The Scales

The Scales

One summer constellation with an interesting history is the star pattern known as Libra the Scales. On a warm summer evening it can viewed toward the southern horizon near the reddish star Antares. That star is in Scorpius and in ancient times Libra was also a part of the constellation Scorpius. Libra served as the claws of the scorpion and the two brightest stars in Libra are still called the Northern Claw and the Southern Claw.

The Romans were known for many things including their system of laws. It was the Romans who removed the claws from the scorpion and created a new constellation in the night sky. This constellation was meant to represent the scales of justice. In the northern hemisphere Libra is the only figure within the zodiac that represents a man-made object.

Libra was added to the zodiac during the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar established a new calendar called, appropriately enough, the Julian calendar. Caesar’s new calendar remained in use for almost 1600 years. It was replaced by the Gregorian calendar which was promoted by Pope Gregory in the 1580s. This is the calendar we use today. Interestingly Libra is often associated with the nearby constellation of Virgo. The Romans viewed Virgo as a goddess of justice so having the scales of justice nearby is appropriate.

Libra is “home” to the Gliese 581 planetary system. A number of exoplanets have been found within the Gliese 581 system including Gliese 581c which was the first Earth-scale exoplanet found within another star’s habitable zone. Gliese 581c has a number of companion worlds that circle the parent star. Perhaps these could be named after prominent Romans?

libra2
Constellation Libra with diagram and stars labelled.

(Images may be found at Professor James Kaler’s website at the University of Illinois: http://stars.astro.illinois.edu)

The Long Road

The Long Road

“The Long Road”

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth.

Sitting in the lander’s snug cockpit, Brendan Eriksson heard the steady hiss of sand against the thick oval of the pilot’s port. Storm coming. Big one. The churning atmosphere was already making radio communication with the orbiting Athena difficult. Not that the good ship’s crew could help Brendan with his current problem. What he needed right now was an experienced search party, not a band of eager mars-nauts.

Brendan peered out at a landscape grown misty with blowing dust. Somewhere amid those jealous sands was a lone man. Brendan pressed the call switch on his mike and demanded, “Carter, where the hell are you?” Static and the occasional charged pop were all that answered him. Angrily, he tossed the headset into a corner and headed for the airlock.

Carter never checks the weather updates, Brendan thought as he clambered down the access tunnel to the lander’s workbay. He probably went off in a huff. Out collecting specimens or poking around any of a dozen sites. A good stretch he calls it. Stupidity I’d call it…going off alone. He knows it’s a violation of Mars Program protocols!

Brendan slipped on the last rung of the ladder. His shin banged the hard plastic and his curse filled the little workbay. His outrage soon faded as he focused on preparations needed for egress. Yet even while donning his cumbersome mars-suit Brendan found himself recalling the events of last night.

The message had come in around 1800 hours. The two occupants of Mars Site One were settling down for dinner. It had been a productive day, possibly their best after a week on the surface. The sample cases in the cargo hold were full. Their bodies ached from the day’s exertion. Still, they were smiling as they opened foil packages and gulped bulbs of juice. Carter had even toasted the day’s success.

Then the message bell chimed. The words from Earth were short and to the point. Funding for future Mars missions had been cut. They were to return to Earth immediately.

“This can’t be!” Carter exclaimed. “We’ve spent years getting this project off the ground. And it’s canceled at the height of our success? Impossible!”

Carter recorded a message and sent it up to Athena for immediate relay back to Earth. Forty-five interminable minutes passed while Brendan changed ‘cycler filters and Carter fumed over a quiet comm board. In the end, Earth’s only response was to acknowledge receipt. No further comment. Transmission ended.

Weary after the long day and the sudden blow, Brendan patted the old scientist on the shoulder and turned in. Carter barely responded. Instead he stared forlornly through the pilot port. Outside, Mars was deep shadow and sand-glitter as Phobos walked its hurried path across the night sky.

Suited up, Brendan ducked through a thick hatchway and prepped the airlock. The conical lander was divided into two sections: the cockpit-hab was on top while the workbay and airlock were down near the landing skirt. All else was dedicated to life support and the various organs of the lander’s ascent stage. The ascent stage consisted of their cockpit and the bell-shaped engine core with its associated propellant tanks. For their return to Athena most of the vehicle’s mass would be abandoned. Safe within the stripped down ascent stage the two marswalkers and their precious specimens would ride comfortably back to the waiting spaceship.

Despite their best housekeeping efforts ocher dust dirtied the airlock’s polymesh floor and bulkheads. Brendan opened a smudged closet door and removed a surface pack. The units were always kept fully charged. Brendan deftly shrugged a pack over the mars-suit’s thick shoulders. Serpentine tubes from the pack were quickly attached to nozzles on his suit. Straps then secured the pack to his back. Step by step, just as protocol demanded.

After the hatch was sealed the airlock was depressurized to Martian ambient. Through the deck Brendan felt a pump chug as air was compressed and then siphoned into a reserve tank. Through the airlock’s tiny porthole the ruddy mars-scape tugged at his heart.

Mars! It sang in his heart like a song. He had spent years helping put this expedition together. Five years of design and training and toil. And then came the real work: the long and dangerous nine months aboard Athena in order to actually get here, the orbital survey to find the best landing site, and then the wild ride down to the surface in the lander. Yet it had all been worth it! In the last week Brendan had trod more Martian soil than he had ever imagined in his wildest dreams.

Minutes later he was down the ladder and beyond the lee of a mylar equipment tent. Mars was gusty wind and cloying sands. Brendan tuned his secondary channel to the location chimer in Carter’s suit. Instead of a comforting ping he heard only the same static that existed on the comm frequency.

“Carter!” Brendan called once more. Then, angrily: “Carter this is one helluva time to take a walk! You’re the one constantly badgering me about protocol. Big storm coming, any fool can see…”

Nearby, something caught Brendan’s eye. One leg of a scanner tripod had collapsed and dropped its delicate hardware into an orange drift. Almost on compulsion he walked several paces to inspect it. Only a day before he had anchored the tripod into the ground. He knew it should be stable even in these strong winds. Had it been purposely knocked over? The only culprit could be Carter.

Brendan felt heat sweep his brow and he cursed. Even if Carter was angry the man had no reason to beat up on the equipment.

Brendan examined the scanner. One of its interchangeable control modules lay in the dust. The unit’s slim anemometer was also missing.

Brendan was scanning the ground for any other errant components when he noticed something odd at the base of an adjacent dune. Amid the swirling dust a gem twinkled. Could that be another scanner? He knew Carter had a temperamental side but this was ridiculous! Brendan sighed and moved toward the glittering jewel.

He reached the mound of dislodged dust and his gloved hand wiped away the grit that covered the tiny green eye. He lifted the object that the emerald LED was attached to and his heart went cold. In gravity roughly a third of Earth’s the Mark VI life pack was not very heavy. Indeed, even fully charged the thing weighed only a few kilos. Yet it slipped from Brendan’s hands as if it weighed as much as the pitted boulders that surrounded their lonely landing site. Brendan swallowed and tasted sourness. Without his pack the air reserve in Carter’s suit was good for only fifteen minutes.

Brendan rose up on shaky knees, imagining the unimaginable. There was no reason for Carter to abandon his pack! It violated every protocol! Was the old scientist intent on throwing everything away? No. There had to be a better explanation. Dr. Carter Jackson was made of tougher stuff than all of them put together. He was the main reason they had made it to Mars!

Yet last night, after the news of the Mars Program’s cancellation…

You can’t work a lifetime and then see it taken away overnight, Brendan thought. Even a stubborn old bastard like Carter can only take so much.

“Carter!” Brendan called into the static that filled his comm set.

Through the convex bubble of his helmet Brendan’s eyes stared up the slope of the dune. A series of oval depressions, swept by the gale and eroding even as he watched, climbed the sandy hummock. The boot prints were unmistakable. Brendan followed them.

Trudging over the rise the man from Earth stared into the darkness of a Martian world-storm. A wall of dust and cloud reared across the southern horizon, relentlessly enveloping the rolling tablelands that stood before the Tharsis range. Movement caught his eye and Brendan gasped. A kilometer away, a tall figure in a bulky mars-suit stood on a high hill, transfixed by the approaching storm.

“Carter!” Brendan called.

In the low gee Brendan loped forward, praying that the old scientist would stay still long enough for him to catch up. Crossing hummocks and staggering down dunes, stray thoughts licked across Brendan’s mind. What if Carter had abandoned the pack more than fifteen minutes ago? Mission protocol only allowed fifteen minutes once that pack was off. It might already be too late…

And then, instead of being a distant figure, Carter stood above him on the tumbled and dust-blown knoll. Halfway up the rise Brendan heard the other man’s voice in his earphones: “…visionless cowards…if they could only see this…the breath of a world.”

“Carter?” Brendan stepped within a few meters of his companion.

The old man turned to regard Brendan. Behind his visor Carter’s face was pale and tears filled his eyes. When those eyes saw Brendan they closed slightly and Carter shook his head sadly. “It was a good run, eh, kid?”

“Carter, you need to put your pack on. Protocol…”

Carter laughed bitterly. Below them the rolling highlands descended toward a wide valley. Carter’s black glove swept over the ruddy land. “You and I almost conquered Mars, Brendan,” the old scientist said.

“We can buddy breathe,” Brendan persisted. “Protocol allows that. Long walk back to the lander but…”

“Lowell started the conquest, you know? Burroughs and Bradbury breathed dreams into this dust. The team that landed the first probes here were a bold bunch. Bolder than any of the bomb-builders they had to compete against, that’s for sure.”

“Carter,” Brendan whispered. Tears stung the young engineer’s eyes. He had never seen his friend like this. So upset.

“They conquered Mars, all of them. But when you stop asking questions or feeling wonder or looking outward, then Mars laughs in our face. Mars always laughs in the face of cowards. This place knows when it’s won.”

“Let’s go back to the lander, Carter.”

Carter sighed. A long and tired sigh. He suddenly seemed as old as the dust curling around his boots. “When we got that message last night I decided that Mars had finally won.”

“Carter.” Still a meter away, Brendan reached toward his friend.

Before the baleful glare of the Martian hurricane Dr. Carter Jackson reached up and unlocked the seal of his helmet collar.

“No!” Brendan yelled. He scrambled for the top of the knoll. Carter pulled his bubble helmet up over his head and hurled it down the slope. Before Brendan could reach Carter the scientist’s legs folded and the old man crumpled to the ground.

“Carter!” Brendan dropped to his knees next to his friend. Muffled voices shouted and yelled in the back of the engineer’s head. “Carter!”

Brendan’s gloved hands shook the scientist’s shoulders. Carter’s eyes were wide and they stared at the cloud-choked horizon. The scientist’s head rocked and then turned toward Brendan. Remarkably, Carter’s mouth stretched into a smile and he mouthed something. Brendan leaned back and tried to comprehend what was happening. Then, before Brendan could react, Carter’s gloved hand snatched at Brendan’s collar and un-dogged the double seal. Air hissed hideously in Brendan’s ears. Carter began to laugh. For a moment, his laughter seemed to fill the vast Martian wastes.

“Dammit, Carter! You’re nuts!” The words were out before Brendan could stop them.

In response, Carter patted the engineer’s shoulder. He gasped, “Perhaps I am. But knowing when to quit is the first sign of returning sanity.” Through Brendan’s depressurized helmet the words sounded joyous.

From behind them they heard footfalls crunch through the dust. The pair turned to see a Martian Natural Territories Ranger approaching. The ranger’s uniform was a blue-green tiger-striped parka that made the wearer seem much taller than her lithe, two-meter Martian frame. The ID patch over her left breast bore a name: Fitzhu, Dali. That was a perennial Martian favorite when it came to naming children. After all, Salvador Dali could have created some of the landscapes that had been carved during the long centuries of planet-wide terraforming.

A puff of air gusted from the woman’s lips and she waved a datalogger at the two Earthmen. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the Ranger said in her curiously clipped Martian accent. “But I’ll have to log that helmet removal as a violation of Mars Program protocols.”

Carter began to laugh again. Next to him Brendan protested, “But it’s the first time in nearly a year that we’ve tasted unbottled air! We haven’t violated anything!”

The MNT Ranger frowned. She hated tourist duty. Earthfolk were a strange breed and she had seen none stranger than this pair of astro-archaeologists…archeo-astrologers…or whatever the hell it was they called themselves. First they lay down all these tedious rules for their little experiment and then they howl when she calls them on a flagrant violation. Yes, indeed, she was going to be much happier when Tharsis Park HQ returned her to back country support. That’s where a gal belonged!

Dali Fitz said, “Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But the entire purpose of this Mars Program of yours was to copy historical artifacts from the 21st century and then use that so-called space technology to re-enact the first Mars landing. Removal of a suit helmet on the Mars of 2040 AD would have been deadly. I must log this as a protocol violation.”

Brendan was about to continue the argument when Carter stopped him. “It’s okay, Ranger,” the elderly scientist said. “No harm done. I think we’ve learned a great deal already. Thank you.”

The Ranger gave him a curious look and then smiled. As the two men rose to their feet she tapped her datalogger and then tucked it into a pocket of her parka.

Courteously, she asked, “Will you be removing any more specimens from the archeological sectors today? Some of the researchers from Barsoom University complained that the sight of you two in your mars-suits has been causing problems.”

“Really?” Carter said, his eyebrows raised. “How so?”

The Ranger sighed. “Wherever you go in those suits a flock of tourists seems to follow. Apparently the sight of you two has also been distracting Academician Kovik’s grad students. No work has been getting done.”

Carter snorted into the cold air. “No, we won’t be going back to the dig sectors. We’ve collected enough specimens to last us a while. My compliments to Academician Kovik.”

The ranger glanced toward the roiling clouds over the southern horizon. Lightning flared violet-white. She said, “Big blow in the outlands. Weather Control is keeping it over the Tharsis Reservoir. City planners in Bradbury want to erode away some of the Outer Dunes. They need a recreational harbor.”

“Why stop with a harbor?” Brendan grumbled. “Why not put in a few canals?”

The Ranger chose to ignore the comment. “If you should need anything today, gentlemen, I’ll be in the observer’s shack.”

“Thank you, Ranger,” Carter replied. “I think we’ll be wrapping things up in the next few days. We’ve gotten most of what we came for.”

The Ranger nodded curtly and walked back to the main trail. As she approached the path they heard a tourist with a real-cam complain: “I thought they weren’t supposed to take any of that gear off! What’s the matter with them? It spoiled my shot!” The Ranger said something placating and returned to the elevated observation platform.

“Martians,” grumbled Brendan. “Mustn’t upset the bloody tourists. Or those pumped up academics from Barsoom U.”

“Now, now,” Carter cautioned. “Those bloody tourists pay the taxes that keep this place open. I wish we had a few more tourists on our side. Maybe we wouldn’t have lost our funding.”

Sadness crossed Brendan’s face. “Without that funding we won’t even be able to fly Athena back home. The return flight would have proven conclusively that early 21st century explorers could safely journey to Mars and then return to Earth.”

“I know,” the senior archeologist shook his head. “I can’t believe it’ll take us a mere six hours to get home. I wonder what the first mars-walkers would have thought?”

“But, Carter, your dream…”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, lad,” Carter practically scolded. “Even without the return trip our contribution has gone far beyond anything that anyone in the field has ever attempted. There’s one hell of a design thesis in this for you. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see ourselves on the cover of Planetary Geographic.”

“But what about the Athena?” Brendan had grown to love the tough little ship, so carefully crafted, virtually hand made.

“I’m sure the park authorities will find a good home for the lander and the Athena. A historical display, perhaps? Athena is as good a reproduction of the First Expedition’s ship as is technically possible. And our journey here was epic. Heyerdahl would have approved.”

“Who?” Brendan asked.

Carter sighed. “An explorer from a chronicle I once read. The Heyerdahl Scroll actually pre-dates the Great Chronicle of the First Mars Expedition. If you believe the arguments.”

Brendan scowled. “I doubt if this Heyerdahl’s funding was ever cut. People back then, when they started something, they worked until it was done. The Mars of today would not exist if they hadn’t been so daring.”

Below the two men the morning sun glinted off scattered vehicles in the parking lot of the First Expedition Memorial Center. A road turned and twisted into a distant valley. Further away the golden spires of Bradbury City met the first rays of the new morning, defiantly shining in the face of the great storm.

“Fifteen hundred years since the First Expedition,” Brendan said. “I wonder if they knew what lay at the end of the long road.”

A thread of silver fire flashed through the dusty sky as a meteor announced its momentary passing. Below, in the ruddy light of dawn, the new world stirred itself from sleep.

“I suspect they did,” Carter whispered into the fresh Martian air.

*fin*

 

Originally published at scifidimensions webzine in December, 2000

Illustration found in National Geographic’s “Man’s Conquest of Space,” 1968, artist unknown although I believe it may have been an illustration from a NASA contracted TRW study from 1962

“Inching Down”

“Inching Down”

An exclamation mark weaves a curve through Darkness.
It challenges a silent chasm best measured by clocks rather than kilometers.
But that Void offers no roar or blast
Beyond the cold harbingers of Time and Fate and Chance.

When the long silence ends
It is to the vibration of thrusters.
Then point-precise thunder
Channels the chaos of explosive bolts.
Thin air keens its frictional wail beyond the burning aeroshell.

Gravity one-third Earth’s grabs a thin frame
While metal heart knows when the Plummet begins.
A red landscape stretches before unblinking electronic eyes
To glimpse the temptations Ray warned us about.

Those visions are old as Dust
And still so very new
Yet no canals or alabaster cities today
But just as many mysteries.
The Voice that greets us is the whispered harmonic fugue
Between drogue and wind.

And all the while the clocks are running
To mark the moment where we hover, Aflame!
And like a mad mechanical butterfly
On plasma wings Inching Down
Below a ludicrous pink sky where
Only dreamers are allowed to dare.

Wheels touch Mars
But motors do not yet turn.
New to this World we must look
With a plan for each move and meter.
The cameras show sights Unknown
And we plot our trek.
Rock and wind and secrets
All soon Revealed.
To our Curiosity.

 

curiosity landing site
The Mars Curiosity Rover landed at Gale Crater on 6 August 2012 05:17:57 UTC at 4° 35′ 22.2″ S, 137° 26′ 30.12″ E. The above image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It shows the rover landing site as well as various hardware the rover used during its descent.

Climbing Mt. Sinai

Climbing Mt. Sinai

Earlier this month NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the area where Mt. Sharp is located. The satellite used its HiRISE camera system to image the region. Amid the slope and jumble and dunes of Mars it photographed something with a symmetric shape and unusual color. That something was another robot of exploration called the Curiosity Mars Rover. This robot has been operating on the planet since August, 2012.

In the last 4 years and many months Curiosity has ambled across nearly 16 kilometers of the Martian surface. An able geologist, the golf cart sized mobile science lab has sampled a multitude of sites and made a number of important discoveries, including the past presence of water in the region where it operates. Its many images have included cracked layers of rock, dune filled depressions, and no few martian dust devils.

Curiosity is now in the process of climbing Mt. Sharp. In the cold, thin atmosphere of Mars its six wheels turn and propel it steadily forward and upward. When we say climb it is scaling features and following a path watched very closely by its controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It has gained an elevation of 165 meters. The peak it is assaulting is 5.5 kilometers in height…that’s taller than Mt. Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. So it has a ways to go!

This is certainly not meant to diminish the feat of having a semi-autonomous mobile lab at work day-to-day on a world tens of millions of kilometers away from Earth. The slopes it climbs are challenging for a robot and every centimeter is truly new territory. Yet the inclines are kept within its carefully designed operating parameters, so it tackles fairly low angles of gravel and sand. Still, those angles offer a hazard, particularly for its well worn wheels, communications systems, and the delicate instruments on board.

Will it climb up the shoulders of the mountain and reach the top of Mt. Sharp? As its objective is to follow the science and seek traces of water the summit is probably not the mission’s key goal. Yet even if Curiosity were to stop transmitting tomorrow (it shows no indication of wanting to do so) its mission to date would be an overwhelming success.

mro-curiosity-rover-pia21710-br2
HiRISE image shows the Curiosity Rover near the base of Mt. Sharp. The purple-blue dot near the center is the rover. The odd color of the rover is due to post-processing of the image. For comparison Curiosity is the size of a golf-cart (2.9m long x 2.7m wide).

The crisp image from HiRISE shows an unforgiving terrain. It looks forbidding and may be full of surprises. There was something about the rugged nature of the mountain, its ocher coloration, and the sense of loneliness I felt when I first saw the picture that made me think of the prophet Moses and that long-ago first climb of Mt. Sinai. I’m not sure why that Biblical event sprang to mind except that it offers a unique symbolism of humanity facing an unknown. Moses was a lonesome outcast, far from home in a bitter wilderness seeking truth and meaning to his life. He found an answer on the mountain, and was a different person when he returned from the summit.

It would be remarkable if Curiosity reached the summit of Mt. Sharp and surveyed the land all around it. What would its camera eyes see? And would its controllers have it come back down? If so, what discoveries would it bring back? Certainly not a burning bush or a robotic version of the Ten Commandments in hexadecimal format! But the journey upward will not be without reward, even if we just learn something about ourselves and our very human capabilities in the face of wonder.

 

(Note on image at top: mosaic “self-portrait” of the Mars Curiosity Rover composited and post-processed by NASA JPL. Mt. Sharp is to the left in the background.)

 

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

43.1610° N, 77.6109° W

Today, on this big spaceship called Earth, we are all participating in the summer solstice. It doesn’t matter where in the northern hemisphere we are, it started at dawn and will run until a very late sunset. The northern pole of our planet is tipped the full 23.5 degrees toward the Sun. Seen from the latitude and longitude above in Rochester, NY (and elsewhere) our parent star is as far north in the sky as it ever gets. As the planet turns the Sun’s path below our horizon is very short. This day is the longest of the year and consequently our night will be the shortest of the calendar year. Bad day for astronomy devotees!

If you are a stargazer (or stargeezer, as in my case) and live above the Arctic Circle you will have no starry night this time of year. Right now, in the far north, the Sun never sets. Many people flock to destinations in Alaska and the Yukon to partake in this event. In their devotion they remind me a little of the ancient Druids at Stonehenge. Solstice tourism has seen a spike in recent years and I’ve considered going myself. And at an opposite extreme, if you are based in one of the many Antarctic outposts the night of June 21st will last a full 24 hours.

The summer solstice is the time of year when the Sun stops its northern ascent, pauses, looks around, and then trudges downhill again. It’s interesting that the word solstice comes from the Latin sol-stitium. This word literally means “sun-standing.”

Venture outward tonight into those short hours and look at the stars. Unlike the wintertime we can go out in tee-shirts and relax in lawn chairs. If the mosquitoes aren’t biting we might catch a meteor or two and see a few satellites stray past overhead. All while we enjoy a cool drink.

Happy Solstice, everyone!

 

(Note on illustration: “Stonehenge at Solstice Dawn” from the book Astronomy: The Cosmic Journey by William K. Hartmann, 1978, C. Wadsworth Publishing Co.)

…and new civilizations.

…and new civilizations.

To boldly go. Everyone knows those words. For many of us they introduced the future, and a promising one at that. And yet those three words are not trapped in a little amber bubble that represents some fictional time in the future. I would say those words are highly applicable not so much to the adventurers of novels or movies…whose treks pale in comparison to reality…but to historic travelers and seekers of all kinds who have voyaged outward to find new, fascinating horizons.

That was certainly the case with the mid-19th Century explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The partners were in the vanguard of exploration of Central America’s Mayan ruins. In the 1840s the lost cities of that region were little more than rumor inextricably tied to the well-worn narratives of Spanish conquistadors. In 1839 the two men came to Central America as seasoned travelers.  They had spent many years independently exploring the ancient monuments of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Keen observers, they brought this experience as well as fresh viewpoints to an area that had been given only limited scientific investigation. And what they discovered…not without cost…laid the groundwork for understanding not just the original peoples of the New World, but the very human capacity to create greatness even in the most challenging of environments.

The book Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen tells the story of the American writer Stephens and the British architect and artist Catherwood. It is a marvelous biography of two adventurers who through dedication and hardship explored a lost world. Applying solid scientific observation they challenged the notion prevalent at the time that the peoples of the New World were incapable of independently creating a unique civilization. The old cities of Mexico and Central America were known to exist, however the view among academics was that these marvelous civilizations had been created by lost migrants from the Old World. Indeed, the thinking at the time was that after the original migrants had died off the native peoples simply copied or mimicked what had been brought to their shores. Some of these “lost migrants” included Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even a Lost Tribe of Israel.

Stephens and Catherwood came to their groundbreaking conclusion only after long and careful study of the ruins they uncovered with the aid of native guides. Although not the first to suggest this view, the theory that New World natives had independently created a civilization out of the jungles of Central America was somewhat controversial. The fact that the two explorers applied observation, careful measurement, and comparative data of the ruins they came across with those of the Old World is in the best scientific tradition. Indeed, Catherwood made carefully detailed drawings of the sites with an architect’s eye. His drawings of elaborate Mayan stelae and hieroglyphics were the first of their kind.

The two explorers also worked closely with, and were at times very dependent upon, native peoples. This included muleteers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, guides as well as revolutionary leader Rafael Carrera and the dashing yet tragic General Francisco Morazán. This unique combination of scientific rigor and cultural interaction led Stephens and Catherwood to the inescapable conclusion that the proud remnants of the lost Mayan civilization were a product of Central America and its people.

Jungle of Stone is not just a book about history and the beginnings of archeology it is also a book full of adventure. As a writer Stephens often needed “incidents” to write about. Central America was quick to offer these. The land is as much a character in the book as are the many people the two explorers encounter. The place is mysterious, time-wise, mercurial, dramatic, and beautiful. On the first day of their arrival they are treated to a powerful earthquake. This is a harbinger perhaps of the varied challenges that await them in the natural world: steep mountain treks, volcanoes, torrential rain, swollen rivers, thick jungles where one might get lost forever, insects, dangerous animals, and surprisingly: dry spells. There is also political upheaval, banditry, and disease. Yet Central America also offers a willing hand and the two are often aided by people who act out of kindness, pride, and in many cases an interest in the history of their land and their place in it. However, as they are so often warned, the land will not give up its secrets easily. And yet, throughout it all, Catherwood and Stephens are undaunted.

William Carlsen shows a deft hand and the book is at times as much about those who the two explorers encounter as about the explorers themselves. I learned a great deal about Carrera and Morazán, for instance, and a book about these two adversaries certainly awaits. The Caddy and Walker mission is also interesting in that it is a segment about hard travels and an expedition sent forth to “beat” Stephens at his own game. It is an essay in human endurance but also a peek at how so many attempts to literally wrest discovery have gone awry.

The book is also about the Maya themselves, the civilization they created, and how it flourished. Their tale is also one of caution in that the forces to which it eventually succumbed are similar to the forces that have harried all civilizations throughout history. Those forces…overpopulation, war, disease, cultural hubris, environmental degradation…are multi-layered and complex. Places such as Copán, Quirigua, Iximche, Tonina, Pelenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum stand in mute testimony to the strength, vision, beauty, dedication and tradition of one civilization’s powerful saga.

Stephens wrote up his adventures in a book titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and YucatánLike so many of his previous works it was a major bestseller. Richly illustrated by Catherwood it inspired others to study Mesoamerica. In the late 1840s a Central American official, Colonel Modesto Méndez ventured deep into the forest and discovered the giant temples of Tikal. Méndez made the first official recordings in his report on Tikal. Later explorers followed decades later and these expeditions utilized photography to capture the wonders of the lost cities.

Stephens and Catherwood made two expeditions to the lands of the Maya. Afterward the necessities of life made them follow more practical paths. Stephens became an advisor and later president of a consortium that built the first railway across the isthmus of Panama. Catherwood continued as an illustrator but with a family to support in London he often reinvented himself as a railway engineer or later, during the California gold rush, as a miner. The two men remained friends and Carlsen’s detective work leads to a poignant epilogue that is as fascinating as the rest of the book.

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen is an excellent work and one I would highly recommend. It can be found in hard cover from William Morrow/Harper-Collins Publishers. It is 461 pages and includes many fine illustrations by Frederick Catherwood.

 

(Note on photo: a view of the southern facade of Temple 11 from the East Court of Copan..this is one of the first sites Catherwood and Stephens visited during their 1839 expedition to Guatemala). source: Wikipedia Commons

 

 

 

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.