By Barbara Kaufmann
I’ll always remember when I saw the whole of my first mother’s face; it was December of 1972. Officially she was called #AS17-148-22727 but NASA nicknamed her “Blue Marble.” Photographed about five hours out and 28,000 miles away during Apollo 17, the last of NASA’s lunar missions, we received the first full frontal photo of our first mother—the Earth.
Her elegant and elegiac beauty caused an involuntary sucking-in of breath; her magnificence equaled only by her extreme loneliness. She was the only one of her kind—a finite and gorgeous island set against the black backdrop and terrifying never-ending-ness of space.
We had seen a previous picture called “Earthrise,” a portrait of the earth rising beyond the horizon of the dead and gray surface of the moon, but it hadn’t inspired exactly that same awe. The Blue Marble looked dynamic, organized, as if a whole system imbued with intelligence and balance conspired to operate in concert as an intricately connected dynamic and complex organism, as well… a living being.
Around that same time I learned of Gaia, the Greek primordial female deity that represents earth and her intelligence. And then the Egyptian goddess Nut, who spans her body into an arc that forms the heavens overarching the earth below as she daily swallows the sun only to rebirth it the next morning. Earth has been portrayed through time not just as a living entity, but a female mother and deity.
Photograph #A517-148-22727 was mesmerizing; it pulled me in to its depths. ‘Here is,’ I thought, ‘a portrait of our first Mother—the Madonna who birthed us all.’ I remember a chill running through me, that same chill I feel when I know I am witnessing a significant moment in history or some iconic effigy or pulse in the scheme of evolution. ‘This is an iconic moment,’ I acknowledged, ‘with an iconic image.’ Such were the chills of the first glimpse of our magnificent planet, our life supporting companion. I remember the feeling that accompanied that moment too; it was similar to the moment I realized the computer and the Internet gave us the ability to communicate with the whole earth. It was as if I was looking at the birth of a new spiritual icon that would live in the lexicon of human imagination, forever changed from this moment forward. At the same time, the cross upon which man might crucify his savior, his fellow man, and himself, the crucible of his imagination, had just magnified immensely; it was suddenly—global. The in-breath and the dissemination of this one realization was urgent.
It was as if the potential for destruction of the whole planet with the irresponsible use of nuclear weapons, that only lived in imagination before was suddenly real. It was instantly much more insane and unthinkable and learning to collectively behave responsibly was more urgent than ever experienced before.
I became ever more fascinated with that iconic image and it haunted me. An artist and writer, I began to try to reproduce that moment of revelation in a variety of forms—a painting that now hangs at the Christine Center for Mediation called “Vision of the Madonna;” a sculpture called “Gaia” that was poured into a mold for reproduction in ceramic, often purchased to be given as an award to those recognized for their contributions to humanity and the Earth; a novelty patterned after the pop culture “Pet Rock”—a “Pet Planet” that comes with care and feeding instructions; a book of poetry. In two dimensional and three dimensional media I tried to convey the awe and implied stewardship.
After almost twenty en years of membership and holding office in Sister Cities, the partnership with Russians culminated in securing the funding and building the infrastructure for the construction of a chemical weapons decommissioning facility in our sister city region and a trip to “the turf of the enemy.” Never before was it quite so clear that instead of turf wars, we must recognize that we are one. One humanity, one race, one people.
We are a teeming mass, a complex and interdependent web of beings living on an even more complex being—and a finite one. Swapping stories with my “enemy” brought home the message of that first glimpse and one iconic image of the “Blue Marble.” There were no borders in the photograph of the real earth, no man-made divisions, but suddenly there were edges. Beyond the edges of this fragile sphere called earth where there is life, in the vast darkness of space, there is—death. We are here together on this island with nothingness all around us, hurling through nothingness at the speed of around 70,000 miles per hour—equivalent to covering the distance from San Francisco to New York in about 3 minutes. We speed toward nothingness but we are not “nothing.” Nor are we nothings. We are unique in all the known Universe.
Just as a human body is made up of separate parts that somehow know intelligently how to work together in precise synchronous time with perfect motion to cooperatively form a whole living system, so the Gaia Hypothesis of earth examines how intricately and delicate is the balance of our Mother Earth’s life giving ecosystem. Just the right amount of sunlight, the perfect mix of oxygen, the correct ratio of salt, the exact temperature range that perfectly supports human life, it’s as if she knows what to provide for us to support life. It just doesn’t seem random. It seems purposeful—as if a dynamic ecosystem specially designed to protect and perpetuate life—human life. The design is not just deserving of simple drop-to-your-knees awe, but of a delicate kind of respect and gratitude, a reverence that comes close, if not actually, holy.
Robert Koehler, columnist for the Chicago Tribune recently wrote about biblical scripture and the word “dominion” as used in Genesis, particularly verse 26. Koehler cites that there are clergy and other modern thinkers who believe the word “dominion” over the earth, to actually mean “stewardship.”
Later in Genesis it says something about “subduing the earth,” and those two phrases taken together and literally, without context might be used to justify unrestrained pillaging, but I doubt that’s wise. That also makes the “bestowed” dominion temporary. Genesis also says that humans are made “in our image” and while they’ve never been able to understand who the “we” is, I don’t think if we’re made in the image of God, any god, that it means it’s OK to rape and pillage—whether the earth is viewed as dynamic or living, or not.
In fact, I seem to recall that humans were kicked out of the garden for not tending to it properly or following the holy instructions. The garden has gotten much bigger since then. And if humankind was actually born from the earth as the narrative goes, then as our first mother, you think we might be more respectful of our Earth.
And as respectful children, we might at least acknowledge her, honor her; we might even try to find a way to pay homage by repaying her for the kindness and generosity. For, even before our own human mothers gave us life, Earth did.