Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Babbling About the Hermit

Mars, they said.

Maybe Mars. The imp in me would have me climb that famous butte – the one that looked like a human face in those photos from the 1970s – and deface it so it looks more like a chicken.

True, there used to be wilderness on Mars. Dry canyons full of dust and tumbled rocks. Craters exposing the sedimentary rock that Mars’ ancient rivers deposited before leaving ghosts of deltas and gravel bars. And the scoops, the tracks, the gouges, the debris, left by the mechanical explorers who came and roamed and wandered and withered on the surface before mankind came to place reverential diamond crystal domes over their dusted remains.

There was wilderness. Now there is Wilderness. From the first bounce mark of the gasbags that protected Opportunity to its last visible tracks the rover made, protected Wilderness. They do not even want footprints there; one must visit in hovercraft or on individual jitneys that cannot leave a mark on the landscape below. There is nowhere for man to set a bare foot. There are cities on Mars. Actual cities, with names like Lowell and Bradbury and Heinlen. They are full of steel and concrete the same iron oxide color as the Martian soil. Plexiglas-topped planters of marigolds – some early settlers’ joke – fill the streets of Bradbury with alien greenery.

Mars is no place for explorers.

We have to think small, explorers today. Steig Hartvigsen, settler of Ida, King and Tyrant of the Asteroid Belt, is our inspiration. Hartvigsen settled on Ida’s gently rolling surface and defied the International Astronomical Union from dethroning him after he declared his king and tyrantship to the solar system in a dispatch he radioed to supporters on Mars. Seventeen years later, the IAU still does not recognize his sovereignty throughout the belt, but his followers distribute his royal proclamations and send him tributes of rose petals and music recorded by Mel Torme or Bing Crosby.

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