Monday, September 10, 2012


I read it in a book, so it must be true: When interplanetary travel becomes commonplace, the bounds of Earth will cease to pull on the hearts of men.

We are natural explorers, the futurists urge. Cite the Vikings. Cite Columbus. And cite the unlikely Gagarin, Armstrong, and those who followed from the groundbreaking to the routine.

Explorers all.

My great-grandfather felt like that.

He wrote, expansively, in his journals, of his time as a soldier in the Dutch colonial army in Indonesia – he was not a colonialist himself; he was just there to fulfill required national service and spent his money, with a compatriot, on local food. He once demonstrated how to cross a river and keep his gun dry at the same time by leaping into the current, gun held high over his head. He lost his footing, was swept away, nearly drowned, and, of course, lost his rifle.

Then he emigrated to the United States, once his service was done, and left the green of Indonesia and the green of the Netherlands for the dusty tawny grey of the high desert of eastern Idaho.

His home became a beacon to other Dutch immigrants, settling in the unlikely place of New Sweden, a jovial Dutchman surrounded by taciturn Swedes.

And still he explored.

He wandered the desert steppe, explored caves, climbed mountains and followed creeks from where they chortled into the lava sinks and back up into the mountains where they drained tiny lakes held in the granite scree.

And still he explored.

Farm prosperous, he willed it early to his oldest son and traveled to the far southern reaches of Australia, where he discovered the green of his youth.

There he died, aged 102, on a wild night of storms, chasing sheep, trying to bring them back to the barn.

The family still holds deeds to his properties in trust.

I have no deed to add.

But I have deeds.

It is written in the book:

“There are no ghosts in this place. Those who gathered here once were already voyaging on in spirit, even as they sat here, eager to be gone. They have left nothing of themselves behind.”

But the bemmy Zicti, in Andre Norton’s “The Last Planet,” told a lie. There were ghosts left behind, ghosts who came to worship at the Place of Leaving once a year, to worship the gods who left them behind. Those left behind fell into primitive barbarity, though the gods left functioning cities filled with wonders and robots and flashing lights behind.

But I tell a lie. The primitives are not the ghosts of the gods.

The gods – the mortal explorers of the outer stratospheres – left no ghosts. Those who stayed behind chose to remain. Later on, perhaps, there were some who grew ashamed of their staying – maybe through cowardice, or avarice, they realized they sold their birthright for an uncluttered world.

And perhaps, in their cocoons of steel and plastic, or as they tramped the wonders of their new-found worlds, the gods of the outer stratospheres thought regretfully not of those left behind, but of things they took for granted when they lived on their good green earth. Sky of a certain blue, never achieved again no matter how many worlds they visited.

Petrichor never the same. Artesmichor of the desert never achieved again.

They left no ghosts.

Only regrets.

And as they gaze across the sky into the stars, perhaps, with their youngsters, pointing out the star around which their home world orbits, orbits, orbits, their youngsters – and their youngsters youngsters – wonder why they ever left such a wonderful, magical place as that for some orb as common as the one they trod upon.

The bounds of earth are weak.

The bounds of regret, of knowing the unknown, can never be severed and grow only stronger as distance is achieved.

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