A toast to the memory of Neil Armstrong

I’d like to toast the memory of a man by all reports of a most excellent brilliance which was, remarkably, surpassed by his shy humility.  A man who performed a feat beyond epic heroism.   For those too young to remember, in July, 1969, Neil Armstrong and two companions climbed into what was effectively a Volkswagen beetle augmented by a computer with slightly less processing power than your toaster.  Then he let some guy light up under him one of the bigger bombs humanity has ever created and flew that Beetle into space.  Then, a few days later, Armstrong and one of his companions climbed into a gangly arthopodish construction of tin foil packed full of yet more explosives.  Armstrong piloted that ridiculous craft to the surface of the moon and became the only person ever —ever — to set foot on a world never before trodden by humanity.  Until some woman or man treads the red dust of Mars or the charcoal of an asteroid, no one will ever do what Neil Armstrong did.  Then, Armstrong and his companion, Buzz Aldrin set off the rest of their explosives, rose into the lunar sky, and they and their third companion Michael Collins rode the tin can back to Earth in an almost quarter of a million mile free-fall.  Far faster than a speeding  bullet they crashed into the Earth’s atmosphere and plunged into the arms of the Pacific Ocean, completing a journey no hero of epic could have imagined in his (they’re almost always male, those epic heroes) wildest boastful dreams.

Neil Armstrong could have had anything in the world after becoming The First Man on the Moon.  But, like Cato the Elder, Armstrong retreated from public life.  Unlike Cato, Neil Armstrong only rarely made any attempt to steer public discourse.  He did not ever draw on the equity he had accrued with his inconceivable achievement.

I suspect that Neil Armstrong was very, very aware that he was carried to that step on the moon on the shoulders of thousands — even millions and perhaps billions –of fellow travellers

Tonight I am raising a small glass of my most expensive single-malt with friends  to the memory of a most extraordinary man of heroism and humility, Neil Armstrong, and to all those who threw that bit of tin foil to Tranquility Base.  Later I will quietly, by myself, raise a glass of my best single-malt to the dream Armstrong instilled in a whole generation, and in large parts of subsequent generations: the dream of ever exploring outward, of ever reaching farther than our momentary grasp, of always surprising even ourselves with the fact that, gosh, we did it!

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An Extremely Environmentally Damaging Industry in Alberta has been given carte blanche

As I was driving north to Slave Lake and Peace River and then west into British Columbia to see for myself the Green and Pleasant Land that Province’s government intends to flood with its “green” hydro-electric dam at Site C, I got thinking.  And then, as I sat in my hotel room in Grande Prairie, I did a very modest bit of calculating.

There is a very major industry in Alberta, a lynch-pin of the Province’s economy since before its transformation from a bit of the N.W.T.  This industry today has almost 40% of the Province’s land set aside for its exclusive use.  (As a reality check, Alberta’s entire oil sands deposits, the vast majority of which are unrecoverable, underlie only about 21% of the Province’s land.)  This industry has ruthlessly stripped native species from those lands, forcing most into local extinction and some into absolute extinction.  This industry douses these lands in products of the petrochemical industry and raw sewage virtually without restriction or oversight, causing unknown degrees of toxic contamination.  This industry has introduced countless non-native invasive species to the lands it has been given.  Perhaps worst of all, this industry has been allowed to operate in this frightful manner without even the slightest requirement, expectation, or even thought that the land should be someday remediated to any extent, let alone to the extent the oil sands extractors promise they will remediate the land they are so excoriated for destroying and poisoning (with materials that have already been in the soil for hundreds of thousands of years).

You’ve probably figured out by now that the major industry I’m talking about is agriculture, both crop and livestock production.

I’ve long been troubled by what I acknowledge is the most often pragmatically necessary replacement of native species with what I like to term “non-native invasive species” such as cattle, canola and cats, but on this trip I suddenly became aware that the fact of the massive environmental change/damage that agriculture — not just modern corporate agribusiness — does to the native ecology — that this fact is rarely if ever acknowledged.  Sure we worry about fertilizer runoff sometimes, or about antibiotic over use sometimes, or, very rarely, about an occasional news-worthy invasive species.  But do we ever actually sit back and say “Gee, agriculture — even the finest organic, sustainable, green, Polyface Farm, Michael Pollan endorsed, free-range, humane farmers’ market agriculture — it’s just plain unnatural and is inevitably and by definition squeezing out the natural environment.  Even the most wonderful permaculture set up is by it’s nature unnatural, no matter how you slice it.

Lest it be misconstrued that I’m saying that agriculture is just as bad or worse for the environment than oil sands extraction, I’ll say again that by no means am I wonderfully cozy with the idea of taking the oil out of the sands by burning a whole lot of natural gas and pumping rivers through the guck and then burning the little drops of fuel we get at the end and making plastics from the stuff we don’t burn . . . but, whatever the big tar sands companies do in the way of remediation, the tar won’t be in the sand any more.  I honestly don’t know what the “right” answers are about oil sands extraction.  Probably nobody does.  But the discussion sure is happening, isn’t it?

But, with all the various conversations about the environmental effects of agriculture, has anybody actually articulated yet that agriculture in any form is fundamentally a necessary environmental evil?  Human agriculture has completely restructured the ecology of huge stretches of Eurasia and North America and probably Africa.  There is no going back, to be sure, but should we all not be very much aware of the environmental history and baggage of what we eat?

And are there not  fundamental lessons to be drawn from the massive environmental effects of that Neolithic technology, a technology that must have seemed indispensably useful at the time of its invention and ever since.  Agriculture is the original “sustainable resource development”.  But, like every sustainable resource development of the last ten thousand years and more, it is sustained by the elimination of the existing ecology.

Are we going to learn to live with oil sands extraction, continued fossil fuel use, continued destruction of vibrant ecosystems for hydro-electric production, and global climate change just like we’ve learned to be blissfully unaware of the damage even the most benign agriculture does?

Or will Greenpeace and others start protesting the very existence of agriculture when the environmental damage its caused is finally totalled up?

Or is it possible that we all need to finally acknowledge that we have for generations been the product not of evolution in the natural world but of evolution in an artificial environment of our own and of our ancestors’ creation, for good or ill?

In closing, a few clichés:  we can’t go back; we can’t put the genie back into the bottle/lamp; the cat’s out of the bag; we’ve pissed in our bed, now we have to sleep in it. . .

Update, January 15, 2014:  According to the Alberta Government’s figures here and here,  Alberta’s livestock industry accounts for 1% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions whereas the Oilsands account for 8%.  Remember, most of that livestock is fed grain grown with synthetic fertilizer manufactured and transported by means of fossil fuels.

Some Discussion Questions About Edmonton’s Street Art

Since the Naess Gallery raid  and again since the announcement of charges relating to the raid, there has been a certain increase in discussion of Street Art in Edmonton.  I find this discussion a very good thing. I’ve come up with a few questions which I find myself wrestling with.  Perhaps sharing these questions will aid the discussion:

1.   How much weight do the legal rights, interests, visions, intentions, desires of the property owner carry?  (I don’t think it can be denied that property law, which is so deeply rooted in centuries of Statute and Common Law, is at the heart of the issue.)

2. How much weight do the aesthetic visions and intentions of the original architect/designer/engineer/builder carry?

3. How much weight do the visions/intentions/desires of the Street Artist carry?

4. Are there freedom of expression rights involved?  If so, whose rights?  How much weight do they carry?

5. How much weight do the opinions of the general public carry?

6. Does Street Art to some extent depend/thrive on its own illegality?

7. Would  free walls and other “legitimate” venues be of much interest to artists who’s interest is rebellion/snubbing authority?

The vintage is still being trampled out: why “The Grapes of Wrath”, not “Atlas Shrugged”, must be the guidebook for our time

Since Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his choice of running mate in the U.S. Presidential/Vice-Presidential election I’ve heard and read much talk of Mr. Ryan’s devotion to the works and philosophy of that wizened, bitter, anti-Soviet Russian, Ayn Rand (including this bit from CBC’s The Current).  Considering that the U.S. economy was managed into its current state by Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, I confess I find it beyond perplexing that Rand’s repugnant ideas of economy and “morality” are still given much credence in any circles.  But, apparently the old, dead Objectivist still has the ear of some/many of those in power in the U.S.  It’s an ever stranger world, isn’t it?

What surprises me even more, however, is that a far shorter novel than Atlas Shrugged, a far more well written novel than The Fountainhead, has not been raised as a rallying point on the Left or amongst the Sensible.  Published just five years before Rand’s turgid melodrama of rape in the architect set, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is nothing other than a warning to Masters of the Universe (such as sparsely populate Rand’s novels and more densely populate U.S. politics) that a popular revolution is on the very near horizon.  That revolution Steinbeck foresaw as near in 1939 was forestalled by WWII but manifest in the social revolutions and government social programs of the post-war years.  But the times they are a-changing back to a very bad situation for the proletariat of the U.S.

Steinbeck’s tale of the Joad family and their quest to survive in Corporate Capitalist America is an incendiary piece of literature.  As I reread it in fairly late middle age, I find it breathtaking that the novel is assigned to teenagers in High School English classes.  And I find it more than depressing that the novel seems to have had so little effect on all those generations of High School students.  Perhaps Rand has more effect on adolescents’ nervous selfishness, presenting a philosophy of superficial self-indulgence as somehow heroic.  Steinbeck, on the other hand, presents the real world, where the ruthless tread on the masses, and he stands beside Rodney King crying “Can we all get along?” and makes clear that we must if we are to survive as a society.

When the Joads reach the “Government Camp” around the middle of The Grapes of Wrath, they seem to have stumbled upon a paradise of democracy, self-sufficiency and mutual support.  Is the camp not exactly what the Occupy Movement strives for?  The Grapes of Wrath has often been condemned as Communist propaganda but is the camp not exactly the sort of society that Adam Smith himself cautions as the morally correct one?

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.

Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 8

Early on their first morning in the camp, Tom Joad walks out to explore his family’s new community.  His first encounter is a distillation of the entire point of the novel (sorry for the long passage, but it’s beautiful):

Tom climbed over the truck side and dropped to the ground. He moved slowly toward the stove. He saw a girl working about the stove, saw that she carried a baby on her crooked arm, and that the baby was nursing, its head up under the girl’s shirtwaist. And the girl moved about, poking the fire, shifting the rusty stove lids to make a better draft, opening the oven door; and all the time the baby sucked, and the mother shifted it deftly from arm to arm. The baby didn’t interfere with her work or with the quick gracefulness of her movements. And the orange fire licked out of the stove cracks and threw flickering reflections on the tent.

Tom moved closer. He smelled frying bacon and baking bread. From the east the light grew swiftly. Tom came near to the stove and stretched out his hands to it. The girl looked at him and nodded, so that her two braids jerked.

“Good mornin’,” she said, and she turned the bacon in the pan.

The tent flap jerked up and a young man came out and an older man followed him. They were dressed in new blue dungarees and in dungaree coats, stiff with filler, the brass buttons shining. They were sharp-faced men, and they looked much alike. The younger man had a dark stubble beard and the older man a white stubble beard. Their heads and faces were wet, their hair dripped, water stood in drops on their stiff beards. Their cheeks shone with dampness. To- gether they stood looking quietly into the lightening east. They yawned together and watched the light on the hill rims. And then they turned and saw Tom.

“Mornin’,” the older man said, and his face was neither friendly nor unfriendly.

“Mornin’,” said Tom.

And, “Mornin’,” said the younger man.

The water slowly dried on their faces. They came to the stove and warmed their hands at it.

The girl kept to her work. Once she set the baby down and tied her braids together in back with a string, and the two braids jerked and swung as she worked. She set tin cups on a big packing box, set tin plates and knives and forks out. Then she scooped bacon from the deep grease and laid it on a tin platter, and the bacon cricked and rustled as it grew crisp. She opened the rusty oven door and took out a square pan full of big high biscuits.

When the smell of the biscuits struck the air both of the men inhaled deeply. The younger said, “Kee-rist! ” softly.

Now the older man said to Tom, “Had your breakfast?”

“Well, no, I ain’t. But my folks is over there. They ain’t up. Need the sleep.”

“Well, set down with us, then. We got plenty-thank God! “

“Why, thank ya,” Tom said. “Smells so darn good I couldn’ say no.”

“Don’t she?” the younger man asked. “Ever smell anything so good in ya life?” They marched to the packing box and squatted around it.

“Workin’ around here?” the young man asked.

“Aim to,” said Tom. “We jus’ got in las’ night. Ain’t had no chance to look aroun’.”

“We had twelve days’ work,” the young man said.

The girl, working by the stove, said, “They even got new clothes.” Both men looked down at their stiff blue clothes, and they smiled a little shyly. The girl set out the platter of bacon and the brown, high biscuits and a bowl of bacon gravy and a pot of coffee, and then she squatted down by the box too. The baby still nursed, its head up under the girl’s shirtwaist.

They filled their plates, poured bacon gravy over the biscuits, and sugared their coffee.

The older man filled his mouth full, and he chewed and chewed and gulped and swallowed. “God Almighty, it’s good!” he said, and he filled his mouth again.

The younger man said, “We been eatin’ good for twelve days now. Never missed a meal in twelve days-none of us. Workin’ an’ gettin’ our pay an’ eatin’.” He fell to again, almost frantically, and refilled his plate. They drank the scalding coffee and threw the grounds to the earth and filled their cups again.

There was color in the light now, a reddish gleam. The father and son stopped eating. They were facing to the cast and their faces were lighted by the dawn. The image of the mountain and the light coming over it were reflected in their eyes. And then they threw the grounds from their cups to the earth, and they stood up together.

“Got to git goin’,” the older man said.

The younger turned to Tom. “Lookie,” he said. “We’re layin’ some pipe. ‘F you want to walk over with us, maybe we could get you on.”

Tom said, “Well, that’s mighty nice of you. An’ I sure thank ya for the breakfast.”

Glad to have you,” the older man said. “We’ll try to git you workin’ if you want.”

The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 22

Here is a foreshadowing of the final scene of the novel, a scene which has shocked generations of insensitive prudes.  Here is the whole point, a point lost on so many in modern political culture, particularly in the U.S.  It is never a question of either individual rights or social programs; it is never a question of either personal freedom or helping the disadvantaged.  Rather, just as the young mother can feed the baby from her own flesh while simultaneously performing the essential chores of her microcosm and welcoming and feeding the needy stranger, a well-structured society must and, most essentially, can easily provide for all its members, lifting up those in hardship, sharing with those in need. And an important message of Steinbeck’s Camp is that it is a Government Camp, although the Government has little to do in this ideal little society.  The people have become their own government.  Isn’t that an odd idea?

The lesson of The Grapes of Wrath is not simply that we can look out for each other, but that each of us must look out for the other if we wish to live a happy life.  The only individuals who have happiness are those who successfully help each other.  The most miserable and hopeless are the “wealthy” and those who selfishly try to get ahead while ignoring the needs of their larger society, the very sort of people who are Ayn Rand’s “heroes”.  The lesson of The Grapes of Wrath is obviously of particular relevance to the U.S. today, a society in which the gap between rich and poor is as great as it has ever been.  Indeed, the Joad family is a mirror held up to millions of contemporary American families.

Will they look in that mirror?  Or will they be seduced by the absurd promise of Atlas Shrugged, that “self-interest” is the only moral good and the salvation of society?  Lest anyone forget:  there is only one John Galt in Rand’s vision.  There are millions of Rose of Sharons, holding life together for everyone, in the U.S. today.

Is it not long past time to give them praise?

My neighbour and I aren’t building a fence

My neighbour and I are building a fence.
When I moved into this place almost twenty years ago, there was a vacant lot next door.  Then a family came along planning to build a house.  I thought, “I better put up a fence.”  I don’t know why I thought that.  That family now lives in another house across the alley and the third family in the house next door is rapidly expanding.  The fence was crumbling.

So, we made plans.  We ordered lumber.  We gathered tools.  We were going to build a fence.

Today, as I was scraping the gumbo off my shovel again I said to my neighbour and my other neighbour “Could you imagine being one of those people that came here a hundred years ago and had to try to plough this crap with just a horse (if they were lucky) and then try to raise a crop in it?”

And I thought, as I slapped a mosquito that had escaped the influence of the coil:  We’re not building this fence.

Here’s a partial list of who is actually building our fence:

The neighbour girls and their Maman who pulled out every single nail from the boards of the old fence so no one would step on one.

The neighbour girls’ Papa who gave us advice with his home builder’s experience.

Al from down the block who brought over his laser level when all we asked for was a sixteen foot board to balance a bubble level on.

My older brother who taught me almost everything I know about carpentry and stuff.

Gord’s father, who gave him a crappy cordless drill which was the inspiration for buying a good one.

But wait.  It goes deeper.

The guy at The Keg and Cork (“The Long Hair”, I call him) who suggested I try the dollar store for string when Canadian Tire and Staples were lacking.

All those people involved in manufacturing, shipping and retailing the tools we used.

And the folks at the lumber yard.

And the sawmills and the facility that pressure treats the fence posts.

And the loggers and truckers.

And the people who made Al’s laser level.

And Theodore Maiman, who built the first functioning laser, and all those other physicists, engineers, and machinists back to that Einstein fellow, who made the laser possible.

And Mr. Robertson (a Canadian, by the way), who invented the best screw in the world, a screw on which I insisted when Gord went to pick up screws.

And Chief Pappaschase and his people, who made the immediately pragmatic but ill-advised decision to trade their claims to the land the fence is on for a bit of pretty much worthless paper about a hundred years ago.

And Al Gore, who invented the Internet, on which Gord depends for his livelihood.

And golfers, including my now departed friend Angus, who over two decades provided me with my livelihood, and all those German soldiers at Ortona who somehow managed to let Angus and some of his buddies in the Loyal Eddies come home.

And the Japanese couple who invented the mosquito coil.

And Louis Hébert, the first European farmer at Quebec City, the great-great . . . great grandfather of the neighbour girls who pulled so many nails.

And . . .

We’re not building a fence.  We’re continuing a truly great and awe-inspiring human community.

And now the absurdly petty moral of this story:

Anyone, anywhere who actually thinks that U.S. President Barack Obama was saying anything other than “You’re continuing a truly great and awe-inspiring  human community” when he said “. . . you didn’t build that . . .” is either obscenely arrogant or obscenely ignorant, or, more likely, both.

Maybe next time the President should use the immortal words of John Donne:  “No man is an island, Dumbass!”

It’s gonna be the best good neighbour fence ever!

A Shout Out to the Planetary Society

It’s been about half a year now since I started throwing my thoughts out from Behind the Hedge (someday I may explain the blog title) and apart from a few hints and passing references, something fundamental has been missing:  Science.

When I was just tiny, a few years before watching Neil Armstrong smudge his way down that shadowy ladder with the really big step at the bottom, I poured over my father’s National Geographic Magazines, enthralled by two things:  the explorations of the sea, mostly by Jacques Cousteau, and the planned exploration of space, mostly by NASA.  When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did, remembering the excitement of my childhood, was to get my own subscription to National Geographic Magazine.  Sometime later, my father handed over all his back issues stretching back to the mid-1950s.  Now I have almost sixty years of the things and I remain subscribed, although the sense of adventure has faded quite a bit.  Over and over I say to each month’s issue “You climbed a whole mountain!  Wow!  Did you know there’s a bunch of old men over there who WALKED ON THE MOON before you were born?!  And they got there in what amounts to little more than a  Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of big bombs strapped to the back of it!!”

Shortly after the moon landing, I took Charles Coombs’ Project Apollo out of the school library and then made my father order me my own copy from some bookstore in downtown Sudbury, Ontario.  I still have that book.  I spent my days making.  I made sharks out of plasticene and (strangly square) Saturn V rockets — complete with lunar module concealed in the top of the third stage — out of Lego.  And I craftily built the lunar module upside down so that it could dock with the command module.

Guess how I was turned onto the poetry of Yeats when I was in junior high school.

An epigram to a chapter in Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii was a bit from Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus”:

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands
I’ll find out where she has gone
and kiss her lips and take her hands
and walk among long dappled grass
and pluck till time and times are done
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun

And wither the threads from that poem through my life?

I reverently lifted one line for one of my few published (very obscurely published) bits of verse:

. . . on broken roads which lead nowhere
I search for unknown goals
through hollow lands and hilly lands
sun burning on my back . . .

I suspect that Yeats, together with a well timed visit to the banks of the River Wye, lead me to Wordsworth who was so obviously a pleasant uncle (but not a “funny uncle”, despite Ken Russell’s Clouds of Glory which quite probably led me to Tom Stoppard, charmingly guided by Felicity Kendall) to the child who was the father of the man I am.

And what about art?  I suspect that a strange meeting in my adolescent mind between Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and David Hardy’s The Challenge of the Stars put me on that road.

As a barely-past-tween, when I privately decided that painting was to be one of my lives, my first purchase was a big tube of Mars Black, because all I was going to paint was David Hardyesque space scenes.  Now I buy huge jars of titanium white and very, very rarely buy a small tube of some very traditional earth pigment, and hardly ever use black.  On the surface, my painting owes more to pre-modern traditions than to the Space Age  But, when I honestly consider things, scientific exploration — which I consider art- and literary-criticism to be — is the only thing that makes me passionate. High School acquaintances told me later in life that they thought I’d follow a science path.  Nope.  Anglo-Saxon poetry for me.

Where did that come from?

A long, long time ago I held a copy of  The Lord of the Rings in my hands in a Public Library in Windsor, Ontario and said to myself “This looks like a cheap rip-off of the Narnia stories.”  In hindsight, I was an idiot at that moment, but, fortunately, my mother reintroduced Tolkien to me for a third time — I had, without making the connection, spent a moment with “Smith of Wooton Major” in some elementary school classroom.  Tolkien made me learn Old English and learning Old English vastly improved my understanding of language and poetry.  After five years, two degrees, and a couple of publications, I left formal academia behind, again to the surprise of professors and colleagues.

Now, decades later, I subscribe to five publications:  The Old English Newsletter, which arrives at odd intervals; Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver) which comes bimonthly as near as I can figure; the comfortable old National Geographic; Scientific American; and the increasingly infrequent Planetary Report, which is a part of the real point of this post.  Except for the Old English Newsletter, I read every issue of these magazines from cover to cover.  In fact, I first subscribed to Scientific American after reading Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ mention that he, too, read that magazine from cover to cover every month.  To me, all five magazines are about understanding the world and my place in it.

But, the Planetary Report is a voice from and to my childhood.  If you haven’t heard of this wonderful little publication, it is the newsletter of the Planetary Society, a think tank/lobbying organization/fanclub/cult/bunch of really varied and smart people founded by one of the smartest, Carl Sagan and two friends three decades ago with the sole and noble purpose of teaching people that space exploration is beautiful, inspiring, artistic, fascinating, gobsmackingly neat and absurdly inexpensive considering the wonders, both practical and human, it returns and, even more, considering the insane obsenities we spend obscene amounts of our labour and humanity on.

Early supporters were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury, before his death intervened, was scheduled to be a part of a little Planetary Society get-together in a few days.  The Planetary Society is perhaps the ultimate geek club — “I’m making space exploration happen!!!”, but for over three decades this bunch of ordinary and extraordinary people has quietly, soberly, and doggedly pushed governments to push the boundaries of knowledge and pushed the boundaries of knowledge themselves during times when governments have been remarkably loathe to learn much of anything.

Today the Planetary Society’s CEO is Bill Nye (yeah, that Science Guy) and has a remarkable  board of directors, including Niel deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and the coolest astrophysicist ever (“that black guy from PBS” as one friend of mine describes him.  Sometimes Canadians can be a little too blunt.)

Some of the Advisory Council of the Society are artists, writers, Star Trek actors and, yes, one of them is an old man who has WALKED ON THE MOON!! After travelling there in what amounts to a Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of bombs strapped to the back!!

The latest issue of the Planetary Report closes with a poem and a beautiful piece of art of the sort my thirteen year old self dreamed of painting.  Inside there are stories about urban Dark Skies efforts, about the Mars Science Laboratory which should land on Mars in a few days (it’s about the size of a Volkswagen Kombi, but the technology has advanced a bit), about near-Earth asteroids and extra-Solar planets.  And there are projects for kids.

Projects for kids.  One of the finest things the Planetary Society has done over the years, finer than sending digital copies of classic Science Fiction literature and art to Mars, finer than launching member-financed space missions, finer even than sending my name (and those of thousands of other Society members) to Saturn — about the finest, noblest thing the Society has done is to encourage young people to dream, to learn, and to achieve.  The Planetary Society provides grants to young scientists, to amateur scientists around the world.  The Society has provided brilliantly creative teenagers the opportunity to conduct real scientific investigation with robots on mars — hands on!

Although U.S. based, the Planetary Society is Planetary, with members around the world and making efforts to work with space agencies of all countries.  The societies grants are available to any nationality, its student outreach is global.

And, once a year they have this thing they call “Planetfest” in Pasadena and at science centres all over the planet.   A whole huge crowd of dreamers, scientists, poets, artists, writers get together to look up at the sky and say

“Wow.  Just Wow.”

And

“Thank you, Carl.”

This year Planetfest happens in just a few days, August 4th and 5th, timed to watch the landing of The Mars Science Laboratory.

I’ve never attended as I am, perhaps ironically in the context of the Planetary Society, a bit of a homebody, but if there were ever a crowd I’d have a laugh being a part of, it would be this one.  I’m not recruiting for the Society.  I’m not suggesting that anyone who might read this should run out and buy a membership (although that would be fine, if the fit is right).  What I am interested in doing is letting people know that the Planetary Society exists, what it’s for,  and what sort of person ends up as a member.

I am a working artist, a lover of theatre, a reader of poetry, and absolutely the most inspiring thing I can imagine is exactly what the Planetary Society was created to do and exactly what Art, Theatre and Poetry are for: to help us all to understand where we are in this inconceivably huge existence.

It’s a perfect fit.

Update, September 4, 2012:  A few days ago I was having a silly conversation about googling one’s self and I came across this brief blog post by Charlie Loyd in which Carl Sagan and I are associated through a fairly obscure aspect of Old English poetry.  It seems I have come full circle, in a sense: inspired to poetry  by Carl Sagan as a child and then associated with him through poetry much later in life.  It is a funny old Cosmos, isn’t it?