I remember the rocket.
The house where I lived in 1972 was about nine line-of-sight miles from Cape Canaveral. On December 7th of that year, in the heart of the night, my family gathered with friends and neighbours to watch the massive Saturn V rocket carry Apollo 17 – the final moon mission – into history. We huddled around the TV up until the last minute of the countdown, then my dad hoisted his two-and-a-half-year-old son onto his shoulders and led the way out onto the lawn. There we stood in awe and silence as the fiery dart rumbled into the stars. Even from our distant vantage, I could feel the earth quiver.
Forty years later, the old memory rises to the surface as I pull another thin paperback off the shelf in the little two-room O’Brien Library, tucked among towering Douglas firs, incense cedars and big-leaf maples on the outskirts of Blue River, a struggling rural community in the central Oregon Cascades. The library is stocked by donation, staffed by volunteers and has been running check-out and returns on the honour system for over eight decades. Today is my first shift in the stacks, and my first job is to cull the science fiction section and open up space for new additions to the collection.
On the front of the paperback I hold is a shiny silver rocket, rumbling away from Earth toward a tiny red dot. A thin grey dust layer fuzzes the top of the book. When I lift the cover, it cracks loose as the brittle desiccated spinal glue gives out. Inside, the yellow pages are splotched with black stains that look like a defunct bacterial colony left too long in a forgotten Petri dish. The fine print says this particular novel – a saga of human glory set in a Martian outpost – rolled off the pulp press in the late 1950s. By all appearances, it has not been opened since the Kennedy administration. I lay the front page flat and slam down the stamp of judgment. ‘Withdrawn’. And into the discard box it goes.
By the time my three-hour shift ends, I’ve worked my way up through the Ds and passed sentence on dozens of titles, an inordinate proportion of which fall into one of two categories: the hypertechnic exploits of an intergalactic humanity, and post-apocalyptic home world nightmares. Taken together, the effect seems almost conspiratorial. How else to explain the widespread bias for painting dead and distant worlds in the rainbow colours of promise while this wild, verdant, beautiful Earth, the only gem of life in the known cosmos, is rendered with a palette of shadows?
Perhaps, rather than conspiracy, this small sampling reveals a common cosmology that has, for decades, captivated not only society at large, but a whole legion of science fiction writers who have expressed it through their efforts to rouse civilised excitement about the colonisation of other planets. In particular, Mars, the most promising of the lot (owing to its relatively close proximity and the presence of life’s most essential ingredient, water). These writers, and their dystopian doppelgangers, along with scientists and politicians and people from all walks in between, have been so successful that the fourth planet has been deemed worthy of spending billions of dollars on real probes, landers and other visitation devices, each an automated vanguard in an effort to one day stamp human bootprints in the red dust plain even while our own world turns to dust.
It’s quite an achievement, spinning a frozen, barren, desolate, inhospitable planet millions of miles away into a possible home, while concurrently spinning our beautiful living home into a hell. And the net effect is blindness to the fact that the earth under our feet, even now, in the throes of so many socio-ecological crises, has much more going for it than Mars ever will. Antarctica looks positively tropical by comparison.
What is puzzling is how the collective consciousness came to this blindness in the first place.
I think it has to do with a particular criterion the cosmology of dominant culture has long used in determining what constitutes the so-called good life. That largely unspoken criterion is not the successful long-term inhabitation of a homeland, but expansion beyond it; growth, progress, advancement. And Earth, though still humbly habitable, is a world on which the possibility of expansion is nearly played out.
But Mars – a whole planet virtually untouched, and theoretically within reach – offers a chance, slim though it is, for us to remain in the habit of expansion. We have only to sell out this planet in an all-or-nothing gamble for the war god’s favour. That, after all, is what expansion has always been about, ever since our direct cultural ancestors – the agriculturalists of the Fertile Crescent – exhausted their home soil some six millennia ago and faced a future of limits and reduced numbers or a future of conquest and continued excess, which was, even then, the definition of prosperity among the elite minority who benefited most from it. And so, conquest it was. War.
Such aggression required extreme rationalisations. That task fell to the official storytellers of the day (the priesthood), who began spinning the glory of Mars even before the Romans had given the god his name. Even before Rome existed at all. The force – the spirit – that Mars came to mythologically embody was the colonial conquest and control of others. His spirit was, some six millennia ago, a new force loosed upon the Earth and with it came an unprecedented shift in cultural consciousness, away from an emphasis on ever-deepening integration into local landscapes, toward an emphasis on the golden riches to be found on the other side of an apparently inexhaustible frontier.
That frontier has been spreading outwards from the perceived insular centres of civilisation into a perceived ocean of untamed wilderness ever since. The whole time, the frontier has been a margin of conflict, of colonial aggressors waging a genocidal, ecocidal, even geocidal campaign of theft, subjugation and replacement against the human and non-human lives already dependent upon what the invaders see as their rightful spoils. On a deeper level, the invader incursions represent the replacement of countless grounded cosmologies with an increasingly singular cosmology rooted in longing. And the farthest conceivable reaches of the invader’s longing is the sky.
It’s no wonder, then, that our cultural ancestors eventually imagined the sky as the dwelling place of their gods. For them, divinity found its source in the dependability of the heavens, up and away from the increasing messiness and unreliability of earth, never mind that the biotic abundance on which human corporeality and wellbeing depended originated in the soil’s translation of sunlight into life.
The invader’s mode of existence mined the soil. So the soil continually failed them. It couldn’t be trusted. And everywhere they went it reinforced its untrustworthiness by suffering eventual exhaustion and consequent poor yields. How, under these circumstances, could so feeble and treacherous a goddess as Gaia be revered? What the soil miners failed to see was that her apparent feebleness and betrayal did not derive from the earth, but from their own excesses. It derived from their increasingly alien relationship with the landscape. Rather than heal the relationship by relearning how to live within the limits of the earth – within the planet’s annual solar budget – they turned their gaze upward and sought to emulate the gods above, gods of their own invention perched upon untarnishable golden thrones.
If the people could get better at bringing the lasting power of the heavens down, maybe the messiness and limits could be overcome. That became the programme the storytellers started to sell. The holy goal of godliness. In other words, complete control.
This went on for millennia and all the while the programme of control grew more refined and entrenched. The original kindred enspiritedness recognised as inherent in every star, leaf and breeze gave way to a multitude of anthropoid divinities – many still peripherally bound to the earth through the forces of nature they personified. Eventually, this multitude was further reduced to the equivalent of a spiritual wheat field, the monocrop of a single deity, singularly male, separate and above the mortal realm. He was a book-bound god, purely abstracted, and thus conceptually omnipotent. But what his believers overlooked was the real earthbound precondition on which this god’s omnipotence depended. The frontier.
Wilderness, the ultimate foil for civilisation, had to remain the oceanic realm into which the conquering heroes and their armies could forever advance from their islands of civilisation. And that is how it was until 1893 CE when civilisation crossed a threshold and became the rising ocean surrounding now-shrinking islands of wilderness.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner recognised this moment and expressed it that year by declaring the frontier closed. Actually, at the global scale, the frontier did not close in 1893 CE, but rather, it began closing for the first time since it opened some six millennia earlier. You could think of this event along the lines of the old riddle (slightly modified), ‘How long can you run into the wilderness?’ Answer: ‘Halfway, then you’re running out.’ The year 1893 CE represents the end of civilisation’s long run into the wilderness. After that, it began running out. At an accelerating rate.
But the implications of this new situation went unrecognised and thus, civilisation failed to undergo the essential corresponding social inversion (cultural deceleration, contraction and diversification: in other words, maturation). Instead, it continued to advance the divine programme of monocultural expansion and complete control, thereby becoming increasingly out of sync with reality. And now, barely a century later, the last wild islands are almost flooded. Expansion has again run up against the wall. And eyes long turned skyward for divine inspiration now look that way with a different intent. Divine ascendance. That is the ultimate objective to which we apply our scientific curiosity and exploration. The methods of science (some would say a god in and of itself) remove moral considerations altogether and render the interplanetary colonial effort little more than a technical challenge. And so the scientific priesthood uncritically constructs and rockets mechanical missionaries into space to prepare the way for the next logical wave. Flesh and blood aliens.
Looking back, we can now see that the moon was a practice run.
The colonisation of Mars represents the real deal, the culmination of the programme of complete control begun all those millennia ago. In fact, Mars is a world that will not accept us unless we are in complete control. Only as gods will we be able to exist there. Earth, on the other hand, can and does expose our hubris by resisting complete control in direct proportion to our every effort to take it. So we dream of a red heaven.
Well, not all of us. I, for one, am opening to a different possibility: withdrawal.
Into places where long-latent spirits stir.
I slide the box of discards over behind the circulation desk for the next volunteer who will leaf through the card catalogue and pull the titles. As I’m putting on my coat to leave, I glance back at the shelves. Where I’ve been working, there are large gaps between the remaining volumes. The sight is somehow freeing. In the gaps, I see opportunity; what as-yet-unwritten tales might fill them in? I can’t imagine, but I feel heartened nonetheless as I head for the door.
When I step outside into the cool fresh air, the palette of autumn draws my eyes upward not into the blue sky, but into a vision of vibrant yellow maple leaves in their full glory. They shimmer and seem to glow with their own inner light, offering a rich contrast to the deep greens of the stoic conifers who are cast in sharp relief by long October shadows.
Standing in the forest, I’m suddenly struck by the sense that I’ve just entered another library, a library of trees. The stories to be read on each leafy page would more than fill the openings. I imagine many of those stories would be about a long overdue homecoming set on a world that grows ever more wild, verdant and beautiful every day. A world with people struggling, longing, ceaselessly living to be grounded, integral parts of it all.
A breeze whispers through the canopy. Dozens of leaves release, each a golden spirit. They flutter down to earth.
As they fall, another memory rises, my first memory, deeper than the rocket.
In the heart of a cool summer night, in a green canvas tent set up in a Maryland forest on the other side of the continent, my mother is tucking me into a sleeping bag on the ground. I lay my head down. She bends, gives her two-year-old son a kiss then rises and silences the hissing lantern.
Beneath me, I feel the earth quiver.
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