rest of life on earth might have died with me. On the other hand, Blake might have been right when he wrote

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense  world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

What we prize as individual consciousness might prove to be perennial.

Either way, it could be that we underestimate our connectedness to the earth. We like to think we might survive wherever our ingenuity makes it possible for us to survive but if our descendants were to populate another planet would they be truly human? If this sounds an odd question, consider the idea that the first humans on earth might themselves have been immigrants from another planet. The idea seems crazy to us. However, we’re free to imagine and we might reflect on the hubris of their alien ancestors if they thought that by sending frozen embryos, perhaps, to the early earth they were preserving the species that inhabited Planet X. Planet X? We are Earthlings!

Also, if consciousness is perennial and evolution of complex intelligent life more-or-less-as-we-know-it relatively common, why do we need to emigrate at all? It strikes me that to do so in such circumstances is to  be thinking not unlike the historical Europeans who thought they’d “discovered” America. We talked for centuries about “discovering” America before it was commonly realised that the people who already lived there had “discovered” it at least thousands of years before. If someone light years from here is sat writing a post on his, her or its blog (for example), I might as well sit here and accept the fate of my species with equanimity, safe in the knowledge that what I am is just a part of the rich complexity of everything.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do whatever we can to maintain the earth as a habitable place; we certainly, obviously, should – and for all the life that lives on it. It is no bad thing, too, to explore and search for extra-terrestrial life. Knowledge of it would bring a reassurance with it. We would know that if life were to end on earth one day, it might be the end of the world but it wouldn’t be the end of the universe.