I have been positively drooling over the latest high resolution images being returned by Curiosity, each one has seemed more jaw-dropping than the last. But when I saw one particular rock it really leapt out at me, especially when I stitched three frames centred on it into a single mosaic (click to enlarge)…
When that image appeared on my computer it reminded me of an astropoem I wrote about martian rocks, way back in 2006… Bit of a slow news day on Barsoom, so I’ll share it with you here. I hope some of you enjoy it…
Oh god, she sighed, peering
over my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot,
don’t you ever get tired of staring
at those things? They all look the same
to me. They would, I said,
but only in my head; not her fault
her eyes aren’t tuned to the beauty
of Barsoom’s long twilights,
can’t see the love that goes into
each embroidered Navcam panorama
stitched with joy by image mages in their caves.
It’s just the same thing, day
after day, she mused, clearly bemused
and baffled by my eyes’ bright glint
at just a hint of layering in the stone
shown in all its grainy glory on the screen.
Oh no, oh no, it’s not, I said,
but only in my head; not her fault
her heart can’t catch or match the rhythm
of Time’s relentless march across
the gracious face of Mars,
that she doesn’t hear the silence of its sands.
They’re just rocks, she laughed,
but not unkindly, as another ochre outcrop
scrolled to life before our eyes,
drawn by dial-up download line by line;
Time’s diary entries etched on the flat
and fragile faces of its slanted standing stones.
Just rocks? Why can’t you see? I said,
but only in my head; not her fault
she wasn’t taught the tender purity
of a pebble on the beach, can’t trickle
shingle through her fingers without a smile.
Each rock, I cried, but only in my mind,
is a gleaming white, fresh page
in the dusty, strange Great Book of Martian History!
Each boulder a short story, its plot
another puzzle piece revealed;
its characters alive with tales of happier times
when rivers ran like giddy children
and oceans’ edges surged with surf
and frothed with foamy spray.
Look again and see, please! I begged
but she had already turned away.
Let her go, leave her be, sang
my rocks from the screen;
not all look upon us and know that mere stone
is the key to all that Was, Is and Shall Ever Be.
This watery world of rain-soaked trees
and seas of life-soaked green is Home
to her; our dusty plains, not kissed by rain
for a million times a million years could never
make her sigh, or mist her eyes
with tears of wanting like yours do.
Some beauty is reserved by the Universe for only a few…
Which is true, of course;
though many layered, rocks never lie:
when you live a billion years there’s
too much time for false words to return
and haunt you.
But staring at them on the screen,
draped in dust, meteorite-pitted and pelted,
chiselled by chilled winds and scoured
by great glaciers and storms
how I wished she saw them as I do,
saw what I hope to live to see.
Somewhere on Ares is a rock
destined to be The First – the first plucked
from the rusted ground by a trembling gloved
hand and held aloft for all of watching Earth to see
on a billion HD TV screens. It will be seen
wrapped protectively in monkey fingers
made fat and white by Kevlar cocoons.
Billions of souls will leap as, in close-up,
it smiles serenely at its screaming fans
before being bagged and tagged and dropped into
a case marked simply “Sample 001.”
Elsewhere, another stands innocently on
the edge of mighty Marineris, unaware
its destiny is to be the first stone thrown
over the canyon’s crumbling edge, its death dive
watched by grinning “Look at that!!!” explorers,
each agonising ricochet and shattering bounce
filmed in sweet slow-mo for Earth’s audience
to see in prime time, time-delayed glory.
As it cracks and smacks ‘gainst other rocks
on its descent will it shatter to shards, or fall
to the floor in a Roadrunner puff of dust?
In yet another corner of John Carter’s Mars
stands a stone destined for a life of interplanetary crime,
fated to be contraband, picked secretly
from the surface on some innocent EVA and,
while others’ attention is aimed elsewhere,
hidden hastily away, smuggled sunwards
in our sneaky astronaut’s bag or sock to be
revealed years later in the quiet of the family
home and gifted, with love, to a loved one.
Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Husband? Wife?
“This is for you, stolen from Mars. From Mars…”
One other red stone – on its own nothing special
or worthy of a second look – will one day
be selected by some suddenly-inspired martian
and carved, in their spare time, into the first piece
of Native Martian Art. A rover, or rocket, a portrait
of the first man or woman to leave their boot-print
in the dust? Or a dog, or cat or bird, some other monster
plucked from the unlikely myths of misty Earth?
Right now that poor little rock has no idea its destiny
is to stare into a spotlight’s glare, in a far future
imprisoning Museum of Mars…
Other boulders’ future fates are far less glamorous.
Physical, more practical their ends.
Groaning with their weight, even in low-G,
heaving 21st century settlers will lift them
from their ancient resting places and carry them away
in a cruel Highlands Clearance of stone,
devastating once-packed rocky plains, leaving them
barren and bare, using their robbed riches to build
the first factories and farms.
Mere red rock igloos at first, thrown up in haste,
more waste than art, but a declaration of Man’s intent to stay.
Aram Chaos emptied next; its whale-sized blocks
of slumped and shattered sandstone carved
and cut into more manageable slabs,
then piled high at huge construction sites,
Giants’ Bricks prepared for play until one day
imposing Atreiades palaces of red and ochre stone
will roam the heights of Mars’ salmon sky!
Basking in the glow of damson blue dusks and
marmalade dawns their turrets and towers will shine like gold,
all built of stones split, shaped, carved and quarried
from Utopia and Chryse’s plains…
…and each passing century will see such wonders
worshipped with more and more bewildered awe;
pale tourists and architecture addicts from
Old Earth, green Selene and all the settled icy moons
between the Sun and sweeping Pan will swoon
at their first sight of the martians’ Taj Mahal
and poppy-pillared Acropolis standing proud
upon the ruddy face of Mars. As twin moons skate
across the sky how many sighs will greet the Sun’s slow
fall behind tall turrets of Hesperian stone..?
Their building blocks are there, but unaware.
All rocks, I said, but only in my head.
I wish that you could see it.
Why can’t she see that some of those rocks dismissed
so lightly are likely to be loved by the first
giggling children on Mars, the Children Of Mars,
the First True Martians..?
Think about that. Picture laughing little aliens,
long-limbed and milk-skinned, kangaroo-bounding
from rover to rubble pile, slow-mo twirling in mid-
meagre air, landing in puffs of cinnamon dust,
scanning the ground for shards, chips and pieces
of pale flaking outcrops just the right weight
and size to sculpt into castles and Habs –
Or maybe she sees more than I..? Does the grim
gravel scream at her No! Not all we stones
have his fairytale future in store!
Does she see the Dark Truth: when Mars
finally is the Frontier then starry-eyed Settlers,
world-building warriors, women and men,
their beloved children and friends will weaken and
die in that dust, gasping for air, grasping
with terror-clawed hands at their lives as they slip away.
Gathered stones will cover their bodies;
mark their graves on martian Boot Hills.
I prefer to think of The Rock. The One that
will change everything in the history-shaking
moment it is found, lying on the ground
surrounded by myriad others smaller, larger,
heavier, lighter… It will look no different to
our tired astronaut’s eyes – just another stone
dark with dust and rough of edge – yet later,
in the lab, smacked and cracked open with hammer or
carefully incised by laser knife its treasure chest
heart will be revealed: jade-green bands or
spiralling fossil lines? Either: the stuff of Life..!
So no, not just rocks, I said,
but only in my head.
One day she’ll know.
© Stuart Atkinson 2006