Silent she stands. Calibrated colossus of hardware, and human dreams.
Giant javelin, eyeing the heavens. Hungry,
Intestines of unfathomable complexity.
A million sets of eyes scan the horizon,
And await the unfurling of your phoenix wings.
Ignition sequence. Rocket fuel erupts.
Boiling, roiling, churning, burning.
Billowing volcano blasts your base.
Firebird fury, roaring, rumbling,
Wrests your bulk from gravity grip,
Ready to give her the slip.
See earth-bound monster metamorphose within minutes
To vanishing blue arrow, with pearl drop tail.
Tiny capsule, catapulted heavenwards
Slips terra firma’s gas ring blue.
Suddenly weightless, untethered.
Tracing orbital arc at vast, vacuum velocity,
Realm of unfathomable peril, and intoxicating possibility.
Slingshot from earth and burn for the moon,
Seven miles a second – you barely register.
Silent line, unspooling in space. Alone, no rival to race.
Moon – a monstrous void engulfs you, yawning blackness blots out the sun.
Back of neck bristles. It swallows you, nowhere to run.
Then, above lunar grey horizon
Blue white swirl, a painted jewel, slips silent into view,
Like a favourite marble. Planetary bird of paradise.
How can a rock so battered across aeons
Appear so like a gift – the heart to lift?
It’s not every day you see a film that provokes awe, deep thoughts and expansive emotions – but ‘Apollo 11’ is certainly one. Immense power, mind-boggling speeds and stunning views of heavenly bodies: this documentary released to accompany the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, portrays and amplifies dimensions of science, technology and the universe that we rarely see and absorb. Could it also possibly point some people to God?
From the opening images of the Saturn 5 being inched into position by an enormous ‘caterpillar’ device (men in hard hats walking like ants beside it), to the furnace roar of launch, the electrifying sight of a fire-spewing rocket shooting heavenwards, all the way to re-entry… this is a film that seizes you by the lapels and strikes you hard in the psychological solar plexus. Especially in IMAX.
Nearly half a million minds were focussed in the course of a decade to planning, calculating, designing and perfecting how to get three men to the moon and back (and two of them onto its surface) – alive. An astonishing collective technical and scientific achievement. In light of the feat this film pulls off in wowing us afresh with its wonder, it was ironic to learn in the BBC4 series ‘Chasing the Moon’ how quickly people became blasé about the Apollo moon programme, which ended just three years later. The thrill of the new soon wore off. But it is the power of art (and IMAX cinema technology!) to imbue the familiar with fresh wonder – which this film does in spades.
The question I’m intrigued by is, what if any role can the awe triggered by such a film play, in inspiring viewers to ponder broader, deeper questions about life, meaning and spirituality?
Power, speed, beauty and new perspectives – especially on a cosmic scale – shake up our usual perceptions, and may even encourage us to jettison jaded ideas, and ponder fresh possibilities and truths. They present, in short, an opportunity for revelation. Take for instance the electrifying images of burning fuel, and the enormous thrust that propelled the Saturn 5 into space. Or the thrilling corner-of-the-screen digital display that revealed the rocketing orbital velocity, touching nearly twenty-five thousand miles per hour (seven miles per second), as it ‘burned for the moon’ and escaped earth’s embrace (it reminded me of a petrol counter when you fill up your motor – which I’ll never look at the same way again).
All achieved through human mastery of resources. But reflect a little deeper. Fossil fuels, and the vacuum of space beyond our wafer-thin atmosphere, that enable such feats and our wonder at them – we didn’t create these. You might say they are ‘gifted’ to us. We radically depend on such laws, forces and features of nature. Feeling – as film enables – the power released by nature when channeled by human ingenuity in this way, sends our spirits soaring. The film also highlights, amplifies and brings into focus aspects of beauty in space, such as the ‘magnificent desolation’ of the moon, and the blue and white brushed ‘marble’ of the ‘earthrise’ image. Such beauties have a latent capacity to act as signs pointing to eternal power. Does that fragile ‘oasis’ impression of the earth not also speak of a sustaining tenderness and care?
Natural wonders communicate an eloquence of their own. The ‘wow’ factor they induce can momentarily disarm, offering the heart a chance to perhaps contemplate a fresh journey of its own. Nature can only take you so far. If the mystery at the heart of all things is to be known more fully to us finite creatures, we need revelation, and an encounter. But the sceptical viewer of ‘Apollo 11’ has a chance to allow awe to burn away the earth-bound mist of prejudice and preconception. It can send the fragile spacecraft of your spirit beyond its habitual orbit to ponder fresh vistas. Those who seek to communicate about God and spiritual things are also challenged to fire up our imaginations, blast off from the constricting atmosphere of trite religious language – and embark on the voyage of finding fresh ways to communicate the power of nature’s signs as pointers to a Creator. Then, reflecting the poetry of the astronaut’s reading of Genesis chapter 1 at earthrise on the earlier Apollo 8 mission, lowered defences may for some permit a revelation from beyond.
Softly falling snow in a fir forest; a faun juggling wrapped presents in the warm pool of light cast by an old gas lamp. Or more contemporary and real: TV nature documentary footage of an achingly beautiful Arctic landscape, subtle colours playing across it… while, caught in the low sunlight, steam rises from the nostrils of a magnificent polar bear, shaggy behemoth of the north. While at the south pole, a dinner-suited penguin waddles comically across the ice before diving with torpedo speed into frigid seas…
These might seem strange scenes to picture in summertime, with a heatwave and the hottest UK day on record not yet distant memories. And what have they to do with a campaign to reduce flying? Put simply, for me they encapsulate something of the power that snow and ice exert on our imagination; and consequently underline one of the most tangible tragedies – massive loss of ice – that’s triggered by a warming world exacerbated by excessive flying. It makes me sad to contemplate the shrinkage and emaciation of our ice landscapes: the Arctic, Antarctic, Greenland and Himalayan glaciers to name the most prominent. The accelerating loss of these magical worlds, robs us of one of our richest imaginative resources – and we’ll be inestimably the poorer for it. I may never personally see the aurora borealis or venture north of the Arctic Circle… but I feel glad just to know that such stark, alien landscapes are there in all their (relatively) pristine beauty – and equally saddened to ponder their demise.
I also feel that a certain paucity of imagination is partly what impels us to fly as much as we do. To frame it positively, a revival of this wonderful human gift – imagination – could be a key that inspires us to explore and relish scenes and places closer to home. Perhaps we need to rediscover and rekindle our capacity for wonder – and contentment. What makes us hanker so much to see faraway places, often to the neglect of nearer but equally marvellous environs? I wonder if in the developing world we have not developed a certain greed and rapaciousness of the mind and spirit, and a concomitant loss of sensitivity – and patience.
For it is a marvellous thing to be alert and appreciative to beauties and points of fascination that lie close to home, often just under our noses. I currently live in north Bradford, in the quaintly named district of Idle. I have no car. But I’m blessed to live near some attractive countryside on the edge of this underrated city. On many a Sunday afternoon, without forking out so much as a bus fare, I’ve simply taken a wander, along the River Aire, Leeds Liverpool canal, or to the homely, peaceful, secluded village of Esholt. Had an adventure.
I’ve heard friends talk about catching a flight to a European or other southern destination to catch some rays and top up their vitamin D. The irony is that with rising temperatures partly caused by too much flying, we’re getting more such benefits in Blighty! So maybe it’s time to soak up more rays here instead.
On the theme of contentment, it’s an oft-remarked fact that as a society and culture we’re ‘losing our religion’ – though many are happy to identify as being ‘spiritual’. I won’t be shy of saying that I identify broadly with the Christian path, which I’d add is at its heart more radical than it’s often given credit for. And besides a care for creation (environment) ethic, I’d go so far as to say that the ‘perspective of eternity’ dimension also impacts my attitude to travel. Bucket lists of fifty or a hundred things to do before you die are all well and good, but here’s a question to ponder: how far is your determination to tick off everything, driven by a conviction that this life is it and you’d therefore better pack in as much as possible! With all the flying some of those items may entail? A left field thought I grant you – but hopefully not a totally bizarre one.
Imagination, and the nurture of contentment, patience and perceptivity to the wonder of ordinary places and things. Spiritual qualities you might say. I wouldn’t give them up, even for a world of flying.
Three men atop a rocket-fuelled colossus, Saturn Five,
A decade’s work, half million minds behind it all – a hive
Of scientific brilliance, to this pivot point arrive,
To get this trio of brave souls, to the moon and back, alive.
A hundred thousand gallons of rocket fuel combust,
A calibrated cauldron, mind-melting upward thrust,
Those half a million minds now in precision tuning trust,
For three there’s no way back now, it’s to the moon, or bust.
A quarter of a million miles, the odds don’t easily stack,
The jangling nerves of half the world will soon be on the rack,
To achieve it, NASA’s plans cannot afford a single crack,
To get three men out to the moon – and then to get them back.
Approaching lunar surface, low, and skirting crater deep,
Two astronauts land flimsy craft, while millions watch, or sleep,
Of famous lines, Neil Armstrong uttered one we’re sure to keep,
That one small step for man, for mankind’s a giant leap.
Of reveries in space though, there are deeper yet to plumb,
One astronaut discovered that all things on earth, the sum
Of everything that has been, and now is, and is to come,
This globe, the span of human life, could sit behind his thumb.
A moment of profundity for humans (prone to preen),
Questions like our place in things (that life will tend to screen),
A reminder that a part of us will always probe, and lean
To ask, from such perspective, what do our frail lives mean?
Such magic God-like viewpoint inclines my thoughts to soar,
And after ‘moon at fifty’ fades out from the media roar,
That photo of a fragile earth will still have power to awe,
Prompt thoughts: are we alone, is this it, or is there something more?
And though I’ll surely never in a lunar trip take part,
Connect direct with the wizardry and wonder of space art,
I may yet be inspired to take small baby steps, a start,
To better grasp that other journey – of the human heart.
For the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
I don’t much like ‘religion’; even a hint, a smidgeon,
Don’t push it down my throat, it really gets my goat!
I can cope with Christmas and Easter, twice a year from the religion barista.
I like Jesus’ birthday – much more, I say “no way”,
The idea he rose from the dead? Messes with my head.
I just don’t entirely rate this extraordinary belief, even if the best I’ve got is ‘turn over a new leaf’.
So it’s maybe not surprising that after Jesus’ rising, the next event to follow feels a bit hard to swallow,
And before you do a search, I’ll tell you: birthday of the church.
Pentecost, Holy Spirit, strong wind and flame – well it’s not tame,
Hurricane and tongues of fire. Hmm, could that change the game?
Can I really assume it’s a tale of magic – mind over matter, Derren Brown… Be tragic!
So is it wise to embrace the surprise, this something wild, untamed?
Come fresh just like a child? I know things won’t just stay the same.
Mountainous energy in each monstrous wave, who from your grasp will the stricken surfer save?
A full seven tenths of the planet you cloak, the oxygen you breathe helps us not to choke,
Habitat of dolphins, hunting ground of whales, corridor for tankers, playground of sails,
In your inky depths, nightmare denizens lurk, where no sun can reach, self-lighting will work.
Your depths teem with sharks, and lobsters and tuna – I’d think of more creatures if I’d started this sooner,
We bury toes in the sand and paddle in your surf, you have many a great work of art brought to birth,
Turner – inspired by your tempestuous ways, and that brick ‘Moby Dick’ kept me happy for days.
The moon’s pull on you round the spinning earth glides, orchestrates intricate patterns of tides,
And though I live far from your surf-lapping shores, I connect to the urge to protect what is yours,
Determined to help solve a problem as drastic, as the rate that we clog your fine lungs with plastic.
Wide and immense, long and deep your embrace;
No wonder, like thunder, you show God’s love and face.
Eighteen? I was at uni, teeing up for a degree.
Psychologically at sea. Nervous creature. Did fun feature?
Sometimes. And over-analysis. And fighting paralysis…
But not literally at sea, wading through mud, clinging to a bud.
What good there a ‘follow your dream’ line? Loses shine
Against machine gun mayhem and onset of oblivion.
Shivering with mates. No longer safe civilian.
Options narrowed to frantic fight – or frantic flight.
Extreme straits alchemised the best in those boys, No distractions or toys.
2019: we hang on words from the queen,
Our lives not so lean, we’re more prone to preen,
Yet we too face foes, more shapeless, less clear,
But worth we took a look underneath the veneer,
Indifference, complacency. Compassion? Still a vacancy,
In face of conflict and pain, climate crisis, grim train
Of events and laments that won’t disappear.
So why don’t I fight, while alive, while I’m here,
Take inspiration from the ‘no to self’ vocation,
Of Christ on the cross, of self-sacrifice the boss.
Plunge into the fray. And hold tight the sorrow.
Just as for our tomorrow – they gave their today.
I wonder, is there a solution – to toxic air pollution?
What’s your take, does it faze you, shock or amaze you?
Fond illusions shatter? – to ponder particulate matter?
These gases afflict masses, in town and city – more’s the pity.
Dioxides – carbon, sulphur, bit by bit our clean air pilpher,
It’s deadly, this medley of pollutants we inhale,
Nine tenths of us breathe bad air – definite fail.
I feel aversion. We need a conversion, in our thinking,
Not blinking. A different kind of travel – to see the toxic knot unravel.
Train and bike and walking, smell the flowers and get talking
To other commuters, fellow non-polluters.
And morning, noon and night, think about energy and light,
Ask yourself this hour, “Am I wise with heat and power?”,
Cos craving oil and coal drives a whopping hole
In all our green ambitions – those profligate emissions.
We’ve each got a stake, so don’t quake, but start to care,
For the earth, the seas, and clean air.
If it seems remote – think of your own lungs and throat,
Fossil fuels belong in the ground – life’s better then all round.
Let’s love the power supplied by sun and wind and tide,
Change the rule book, on which our power is based,
Wake up. Protect and save. Stop our scandalous waste.
(For World Environment Day 5th June and Clean Air Day 20th June)
Miniature motor, mellifluous drone, as I doze in my deckchair knowing I’m not alone,
On a bee-balmy indolent May afternoon, it comforts me to know you’re going nowhere too soon,
Contented customer, shopping bags in your legs, spot a pot plant, inspect her, drain nectar to its dregs,
Consummate connoisseur of each genus of flower, exquisite vector of nectar-collecting power.
Benign and benevolent – though you once seemed malevolent – As a child, a bit wild, you were painfully relevant,
It properly knocked me you could do such a thing – you shocked me and mocked me with the stab of that sting,
And it took quite some time for my view of you to mend, to see you not as a purveyor of crime – but a friend,
So now as you mosey from flower pot to plant, you seem more like a miniature uncle or aunt,
Not a demon demented, spitfire from the skies, but companion contented, humble and wise,
You murmur and grumble as you amble not stumble, I’ve long learned to love you Mr Bee-busy Bumble,
With your somnolent drone and your striped dapper coat, but I’m worried, I am – what will keep you afloat.
Bumble bee I’m amazed at your qualities and skills, I can’t do what you do, even on pills,
Your exceptional mysterious powers of navigation, are up there with our feathered friends skills at migration,
You emit subtle chemicals, can’t be overlooked – a hornet can find itself surrounded and cooked,
We’d be wowed to see you guys in a crowd – you can dance! Though we don’t understand what it feels like, maybe trance?
You perform all these feats through your instincts sublime, To understand you’s a treat, to ignore you’s a crime,
And we are like Spidey, with power and responsibility, to defend and protect your amazing ability…
One way to make hay and your plight less alarming, is not stew but review the whole way we do farming,
Not think “it’s hopeless” and be passive and pensive, but find ways to use less sprays, make the gig less intensive,
And learn from the bee, cos it’s humble and lowly, reminds us of patience, to wait, go more slowly,
Not be so in thrall to production of food, nor be quite so helplessly to bad habits glued,
Make space for more orchards and meadows and flowers, create hope, give bees scope for their ingenious powers.
And solid-set or runny, face it, lots of us like honey; so don’t be typical, choose ethical, don’t keep it hypothetical,
It’s consumer spending – and it could soon be trending.
And show some propriety, pick a home grown variety, in this way we can all help preserve bee society,
Cos as far as I see the best thing for the bee is we treat it just like we’d treat you or treat me,
For the swarm in the hive helps to keep us alive – and here is the rub, a full third of our grub,
Depends on our friends and their sweet pollination, remember that if they cause you any grief or frustration.
Well my poem is done, been a whole lot of fun, I could talk bees all day but I’d best get some sun,
So let’s do our part – keep them close to our heart, Help them prosper, live long, and grow numerous and strong.
Cos a happy bee’s a happy me, and I think we’ll agree, there’s nothing quite like scones and honey for tea.
I was surfing the web – seeking stress release,
I saw it’s the ‘International Day of Living Together in Peace’.
What a brilliant idea I thought, exactly what we need,
In a world often blighted by violence and greed;
But then I realise a bit queasily this prize ain’t won easily,
And often when we talk about peace, we do it cheesily,
Make it vague, a kind of plague of platitude and trope,
Is there a better way to say – and chase peace with zeal and hope?
I think it starts with each of us, maybe a simple action,
A smile, a kind word, seems absurd – but could gain traction,
It helps overall, to start small, with family, friend,
Your first step might be just not to send them round the bend!
Once you start, find your heart moving in the right direction,
Start to show it, before you know it, it spreads just like convection,
So give a cheer, a listening ear, pursue mutual understanding,
Not the rant you might plant on your flatmate on the landing.
The whole thrust is mutual trust building bridges and community,
Erecting barriers against hate, a kind of ‘heart immunity’,
And I really hope today, no matter what’s the weather,
Will be a day we all learn how to live in peace together.
I used to cling onto my interests,
I’d fight with my might to defend,
Then I learned to let go, and it’s clear now, I know
It’s the way to turn enemy to friend.
You oppressors, the captives release,
You warmongers, your violence cease,
And find a fresh way this International Day
Of Living Together in Peace.