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Footprints in the snow…


This is going to turn into a bit of an I-can-feel-the-end-of-the-year-coming rant, and a very personal one at that, so if you just want something spacey to read you should maybe skip this post. I just feel the need to growl at the world this morning. And it’s my blog, so if you don’t like it, don’t read it, ok? Normal space cadet service will be resumed shortly! 🙂

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’ve been thinking a lot about history recently. I’ve become fascinated by our species’ own history – our evolution, the development of our art and technology – and where that path will lead us to in the future. We will go to the Moon and build bases there, that’s a given; “Because it’s there”, and all that. We will go to Mars, and settle it… eventually. And one day, after crossing the solar system, we’ll step off the icy surface of Pluto to hop over onto the red ice of Sedna, and then we’ll take the most giant, most frightening, most humbling and most terrifying leap of all – into interstellar space, and towards planets orbiting other stars. Of that, I have absolute, unshakeable faith. It will happen. It’s just a matter of time. There’s no stopping it – unless we destroy ourselves with a war, plague or stupidity, or the universe wipes us out with one of its many weapons of cosmic mass destruction.

What is really, and I mean really, p****ing me off now is that it’s now looking like I might not even get to see the first of those things happen. It looks like we won’t Return To The Moon until around 2025, by which time I’ll be 56. So ok, I’ll see that, but for a decade after that what will happen on the Moon? Expeditions… forays… The construction of first Moonbase probably won’t begin until 2035, by which time I’ll be 66. Operational? 4 maybe 5 years later. I’ll be 70. Then, and only then, will we strike out for Mars. So, add another five years, minimum. I’ll be 75.

Great. Thanks.

I know, I know, this is all a bit moany, a bit “woe is me”, but that’s the way I’m feeling right now – well and truly hacked off that I was born too early to see the things I’ve dreamed about all these years; well and truly furious, raging almost, that after living this stuff for all these years, of being so passionate about it, of believing in it and standing up for it it won’t be me that gets to see it happen,  but the foul-mouthed, tweenage, wannabe gangsta, hoody-wearing, baggy-pants-around-their-arses street rat little ****s who laugh at me, swear at me and point their imaginary guns at me and mouth “pop!” as I walk past them on my way to work. That makes me so mad I honestly feel like there’s a volcano inside me, waiting to blow at any moment.

It’s just not fair, damnit. 😦

Hmmm. Is this my very own mid-life crisis, looking in through the window?

I don’t know. But I do know that recently, as well as thinking a lot about history, I’ve been thinking about the future – specifically what I’ll leave behind when I go. Even more specifically, how I’ll be remembered when I’ve gone – if I am at all.

This really slapped me about the head one morning just before Christmas, when I was walking up to Kendal Castle before dawn to take some pictures after a very heavy overnight snowfall. The castle, like the rest of Kendal, looked absolutely beautiful, just stunning, smothered in a thick quilt of blue-white snow – and I mean real snow, not the usual rubbishy gone-in-an-hour snow we usually get. This snow was fat, and thick, like meringue, perfect snow, and as I first trudged up the road and then up the hill and eventually up the footpath to the castle, welly boots crumping and squeaking into the fresh snow, I felt my skin tingling with the cold and with just the joy of being alive and surrounded by such beauty. Above me the sky was clear, and with the temperature nudging minus 5 degrees C the very air itself was like liquid ice, and at 5am the sky was still ablaze with stars. Above the streetlights of Kendal, looking like an orange-red jewel, shone Mars, just beautiful, and I had to stop and look at it, to drink in the view, even though stopping meant the cruel cold began to pulse up through the soles of my boots and creep up my legs within moments. I didn’t care; it was just the most perfect, perfect moment –

– until I started thinking about the future, and realised, with an almost crushing sadness, that I probably won’t be here to look up at Mars in the same way on the day that the first humans walk upon it. It’s just too far away now. I probably won’t see it.

Then I wondered, “Will I be a part of it at all?” Will anyone around then know how much that day, that moment, those first steps, would have meant to me?

Will anyone remember me at all?

I’m sure everyone goes through this at some point, it’s no big deal, right? Everyone wonders “When I’m gone, will I be missed?” It’s just human nature, right? Most people have easy answers to that question – their kids. They look at their kids and know, without any doubt, that of course they’ll be remembered because their kids will remember them… and their kids will remember them, etc etc, and The Line will continue. Me? I have no kids, and I really don’t think I’m ever going to have any now (but never say never, I know), so there will be no Line.

I like to think my books – my kids books, about spaceflight and astronomy – will live after me, but they’re already dated now, even the most recently-published ones, and as the years pass and more and more discoveries are made they will become less and less useful and relevent and eventually just become “old books” on the shelves of second hand and charity shops, and packed away in boxes in school cupboards, that is if they’re not just thrown away.

I also like to think my Outreach work in schools will have left traces of my passing. I’ve been giving talks in schools here in the UK (and other places) for a good 30 years now, and I like to think that I’ve lit a few sparks, ignited a few flames, in a few kids, with my Powerpoint talks, meteorite “show and tell”s and info sheet handouts, and maybe moved them to learn more about astronomy and science after I’ve left. I like to think that that’s my ‘Line’ – that maybe, somewhere along the years, while I’ve stood in a crammed-full classroom, or a drafty church hall, or a busy community centre, I’ve touched a young mind and stirred something up inside it that led them to follow a career in science, which will maybe lead to them becoming an astronaut and, one day, travelling to the Moon, or Mars, or one of the worlds beyond… and their adventures will inspire others… and so on. You think that’s possible? I don’t see why not.

But yeah, I know. It’s a longshot. I’m probably kidding myself there.

What else then?

Well, I’m pinning my hopes now on my astropoetry – the poems I write which are inspired by the sensational discoveries being made in astronomy, almost daily it seems, and the images being returned during the amazing unmanned space exploration missions happening right now.

I’ve been writing this poetry for quite a few years now, and find it very satisfying personally. I love words and adore language, even more than I hate and fear figures and numbers, always have done, and although many people clearly think that my writing poetically and lovingly about the rocks of Mars, the ice geysers of Enceladus and the methane lakes of Titan is silly at best and foppish and foolish at worst, I really don’t give a ****. It’s inside me, and needs to come out, it’s as simple as that. If others enjoy it, then great, that’s a bonus, but I’m writing it for myself. And also, I’ve always thought, because I want the missions to be remembered not just for their images, but for their human drama, for their nobility and, yes, their beauty. They’re important, they mean something. It’s only right that they should be immortalised in words as well as pictures.

At least, that’s what I’ve always told myself until now. Now, I’m not so sure. In fact, now is the time to be honest with myself and acknowledge the real reasons for writing my astropoems: I want to be remembered, through them.

That might sound vain, or egotistical, or worse, but it’s just the way I feel. And I think it’s probably the way most writers feel.

I suppose what I really want is for my poems to be read, in the future, by the people living in the future I will never get to see or be a part of. I want my poems about “Spirit” and “Oppy”, NASA’s two seemingly-immortal Mars Exploration Rovers, to be on huge boards, displayed next to the rovers themselves, when they are recovered from the dusty plains of Mars and brought back to the first settlement and housed in the Museum of Mars that will inevitably be built on the Red Planet one day. I want those poems to be read by the thousands of men, women and children who will file past the rovers, just as men, women and children read information boards as they file past the famous aircraft and spacecraft gathered in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum today. I want my poem about the icy geysers of Enceladus to be seen and read by the tourists who will visit the Baghdad Sulci Visitor Centre on Enceladus one day and stare out of its huge panoramic view windows and see for themselves those columns and jets hissing up out of the moon’s fractured icy crust and into the black sky. I want my poems about Pluto’s planetary status to be read by the extraordinary men and women who will stand on that far-flung world in centuries to come and look out at the vista of stars beyond, looking for the star they will be travelling to shortly after.

But most of all I want my poems about Mars to be read by the human beings who will travel to Mars in the years to come, and settle that beautiful, noble, savage world. I want my words, images and visions to be their silent companions as they sit in their Habs looking out at the pink sky, or as they rumble and roll across the wide open plains in their rovers, or as they fly above Valles Marineris and Olympus Mons in their shuttles. I want at least one book of my poetry to be there on Mars with them, along with whatever other books they have, the plays of Shakespeare, the essays of Sagan and the poetry of Wordsworth – not because I think for a moment that my words are as beautiful, as memorable or as worthy as theirs, hahah! but because, well, if I can’t be with them in person, there, in a spacesuit, I want to be with them through my words. I want them to know that, in their past, at least one person “got it” and was thinking of them. I want my book to be there, on a shelf, on a tabletop or beside a bed in that sweaty-smelling, dust-covered, photo-plastered Hab, and important to the martians of the future, because it touches something inside them.

But why am I feeling this way now? Maybe because – and I know many of you will laught at this! – I’m a huge Dr Who fan, and the current storyline – involving the imminent and inevitable ‘death’ of David Tennant’s 10th Doctor and his regeneration into the 11th – is everywhere, including inside my head. Maybe it’s because in a month’s time I’ll be 45, probably the halfway point in my time on this planet, if I’m lucky, so thoughts of my own future, and the realisation of my own mortality, are starting to make themselves felt. Maybe because, although I try to be positive about it, there’s no getting away from the fact that  death surrounds me at the Care Home where I work, and hides in the shadows, and looks down at me from the skylights, and is inescapable. I don’t know, I just don’t know. But I do know that I’m feeling a very urgent need to make more of a mark on this world, and, yes, on the future, and I have to do something about it – and soon.

I know what really brought this home to me – two experiences I had over Christmas. The first was on Christmas Day morning, and I was sat on the floor at my mum’s house, leaning back against the sofa, fending off repeated friendly attacks by their great, gallumping, gorgeous labrador, “Casper”, who thinks of me as his wrestling partner. Inbetween bouts I took a look at the beautifully decorated Christmas tree to my right, and noticed some familiar baubles and balls hanging from it…

I asked my mother how old they were, and was startled when she told me that they were at least 50 years old, because she remembered putting them on chrustmas trees before I was even born. 50 year old decorations! In this modern, throwaway age of disposability and mass production that’s quite a thing, isn’t it? And I couldn’t stop thinking about that connection with the past – my past – for the rest of the time I was there.

Then when I got home I opened the gift sent to me by my wonderful friend Bev, who lives in Australia. I have to be honest, she’s a much better friend to me than I am to her; I always forget her birthday, and never get organised in time to send Christmas cards or gifts, and she never, ever fails. This year she sent me “a little something”, which I opened knowing it would be something thoughtful and very appropriate. I was totally unprepared for the sight that greeted me when I opened the box…

“What’s that?” I hear many of you ask. Well that, dear readers, is a stone hand tool, made by one of our distant ancestors, between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, in the Late Stone Age. Bev literally gave me a piece of our species’ history for a christmas gift. (And thanks to my UMSF friend, Dan, for pointing out the relationship visible on that photo – two of Mankind’s most useful and important tools, a Stone Age stone cutter and a Silicon Age computer keyboard, side by sidevery cool!)

I’m not sure how long I held that piece of sculpted stone in my hand, just looking at it. 5 minutes? Ten? 30? I honestly don’t know. I just stared at it, imagining how, all those millennia ago, one of my deep ancestors spotted it, picked it up off the ground and chipped and flaked pieces off it until he, or she, felt it was a good enough shape to use.

History, again, looking in at me through the window.

I’m definitely being sent a message.

I don’t usually go for New Year Resolutions, they’re just wishes written in smoke. But this year I’m going to make one and work hard to keep it. As dawn breaks on New Year’s Day 2010 I’m going to resolve to have a book of my poetry published before daybreak on January 1st 2011. And nothing’s going to stop me.

Because this Christmas I’ve come to realise that history is a field covered in snow, and our lives are all mere footprints upon it. But most of those footprints melt and fade away, and only a few persist. I want mine to persist. I want my footprints not to be left in snow, but in stone, like the footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania by a group – perhaps a family? – of hominids who walked across a field of wet, slushy dirt and ash…

3.6 million years later, their footprints – preserved in that sludgy ash then fossilised by the passage of time – are still visible, for us to marvel and wonder at.

The creatures – the people – that made those footprints could have no concept of the future. They had no idea that there would be “years to come”, never mind dreams of what would happen in those years to come. We do. I do. I know that, one day, people will stand on the Moon again, and after them people will travel to Mars, and Europa, and Titan and worlds beyond, and it pains me to the brink of tears knowing that I won’t be one of them.

But I want them to know I Was Here. So I’m going to get that poetry book published next year. Just you wait and see. 🙂

One Response

  1. The very first memory I have in life is watching Neil Armstrong descend from the lunar module. The only reason that the grainy, grey footage resides in my brain is because my father pulled me out of bed late at night and insisted that I concentrate on what was happening on the television. Had it been the middle of the day in central Ohio, there is no way I would have remembered it. The fact that I was forcibly awaken is what made this seemingly unspectacular footage memorable. It was probably the first time in my life that I woke up involuntarily. That was thousands of alarm clock settings ago. I remember the place on the floor where I sat, leaning against the green chair where my father sat. I may never witness a human step onto the surface of Mars. However, every human that does witness that event will harbor a tiny bit of envy for that moment that I was fortunate enough to experience in 1969. I witnessed the dawn of history. I cannot be bitter about that. I was born at the perfect time.

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