The Spacefaring Web 2.8: Homelands
John Carter McKnight
May 1, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.
With the Middle East conflict dominating the news, I've been engaged in discussions of national identity, attachment to land, diaspora and nation building. Not much of a stretch is needed to apply these themes in the context of space settlement. I'm reminded of a conversation some years back in which the suggestion was floated, mostly seriously, of establishing a Martian government in exile. And of a more recent visit to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum: before the spare Viking lander, I felt something more than merely an analogy to the Lincoln Memorial: it truly seemed a shrine to the father of my undiscovered country. Underlying these odd notions is a true theme: the space movement is a diaspora in reverse, a community striving to be united for the first time in its unsettled homelands.
This quest to create, or to realize a homeland manifests in very different ways. Some would live in the romantic folly of a Bonnie Prince Charlie's court, decorating the walls of fairy castles to be built come the day. Some would scribble manifestoes in exile, waiting for the sealed train to carry them to their red destiny. Some would create the Platonic ideal form of "government," drafting laws and regulations, strictures, penalties and property systems, all without place or custom to ground them in materiality. We have all of these, and I don't hesitate to count myself among them.
But exile runs much deeper than the need to surround oneself in comforting institutions. Beneath that, down where we really live, is the true strength of homeland, that immensely powerful compound noun, home and land. While it seems much more true of Martians than of those inspired by habitat or ship, that call is not unique to us. Home is where the heart is. And ever since that moonwalk, or Viking or Pathfinder photo, or planetarium show, or Star Trek episode, we have secretly known ourselves in exile from our heart's home.
"Next year," we toasted on Passover, "in Jerusalem." Yuri's Night 2019, I am hosting a party in the caldera of Olympus Mons. Bring your own. We aim for the Lunar south pole, vow to get halfway to anywhere, cover sunburned chests with our "Dive Europa!" t-shirts. Mars or bust.
What does it mean to have a homeland? Essayist Gregory McNamee, a fellow subject of what he lovingly calls the "Holy Sonoran Empire," describes it thus (Blue Mountains Far Away: Journeys Into the American Wilderness, p. 45):
These are the things we need to do. Except for the best of our working scientists, we court the danger of abstraction. It's this lack of connection with the hard physical reality of the places we're drawn to which makes us unconvincing to those who aren't our undiscovered-countrymen, costing us their support for our efforts to gain our homelands.
We have this duty to our homeland, to make it real for ourselves, to share it with strangers with sufficient clarity and passion to move them to take on themselves the project of homeland's devotion. Meloy says (p. 109),
Not sensible people are needed here, but the enthusiast, whether articulate or not, but clear and convincing in devotion, or the artist, gifted with the ability to convey that need, or the marketer, fluent in the dominant language of our times. The work is much as James Joyce described it, speaking as an Irish writer, of a people as much in exile at home as they were at home in exile. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he gave his mission as "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
Names, forces, figures, objects, images. The reality of place our efforts would end by grounding us in - or flying through. These will last, these will matter, long after the current budget, or proposal, or abstract, or conference is forgotten. In the hustling for money or support or turf we can lose our connection with the truly real. Eyes on the prize, as they say. As Ellen Meloy writes in The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest (p.189),
Fortunately, resources abound to support us in our tasks. I've taken my own advice and have started to spent a few moments with the daily THEMIS photo of Mars, available at Space.com or the JPL Mars Exploration homepage ( http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov ). Half the time I can't tell if I'm looking at a branch of Valles Marineris or a fossil bacterium, but we all have to start somewhere. The JPL site also offers the week's Martian weather. Approaching Mars, or the Moon, or even deep space with the same curiosity and dedication of the backyard naturalist is eminently possible, and equally rewarding. It makes the dream real and genuinely aids us in realizing the dream. The effort to gain understanding, the regular return until the indecipherable becomes intimately familiar, creates that feeling of participation and involvement that characterizes "home."
All of this is true, yet not complete. Even the most driven of us is far more than solely a member of the space community. Each of us has a homeland here and now, whose land and politics demand of us also the same discipline of informed attention. Some of us regard the political as primary, turning to greater patriotic action in the aftermath of September 11, or speaking and organizing in support of more local communities. For some, place is compelling: I may work in the blacktopped big-box shopping nowhereland or Phoenix metro, but in my desert home the saguaros (those quintessential desert symbols, the tall, multi-armed cactuses - yes, in Arizona even the cactuses are armed) are in bloom, and I've seen my first roadrunner and survived a scorpion's sting. Whatever our emphasis, our task is first to pay attention. It is repaid with interest, buying us the right and ability to act usefully.
The legislative fabulists have it right on one score: what we build here and now will form the foundation on which we build out there. A deep and genuine grounding in the reality of place might deliver us from the conquistadors' follies of the golden Seven Cities of Cibola, or El Dorado, from Shangri-Las or New Edens, or (heaven forfend) New Washingtons or New Brusselses. Only if we shape our destinies here will we be free there. Only if we understand and respect the unique realities of the places where we live here will we be mindful of them there. Only if we build efficiently, cleanly and to last here will we create real value there. As below, so above.
Call it practice. Practice in the sense of a trial run: by taking seriously the obligations of our political and natural homelands here, we rehearse the skills needed on the High Frontier. Practice also in the sense of a profession or a spiritual discipline: if it is what we do, daily and fully, it becomes who we are. From people who know about medicine or meditation, who attend martial arts classes or churches, we become doctors, martial artists, Christians or whatever.
At the worst, if we never get the chance to live in our heart's homelands, we will have done some good here. In Discounting Life, a short story in the paperback edition of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Martians (p. 130), he envisions the discovery of bacterial life on Mars leading to the planet's being declared off-limits. What to do then with our honed skills, our homeland aspirations?
Meloy writes (p. 224),
This is one homeland we're assured of dwelling in, one chance we're guaranteed to get to build a better life, to cultivate understanding and respect. For a fallback, that's not a bad one.
Think galactically, act locally.
The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].
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