Jeremy James takes a fictional flight to the moon and discovers the true majesty of the Earth.
Dr Obruchev (“call me Vladi”), the mission leader, pointed to the plateau. “Go straight up. Don’t turn around,” he said, “or you’ll break the spell.” To look back before you reached the plateau would spoil it: you wouldn’t get the full impact. What’s more, Nature had conveniently placed a flat-topped rock at the back of the plateau, “like a municipal bench”, he said, “put there by some obliging council officer with an elegant sense of duty”. A perfect viewing platform. Besides, there was another thing.
The plateau was about 400 feet up. You could see it clearly from the bottom as you approached. It looked as if it had been deliberately cut from the rock, as did the track up to it. Vladi shook his head: “That too was a freak of Nature. Who could have made it?”
I could hear my feet crunching on the brittle stone as I climbed. My breath seemed loud. Sweat ran down my spine. There wasn’t a single sign of life anywhere, though it didn’t stop me looking. I kept thinking I might see a mountain goat, or a hare or a lizard, but I knew there couldn’t be any. The rock was a mix of basalt and some other igneous composite that had been subjected to enormous temperatures, split and crumbled into these ragged shapes amongst the slabs.
The temptation to turn round all the way up had been strong; I could feel the image rising behind me, could sense its presence composing itself as I ascended, step by gritty step.
The plateau was exactly as Vladi had described: perfectly level, and at the back of it was this convenient municipal rock.
My feet crunched loudly as I crossed the gravelly floor. I stopped at the rock bench, breathed in, closed my eyes, turned around and sat down. I kept my eyes closed and with my hands on my knees allowed myself to calm down. It had not been a hard so much as a steady climb, and my oxygen intake was low.
Vladi had been right about the other thing: once you turned round, the experience was vertiginous. The first time it happened to him he very nearly fell off the plateau. I was careful to sit down, to follow his advice.
As soon as I opened my eyes, I slewed from the stone, dropped forward and landed with a crump on my hands and knees, walloping my head against my visor. It was the most peculiar sensation, as if I had been pulled, and it left me reeling for a good five minutes, lying on my side. Quite why it did that, I do not know. I crawled back onto the rock and this time I looked up slowly, carefully, clinging on.
Views have different effects on us, depending on the place, your mood, your age, the time of day or night, who you’re with. I like being alone. Some views evoke memory, others arouse images from half-remembered dreams. Some make you relax. Others alarm. Some take your breath away. This one nearly took my life.
My heart stopped. I know. I felt it skip a beat and stop. It gave a great thwack and got going again, but not before making me completely light-headed. I thought I’d had a stroke, a blood clot – I’d given my head a hard thump when I fell.
I could see all of Africa. All of it. From the Straits of Gibraltar to the Cape. I could see the Nile. It sparkled suddenly in the sun, just as I was watching, in a flash that ran all the way along its length right to its delta. The Sahara shone like a vast freckled ingot, while beneath, equatorial Africa was ribboned in a living, green mantle. I couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t tear my eyes away. But the seas! The seas, the oceans; the reefs and shallows, atolls, islands and depths described in such a bewildering palette of blue and turquoise that I found myself gasping for breath, again and again.
White-headed mountain ranges pricked the brown like a procession of ancient gods, their feet sequined about with patchworks of greens and yellows, crimsons and purples, all swathed in a toga of nitrogen blue. It was obvious, abundantly obvious, that the whole planet, the world, the Earth itself was alive. It was one vast, living ball suspended magically in an ocean of ether that was also life but of such a different kind that I couldn’t possibly comprehend it.
The blue globe moved, a great living goddess striding resolutely and alone, bearing all her children defiantly through the blackness of space with dignity and purpose, her trailing skirts streaming around her. She was the most exquisite being I could ever have imagined and her whole, magnificent form tumbled slowly, silently across eternity. My eyes filled, throat knotted. I had to look away. I was overcome. Utterly. Overwhelmed.
How anyone could ever wish to do her harm, to do any injustice to her body, to mutilate her face, was an unforgivable crime. She was not to be torn or hacked at, but revered. In that moment I felt, small, absurd, insignificant. I longed to be back there. I did not want to be on the moon. I wanted to be in her arms. I ached for the company of her trees, her rivers and mountains, to gaze upon her family of animals, watch children play, put my hand in a stream. Hear birdsong. Listen to rain. The contrast from where I was sitting and what I had left behind on the Earth made being where I was feel all the more terrible even though I, myself, had chosen it.
Slowly she revolved on her invisible axis. Europe came into sight, and the great white polar cap. I had looked at thousands of photographs but not one of them ever came close to describing the sheer, outright majesty of the world, her aura, her divine beauty, staggering to behold. What a treasure she was, how glorious, unique. How fantastically privileged we were to know, to experience it. How valuable every single thing, how much every fragment of life matters, down to the tiniest mite. There’s nothing else like it. Nothing. No place we can identify with and say, ah yes, that reminds me of...
Take-off and touchdown had been as smooth as any commercial airliner. We got back six weeks ago. The first tourist flight: they took three of us. Sold my house, sold my business, all my shares, cashed every penny of my savings. Just enough to scrape in. The other two paid a lot more, but it got us all up there and helped to fund the new oxygenating plant.
Vladi and his team are growing deep-rooting, drought-resistant legumes under sheets of reinforced plastic, lit and warmed by the sun. Water is precious and nothing is wasted but all the same we learned that the plants are growing well and their exhaled moisture is condensing on the plastic, which is the point. The plan is to bleed oxygen into the atmosphere, enough to colonise lichens and... It’s all beyond me. I hope they succeed. Projects as far-sighted as that might one day take us to the other side of the sun. Maybe there is a paradise there too.
But I’m not leaving the Earth, not again. I looked up into the stars when I stood on the moon. They seemed very close. Very bright. Maybe somewhere out there are other paradises – maybe. But you’ll have to go a very, very long way to match this one, if there is another at all.