Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Beyond space, time and gravity ...

This Earth that evolved our species - home sapiens - is perfect for us. There is no other planet in the solar system as suited to the human species as this one. Nor in this galaxy. And maybe not anywhere else in the universe. It is likely that the ecosystem that nurtures us will adapt to us; as we adapt to it. The evolution of our planet is synonymous with our evolution, or vice versa. Do we know this for a certainty?

The human species behaves as if (1) the resources of the earth belong to us alone; (2) there might be another planet that we could go to, if and when needed; and (3) our species - explorers and pioneers - might be infinitely able to adapt, survive and thrive, conquer the universe. The mission that is at the core of the Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar, is based on these assumptions. And so, as the significant landmass of North America turns to dust (reminiscent of the 1930s) and crops fail, the mission to explore other worlds becomes more urgent.The Cooper family farming the dust bowl must make some hard decisions.

View of Earth, courtesy NASA

In the middle of their dogged and doomed existence, something - Murphy the young daughter of the Cooper family calls it a ghost - leads her father (Coop for Cooper, we never hear a first name) to a NASA launch site. The dirt farmer with his crop of corn, it turns out, is really a NASA trained pilot. The underground scientists led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) are relieved to have a pilot with them for the proposed interstellar voyage. It all seems serendipitous: Coop has been preparing for this all his life; and the wormhole had appeared just past Saturn 48 years before.

A wormhole is a theoretical warp in space-time that might act as a conduit across aeons of space. A black hole, on the other hand, is a region in space - created by a collapsed star - where the gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape. At the centre of a black hole (which may not be black at all) where all mass is squeezed to "a single point where space and time stop," is called a singularity.

With the clock ticking down to an Earth that's rapidly becoming uninhabitable for humans, Coop throws his lot in with NASA, to pilot the spaceship Endurance. The mission: to seek out the scientists who had left on reconnaissance missions on the spaceship Lazarus, and who had found three Earth-like possibilities.  

Coop (Matthew McConaughey) is torn between leaving his children, especially ten year old Murphy; and the chance to do what he had been trained for - piloting a spaceship beyond the stars. He had settled for the task of producing food for the family after his wife died. But his son Tom is the natural farmer; Coop's head had always been in the stars. Murph is the natural scientist, her father urging her to make sense of seemingly supernatural events, the ghost in her room delivering messages in lines of dust, dots and dashes of morse code. "Stay," begs Murphy.

The undertaking is not without risk. No one, it seems, really expects them to return. And the poet Dylan Thomas's words,  spoken by Professor Brand, become a kind of mantra for the mission:
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
"Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
"Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Hereafter, the story relates parallel events: the struggles and survival of those on the voyages of the Endurance; the work of the scientists for the survival of those left on Earth.

The film Interstellar suggests something else again. It is that view that has been beamed to us by NASA for the last few decades. We are finally pulling away from the big blue marble, and the look back tugs at the heart strings, awe and ruefulness in equal parts. It is so beautiful, our home, co-evolving with human growth. Why can't we just cherish our planet? Is always wanting more also embedded in the human condition?

What is it about human beings, so attached to what they leave behind. yet eager to set off into the unknown, to the next great adventure, to the ends of the universe, even to death.

Space, time, gravity are there to be negotiated. As are wormholes and black holes, other suns, a multitude of other planets. The thrill of the travel itself - setting out in a rocking ship, taking off in cramped airplanes, or blasting into the sky bolted into a life-protecting suit - excites us. And as every adventurer who has ever set out on a voyage of discovery might tell us: once we leave, setting sail or spinning out beyond our stratosphere, leaving this solar system behind, there's no going home again. But home calls us.

The interstellar voyages resonate with the long history of human journeys, the quest, the discovering, the longing for home. It is a pattern well-embedded in our DNA. We are nomads at heart; pioneers in spirit; adaptable and resourceful. But we seldom go forward without looking back. Home, it seems, is the real black hole; love the singularity.

We are the creatures of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration
"And the end of all our exploring
"Will be to arrive where we started
"And know the place for the first time.”
We search for singularities: the beginning bang, the pearl in the oyster of a black hole, the other end of the universe. And at the last, though we may be star dust, we are dust of this particular planet that gave us life and longings. Like Ulysses, Cooper does return to his family; but he's the alien, changed by his journey.

The words of Cooper's wife echo across the aeons: We are here only to be our children's memories. But the words of Dr Mann (Matt Damon) are more forceful: the last thing you see will be your children's faces.

The film Interstellar is well worth seeing, if you are ready for a retelling of the hero's quest, a galactic perspective of the human heart.

The light returns: sunrise over Santa Cruz

Monday, November 10, 2014

Night walk, day dreaming

The moon was hiding - not behind trees, but behind cloud
The evening is dark, deep and lightless at ground level below a canopy of towering trees. We are at the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad's Northern Range rainforest. The moon was full the night before and should be just as bright. Tonight, its silver white light is banked behind sheets of cloud. Still, it would be a shame to retreat from the cool outdoors, to miss the chance of catching moonlight slipping through cloud curtains and reflecting off leaves still wet from the day's rain. The quiet of the forest is punctuated by small calls; it's the time of the predator.

When we set out, it is as if there were no moon. We go forward trusting the road and the pencils of light from small torches. Stay in the centre says the guide; the road is even, recently resurfaced. Our feet slosh in undrained water at the edges, and skid on leaf litter. We think about snakes and the possibility of wildlife. But our voices, and the steady - however surreptitious - tramp of three pairs of feet must reverberate like an army to any creatures lurking in the underbrush or trees. Next day, we hear about the night walker who ventured into the coffee and stared down a fer-de-lance (mapipire balsain) thick as a man's thigh.

Conversation shushes and we are in the mind of the stealthy trekkers who crossed these woods centuries past. Like children on a vaguely illicit adventure, remember night walks on unlit roads through cocoa plantations. Those were occasions for stories. Look out for Lagahou like a colossus astride the road. Beware La Diablesse with her shy seductive smile, hem of a long skirt covering one cow foot. Strike a match, strike a match. Quick! Watch her disappear, manic laughter echoing through the cocoa.

Listen. Whoosh and tinkle of water over rocks. Rumble of a car on the Blanchisseuse road sounds somewhere in the trees above. It's impossible to orient in the dark. The flow of conversation, our own footfalls, steer us. Turns out there's light in the darkness. Our eyes register the slightest traces of reflected light; and suddenly, we are aware that we have arrived at the centre's big gates. A moonbeam shines off the forest, leaves, trees, the road, and for a brief moment, we are no longer eyeless.

The next morning we retrace our steps. Here is the river that muttered in the dark. Here the bamboos sighing and chatting with the wind. Here the hanging vine with flowers that kissed the lips of the guide on another predawn walk. Up close, we distinguish bamboo, vines, big and small leaved plants, feathery palms, heliconia, immortelle, mahogany, mango, river lilies. The birds are awake: a cacaphony of parrots, the bonk of the bellbird, twits and whistles. But look up. The forest crests the mountain in a green wall, solid, impervious. Impenetrable you would say, but not so. And maybe you don't need to look down the road to the quarries or the christophene patch to know how vulnerable is this natural environment. Men with machetes, excavators, trucks and explosives outmatch the jungle every day.
Roadside green

Hearts and ferns

River pool
Oilbirds feed on the fruit of palm trees like this one.
Bamboo forest

The Asa Wright Nature Centre is the attempt by a vulnerable community and a handful of dedicated volunteers to restore or maintain balance. It's quite a trek we know, hazardous in parts. But everyone needs a day in the rainforest. And a night walk if you dare. Sometimes, we need to see without eyes.
This road at the Asa Wright nature centre leads to the lodge