Monday, October 15, 2012


Oh, the Purists.

Arthur C. Clarke mocked them, wild-eyed loons intent that “wilderness” be left on the moon as colonies expanded, that Phobos not be strip-mined as Demois gradually shrank as the ship-builders of Mars cleaned it of its minerals.

In a universe where stars explode and spew their matter across interstellar space, where the departure of miniscule probes from the sun’s heliosphere is news of decades as first one, then another, astronomer alerts a journalist to the “fact” that the passage has indeed occurred; in a universe where comets and asteroids slam into the gas giants and smear their cheerful clouds with soot, can there be room for order and cleanliness?


But they take it far.

I remember as a youth, reading of the Scotswoman Katie Paterson, who turned Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into Morse code and bounced it off the Moon. She played the resulting echo on a player piano, with awkward pauses where the mountains and craters of the moon absorbed Beethoven’s genius and did not reflect it back to Earth.

There were many who called her work sacrilege.

Do we dare not gaze into the heavens to see the Moon, not far away, or the stars, so distant many may be dead as we gaze at them, and fear offending someone who believes the Moon and stars ought to be left alone.

I stared into the heavens with a tiny tabletop telescope, searching in vain for the baobab and volcanoes of the Little Prince and felt, with some reassurance, that the cosmos had not been sullied by my weeks of searching.

There are poisonous clouds of arsenic, boiling seas of hydrogen, nuclear annihilators and light-crushing black holes in space. Surely the wilderness there can cope with the gazing eyes of uncounted entities staring up into the blackness.

They pain me, here on Iapetus.

An amateur astronomer in the high plains of New Mexico, using a massive telescope he erected on his own property, at his own expense, chose over the course of several evenings to examine the surface of Iapetus, knowing I was there, hoping to see me on one of my wanderings. I proved elusive. But he did spot one of my trails – out to the scarecrow on the regio – and he photographed it. He sent it in to an art competition and won in the category of “Man’s Impact on the Solar System.”

Oh, the hate mail flowed.

To him and to me, but mostly to him because when I left earth, I left no forwarding address.

Eventually, he shared a few with me – he had contacts among the captains ferrying freight and passengers in the Saturnian system.

One woman from Paris decried my trail thusly:

Is there nowhere in the universe that man cannot denigrate? Is there no place where one can gaze and not see the devil impact of the species which once threatened to destroy its earthly cradle? No, it is not so. Even on the far distant moons of Saturn, selfish men tread the wilderness and make it theirs, erasing with careless footsteps the artistry of millions of years.

I wrote back:

As a young man, I visited the sewers of Paris. For more than a mile, I walked underneath the streets of your most beautiful city, ogling stuffed rats, staring in amazement at the enormous hollow iron ball sewer workers once used to push the filth of your city out of the sewers and, untreated, into the Seine.

I marveled at their ingenuity. And at the further ingenuity of mankind that saw raw sewage treated to the point it was drinkable – and palatable – as it left the plant. Mankind has learned, through carelessness, disease, science, and faith, to repair the evils it creates.

Pain drives me to walk those miles across the regio to the scarecrow I built there. There is no wind on Iapetus. But there is dust. There is a cleansing. Soon I will die, and, by treaty, no one else may live here after I go. The trails I make, the refuges I have built, the scarecrow which holds my past, will slowly be buried as Iapetus sails on in the sea of chalk dust and soot that Saturn naturally deposits in its wake. I live on a dust ball, slowly, incrementally, infinitesimally growing bigger, mote by mote. Those motes will fill in my footprints. They will bury me. And when, in a million years, my marks may no longer be seen here, no one will remember a hermit once trod the dusty plains.

Paris – barring some cataclysm – and its ancient sewers will still be on Earth, I pray, for it is a beautiful city, ancient and wise, that all should see before they pass and return to the dust from whence they came.

Pardon me my faults, as I stare at the blue waters of the Seine and long to sup from its clear water.

This is, of course, real.

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