Just a rock…?

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

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