On Christmas Eve, 1968, Bill Anders, on board Apollo 8, as it swung round the moon, took this photograph. People call it “Earthrise” and was the first time human beings had seen the Earth over the Moon’s horizon. It’s as impressive now as it was then.
What do you think when you look at it?
What do you feel?
My first thought is “how beautiful”, and, as best I know, that’s similar to the first thoughts of the astronauts. They looked out their little window and said “Wow, how pretty!” In that response they also express awe, of wonder, and amazement. Me too. I am filled with awe when I gaze on this beautiful blue planet.
This is where we live.
All of us. Together.
One planet, sharing the same water, the same air, the same soils. Look at those swirls of clouds spiralling over the surface! Look how much water there is, and how that makes the Earth look blue.
A blue marble.
In fact the title “Blue marble” applies to a photo of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 four years later.
Yes, it’s upside down! That’s how the astronaut took the photo. That’s Antarctica at the top of the picture, and the Arabian Peninsula at the bottom. Looking at an upside down image is a great way to make you look more closely. When we see a pattern we recognise we often quickly move on, not really taking the time to look properly. I bet when you looked at the Blue Marble photo you paused and looked a bit more closely to try and make sense of it. Whichever way we look at it, I think there’s no doubt that seeing our world from far away, so that we see one face of the whole sphere at a glance, changes how we think about living on Earth.
From this distance we can’t see what divides us. We can’t see this strange, modern invention of “borders” which some people want to “close”. How do you close something that isn’t there? The historian, Dan Snow, said this –
Even if you could hermetically seal societies into absolutely sovereign entities, why would you want to? The erosion of our village, tribal, regional, national and racial identities has been enormously positive. Breaking down the imaginary barriers that our ancestors placed across the world has been a blessing. Borders are the scars of past conflicts. It has to be a managed process. We could not suddenly remove all national borders, but looking for opportunities to reduce difference, harmonise the laws that govern us while pooling our resources and knowledge is one of the most exciting movements in human history.
From a distance
Nanci Griffith singing “From a Distance” pops into my head when I look at this image of the Earth. I always liked her version. This is it with the lyrics added on top. Maybe the references to God don’t gel with your own beliefs but I don’t think that should detract from the beauty of the song.
Right on the back of that, John Lennon’s “Imagine” follows on in my head.
Setting aside religious beliefs and political opinions I’d like to focus on two things. Firstly, this idea of going higher, physically going higher, and how that change your position gives you a different perspective, one which can inspire a new appreciation of life. Secondly, how taking this higher view let’s us see the reality of shared space and of inter-connectedness.
On the 26th of April 1336, the Italian poet, Petrarch, climbed Mont Ventoux in Southern France. He’s gone down in history as the first person to climb a mountain just for the view, as opposed to climbing over a mountain to get to the other side, I suppose. It’s pretty unlikely that he was the first person to do that. He wasn’t even the first to write a poem about it, but his reflections on his experience are typical of that described by classical Greek philosophers. For the ancient philosophers the “view from on high” was a kind of spiritual exercise. It was an exercise of the imagination.
Imagine that you are soaring above the surface of the Earth allowing you to see the totality of the world. It gives you the perspective of the “Whole”.
Have you ever climbed a mountain? Or even a big hill? When I was a teenager in Scotland one of the activities my friends and I enjoyed was hill-walking. In Scotland there are a lot of hills to climb. You don’t have to be a mountaineer. The effort required to walk to the top of a hill was often quite great. The ground was often marshy, or as we said “boggy”. In fact one of our group, who often liked to lead, quickly got the nickname “Bogfinder General” as our boots sank, squelching into the peaty earth. Sometimes as you climbed higher you’d be surrounded by a mist, but almost always, as you reached the summit, struggling to get your breath back, you’d be stunned by the view of the land below you. The climb might have taken your breath, but the view was even more breath-taking. I don’t remember ever reaching one of those summits and not feeling almost overwhelmed with the view.
But you don’t need to actually climb a mountain to get the benefits of this particular shift in perspective. You can be inspired by the photographs of the Earth taken by the astronauts, or even of the Earth’s surface from the International Space Station. I think they are a delight just in themselves, but they can do more than lift your spirits.
Another way to explore this viewing from above is to look at the wonderful aerial photography of Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
Or just use your imagination, the way the ancient Greeks did!
The experience of seeing “totality”, or “the whole” (of course, it’s not really totality or the whole, just more of it than we usually see!), instantly reveals our inter-connectedness.
We are connected to each other because we share the Earth’s space, lands, seas, and atmospheres. We are connected to all living forms too. We are literally all made of the same set of atoms which emerged from the expanding Universe when the Earth was created. The Earth doesn’t make new atoms. But the forces of Nature, the rhythms of the winds and the seas, the processes of all forms of life, all take these same atoms and make, break, and re-make molecules from them. Everything we can see, touch and smell is made from these very same molecules.
We emerge on the surface of this planet and we die here too. We aren’t parachuted in from somewhere else. We don’t live in isolation. We are embedded in this planet and inextricably connected to everything in it.
I find that thrilling. I know that from that from the heights we can’t see individuals but I also know that it’s the shared flows of energies, materials and information, in our own, singular daily environments and contexts, that creates our uniqueness.
Every single one of us in unique. Not because we are separate, but because we are connected in utterly unique ways.
We are no more separate than the waves are separate from the oceans. But we are, every one of us, unique, all the same.
Finally, two of my own photos come to mind….
This is taken in Perthshire, in the land of my birth, Scotland. It shows a mountain peak partially hidden behind cloud, which is a very common sight. Quite often when you climb one of Scotland’s hills you walk into low cloud at the peak and have to wait a few minutes until, hopefully, it clears and reveals the vast landscape below you. On this particular day the wind was blowing the snow up from the hills (you can see that best on the right of the photo) so the whiteness at the peak is a mix of low cloud, snow on the ground and snow blowing up into the cloud.
In that moment I saw a snapshot of the Earth’s water cycle and how water flows both ways – down from the sky, and up into it.
I was visiting one of my favourite botanic gardens in the world, Stellenbosch, in Capetown, when I looked up and saw the moon about to sink behind this hill. Somehow, the moon looked so much bigger than usual!
The image recalled the “Earthrise” one for me, even though this was the Moon, not the Earth, and it was setting, not rising. The fact that it was sitting there right next to a rocky peak tuned beautifully with the old philosophy of “the view from above”.