‘Cultivating the Barren Planet’ by Amy Brown

  • For the last year or so, I have been drawn to news items such as:

    The Country Fire Authority implores residents in rural areas to make Fire Plans so that when it becomes imperative to leave their homes the temptation to stay may be over-ruled by a rational list of instructions.

    Asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters are being stripped of their personal effects — hearing aids, spectacles, prosthetic limbs and medication — on arrival at detention centres.

    Hundreds of Mars One applicants are hoping to participate in a small Dutch not-for-profit organisation’s plan to send four civilians on a one-way mission to Mars in 2026.

    These stories have struck me, I believe, because I’ve been interpreting them as extreme extensions of my own expatriate situation. In 2014, I applied for permanent residency in Australia, married an Australian, and so began legally relinquishing New Zealand as my home. My country of birth was not being consumed by fire tornadoes or bombed to pieces; I was not fleeing anything. Nor was I choosing to fly for seven months to a planet whose atmosphere could not support my life. However, these news stories gave me a new, oblique angle from which to question when and why I felt ‘at home’ in Australia, how that affected my connection to New Zealand, and, generally, what it means to belong to a place.

    I hope to explore these questions in a long poem, so far titled Our Effects. This grant has allowed me to research the component of the poem about which I knew least, and which intrigued me most. I have spent the last few months reading on space travel and Martian colonisation: both non-fictional accounts of current planned missions, and science fiction speculating on futuristic interplanetary migration. Primarily interested in the psychological motivation for leaving one’s ‘natural’ habitat, I tried to choose texts that addressed the question of ‘why’, rather than the scientific limitations and political repercussions of ‘how’. Though, the two are difficult to separate; for instance, it’s impossible to consider the psychology of a one-way mission to Mars applicant until learning something about the feasibility of the mission.

    For two months, the pile of books at my bedside was red. I began with Ray Bradbury’s classic, The Martian Chronicles (1948). More fairy-tale than sci-fi, Bradbury’s interlinked short stories, set between 1999 and 2026, depict Mars as a lush, civilised planet. Human colonists flee Earth’s failings (racism, atomic warfare, morality police) to find a planet resembling a heavenly version of the U.S. Midwest and inevitably perpetuate the conflicts and disasters of their previous home. The native Martian population is eventually exterminated. The only fearful Martians remaining are humans themselves; a father and two sons examining their reflections in the rippling water of an improbable Martian canal. ‘Mars,’ Bradbury said, ‘is a mirror, not a crystal’ (quoted by Crossley, 2011: 7). It is also ‘a landscape of longing’ (Rabkin, 2011: 95).

    While the specific longings imposed on Mars alter according to our historical context and scientific understanding of the planet, the general theme appears to be longing for survival and extended human life. Elmo Keep, in her brilliant interview with Mars One applicant, Josh, concludes that ‘Building a colonial outpost on Mars is a quest for immortality . . . to stave off the inevitable death of our species.’ In an interview with Ross Andersen for Aeon, billionaire inventor and CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, explained his plan to establish a city-like colony on Mars by 2040 in similar terms:

    I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi- planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen . . . I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.

    Early twentieth century science fiction treated Mars as a habitable alternative to Earth, the main conflict to colonisation being intelligent Martian life. This assumption was due to Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s telescopic observations of Mars in 1877; he reported seeing oceans, continents and canali, channels. Canali was mistranslated in English as ‘canal’, which suggested not only water on Mars, but infrastructure created by intelligent life. This notion was propagated by American Percival Lowell, who has since been deemed one of the first (inadvertent) Martian science fiction writers.

    Strangely, in 1610, German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s perception of interplanetary migration was more consistent with our contemporary understanding. In a letter to Galileo, he wrote, ‘Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies’ (quoted in Koestler, 1959). The ‘empty wastes’ of Mars were confirmed in 1971 when NASA’s Mariner program managed to launch a probe, Mariner 9, into Mars’ orbit; there it was able to photograph Mars’ surface and analyse its atmosphere. Five years later, Viking 1 made the first successful landing on Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the seminal ‘Mars Trilogy’ (1993–1999), declared that with the Mariner and Viking programs ‘we got the planet handed to us as if on a platter. No longer was it a little orange dot on which we could project our national fantasies . . . it was real, and also now revealed in tremendous detail’ (Robinson, 2011: 149). The details revealed a barren planet:


    ‘First “clear” image ever transmitted from the surface of Mars – shows rocks near the Viking 1 Lander (July 20, 1976).’


    No seas, continents, channels or canals. Ostensibly no life. Little weather, besides wind. Dust so fine that it would be easily inhaled, containing chlorates, which shut down the thyroid gland. Temperatures fluctuating between -17 degrees celsius and -107. Little oxygen. Dangerous levels of radiation. An atmospheric pressure about 0.6 of Earth’s mean sea level pressure, in which an unprotected human body’s saliva, tears, and blood would boil.

    While most organisms could not consider such conditions ‘home’, there are extremophilic microbes thriving in sub-zero climates on Earth, which may plausibly have Martian cousins. This possibility taints the idea of Mars as a barren tabula rasa on which humans might innocently ‘terraform’ a second Earth. The ethics of manipulating the Martian surface and atmosphere are questioned in Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy’, along with the political ramifications of sending a multinational mission to Mars and establishing the new habitat’s governance.

    In his essay on writing the Mars Trilogy (2011), Robinson quotes from Frederick Turner’s epic poem of the settling of Mars, Genesis (1988): ‘The unwritten poem is the barren planet, and the composition of the poem is its cultivation by living organisms.’ I am yet to read Genesis, having only discovered it a couple of weeks ago, but this line alone excites me, along with the fact that it’s been on NASA’s recommended reading list. Turner proposes another incentive for Martian settlement: the human drive for life, instinct for cultivation and mania for creativity.

    A home is that which supports a life, and requires cultivation. When — out of necessity, curiosity or a desire for creation — we explore beyond our home, it is likely we will inevitably rebuild it elsewhere. Lines from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ (quoted in Lisa Jacobson’s exquisite futuristic verse novel, The Sunlit Zone) come to mind:

    We shall not cease from exploration

    And the end of all our exploring

    Will be to arrive where we started

    And know the place for the first time

    Eliot, T.S., ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets, 1944: 239.

    ‘Survivor’ stories, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian (2014), remind us of the fundamental requirements of a human home, the bare essentials for life. Weir’s protagonist, Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut, botanist and mechanical engineer, is assumed dead and abandoned on Mars by his crewmates. Worryingly, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (famous, for among other feats, performing ‘Space Oddity’ from the International Space Station) has lauded The Martian for its ‘fascinating technical accuracy’. I was reminded of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet as I followed Watney’s ‘log entries’, engrossed in procedural descriptions of his subsistence, celebrating as he successfully rigged up a distillery for boiling his own urine.

    The week after I finished The Martian, there were two consecutive 40-degree days in Melbourne, with an enervating hairdryer wind. Our weatherboard cottage became my ‘Hab’ (Mars Lander Habitat); I monitored blinds and doors, blocking out as much sun as possible, moving pot plants into the narrow stripes of light to allow them to keep photosynthesising, diligently maintaining the ice cube supply. When it was time to go outside, a broad-brimmed sunhat, sunglasses, and light cotton clothing became my version of a pressure suit.

    There is something invigorating about considering (vicariously, at least) only the physical essentials of one’s survival, free from aesthetic, spiritual and moral decisions. Readers have no idea what Mark Watney looks like, other than presuming him to be emaciated by the end of the novel due to a diet of protein pills and frozen potatoes. We learn little about his values other than his urge to live. All the imperatives of Watney’s hero’s journey are physical, rather than abstract or virtual. I wonder whether this ‘pure’ struggle for survival is part of what appeals to applicants to Mars One. The mission’s funding prospects are largely a potential reality television show of which the Aspiring Martians would be stars. Applicants need not be astrophysicists or specialists of any sort; the key selection criteria listed on Mars One’s website are ‘Resiliency, Adaptability, Curiosity, Ability to Trust, Creativity / Resourcefulness’.

    An independent analysis of the feasibility of the Mars One Mission found problems with the plan. For example, were the Martian colony to grow crops sufficient to provide all of the settlement’s food, the Habitat would be poisoned with unsafe levels of oxygen (Do et al, 2014: 25). The analysts’ conservative estimate of the cost of the mission is $4.5billion.

    When asked for his opinion of the Mars One astronauts’ chances, NASA’s David Willson said, ‘They’re going to be living like moles. I don’t think that the people who volunteered really appreciate that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives living in a submarine . . . You would probably end up living like we did in the 18th century. With much simpler equipment, much simpler kitchen tools, much simpler things in all respects. It might be a lot like going back in time’ (Keep, 2014).

    While reading, I’ve been considering a similar analogy, not retrogression through human history, but personal retrogression to conception and birth. The success of conceiving an embryo and the success of a mission to Mars each rely on complex chemical balances and timing. The distance between Mars and Earth is not stable; depending on their respective orbits, the planets could be 54.6 million kilometres apart, or 36 million. The orbits are at their tightest every 26 months — a mission to Mars would have to take place during one of these periods of closeness (the next is in 2018).

    In their spacesuits with umbilical cables, early astronauts resembled foetuses, reliant on artificial regulators to keep their immediate environment habitable. While the suits now include internal regulators and are ‘wireless’, the astronauts who eventually land on Mars would still remind me of neonates. Both are vulnerable and forced to adapt to an utterly new environment after a ‘gestation’ period (seven months’ travelling in the case of the astronaut). For both, the landscape and atmosphere are unfamiliar and there is an apparent absence of political, aesthetic and social history. The world seems blank and fresh, ready for cultivation. Bradbury and Robinson have suggested that the history and culture of a new Martian settlement will come from man’s fictional imaginings about the planet (as well they might). Robinson demonstrates, in Red Mars, the impossibility of a Martian settlement independent from its ‘Terran’ inheritance.

    In Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930), the vastly futuristic ‘Fifth Men’ are watching the moon gradually orbiting closer and closer to Earth, in a situation akin to Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia. To escape Earth’s destruction, the Fifth Men are forced to migrate to Venus (Mars has already been ruled out due to hostile intelligent life). As the migration date approaches,

    Man looked upon his future home with loathing, and on his birthplace with an affection which became passionate. With its blue sky, its incomparable starry nights, its temperate and varied continents, its ample spaces of agriculture, wilderness and parks, its well-known beasts and plants, and all the material fabric of the most enduring of terrestrial civilisations, it seemed to the men and women who were planning flight almost a living thing imploring them not to desert it . . . It was as though a fiend out of some ancient myth had come to life in the modern world, to interfere with the laws of nature for man’s undoing (Stapledon, 1930: 265).

    I feel this intense affection for the familiar while reading Aspiring Martians’ testimonials describing their desire to leave Earth; this desire is deeply unfathomable to me, though I am still endeavouring to understand it. I had a nightmare recently, in which the horizon was weirdly close, the sky a dark butterscotch colour, and my mother was walking away from me down a loose shale slope. I called to her to come back; the wind was picking up and she was already fading behind a fine, dense cloud of ochre dust. I didn’t realise we’d been on Mars until later that morning.

    Two new words I learnt during my reading keep returning to me.

    The first is ‘sessile’: ‘attached directly to a surface; having no stalk, neck, etc’ or ‘sedentary, living fixed to one spot, immobile’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2007). The first settlers on Mars will, I think, be limpet-like, restricted to the shells of their ‘Habs’, movement limited. They will be clinging to the crust of the planet rather than rooted in place, having to cultivate their life gradually using literal and metaphorical seeds from Earth.

    The second, ‘syzygy’, is, in prosody, ‘a combination of two different feet in one measure, a dipody’. In astronomy it is ‘a conjunction or opposition of two celestial objects; either of the points (in space or time) at which these take place, esp. in the case of the moon with the sun (new moon and full moon).’

    As a ‘living organism’ is responsible for the cultivation of the barren planet (Turner’s unwritten poem), the person who stands in the narrow shadow of the solar eclipse must witness the syzygy; the serendipitous accord of the sun’s distance from earth and diameter relative to the moon’s.

    The reading this grant supported has brought into alignment a number of ideas well beyond those I started with: Mars as a second home; Earth as a living thing imploring us not to desert it; the similarities between space migration and birth; the sessility of bare subsistence far from one’s history and culture. The conditions, in the wake of this reading, are ideal for beginning to cultivate my own barren planet, to write my new poem, and for that I am very grateful.


    Amy Brown’s Reading List