One of the numerous highlights of 2017 for me, which also included several monumental family gatherings, was a long-awaited visit to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. After a whirlwind weekend of activity surrounding the wedding ceremony of my youngest daughter, the opportunity to see this historic home, which I had dreamed of since I was a young boy in grammar school, suddenly became available, prompting me to investigate the options for tours on their website, “https://www.monticello.org/
It didn’t take long to decide to take what they called the “Behind the Scenes Tour,” which included, according to the description, a tour “…through the first floor of Monticello and up the narrow staircase to explore the private quarters on the second and third floors, including the iconic Dome Room.” Although it was a bit expensive as museum ticket prices go, I felt like I wanted to see as much as possible, since it might be my only opportunity to take such a tour.
Since photography was prohibited in many of the areas within the home, where I was unable to make my own images, I have notated the sources for the images provided.
Upon arrival, I joined a handful of other enthusiasts along a path in front of the East Front main entrance for a brief introduction to the rules governing what was expected regarding visitor behavior–not touching anything on display, not sitting in any of the chairs except where designated, no photography was permitted in certain areas, and reminders about how challenging the stairs might be for anyone not accustomed to such climbing. Once the introduction was complete, we were led to the main entrance where our guide was waiting to greet us.
After a brief conversation waiting for a previous tour to conclude, we were led into the Grand Entrance Hall, where Jefferson was said to initially greet important visitors to the estate:
The feeling of standing in this enormous and storied hall gave me a clear sense of just how significant this home must have been even to the original visitors in the early 1800’s when Jefferson lived in the home. Many of the artifacts are those which were originally on display at one time or another, and I could feel the anticipation building to see more.
It took a total of forty years to complete what would become the permanent residence for Jefferson in Monticello, and although he took an active role in its construction throughout that time, he had always intended it to be the place where he would live out the remainder of his days, once his public life had concluded. During his tenure as President, from 1801 to 1809, he directed the tasks to complete Monticello from Washington, D.C., and the home itself was mostly completed when he arrived there in 1809.
Standing in the hallway leading up to the library room, preparing to move forward on the tour, I was momentarily overtaken by a keen sense of standing in a place where Jefferson himself surely had stood innumerable times, and looking ahead into that room, I felt myself drifting into an almost hypnotic state, almost expecting to see him turn the corner to greet us. From this point on, at various times throughout the tour, I couldn’t shake the sense of intercepting and sharing momentary flashes of a presence of spirit in several of the areas of the home, pressing me to stay back at times behind the group, in order to linger and absorb this sense of spirit.
During his lifetime, Jefferson had accumulated some 6,000 volumes in his personal library, and our guide reported that after the British burned many of the buildings in the city of Washington during their occupation in 1814, including the Library of Congress, Jefferson donated a large portion of his own personal collection to help America’s Library to recover from that disaster.
© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
Throughout our tour of the upper floors, I continued to be struck periodically by how potent the sense of presence persisted in certain rooms, and the expert commentary provided by our guide, combined with the authentic and thoroughly researched artifacts which were present in each area, only enhanced this sense within me. Once we reached the very top of the house, in what was called the “Dome Room,” we were once again allowed to take photos, and the story surrounding the dome, which was added in 1800, brought us back to earth. Its original purpose was apparently never fully realized, as a kind of gathering place or receiving area for visiting dignitaries, and ended up being mostly used for additional storage according to the records obtained by the foundation.
The payoff came when we were directed to a set of double doors leading out to what should have been the West Front outside terrace, but instead revealed a secret room, apparently taken over by the grandchildren who lived in the house as a kind of getaway from what was very likely a fairly busy household.
Once the main tour had concluded, we were led to an adjoining room across from the Dome Room, where we sat and began a wonderful opportunity to discuss what we had seen, and to ask questions regarding anything we were still curious about. At the prompting of our expert guide, we began an initial conversation about the people who built Monticello, who were referred to in all the literature as “enslaved people.”
Obviously, the implication was controversial as it seemed an attempt to minimize the very difficult fact that slaves were employed in nearly every aspect of both the construction and the maintaining of the plantation. While the existence of slavery was a fact of life in those years leading up to Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence, and while the treatment of those individuals was, by most accounts, much less harsh than it was elsewhere in America at that time, there was no escaping the reality that these individuals were considered property, and that Jefferson struggled broadly with this reality, without taking any concrete steps to change the arrangement.
His relationship with Sally Hemmings, with whom scholars have verified that he fathered six children, didn’t come fully into the light for many years after his death in 1826. Today, we know a great deal more about this side of the Jefferson legacy, and the periodic reunions which take place at Monticello, now include all of the descendants of both Jefferson and Hemmings.
Taking a long walk around the grounds after the main tour permitted some additional views of the quarters for the workers and slaves, the original kitchen, and storage areas common to plantations at that time, but obviously on a grand scale due to the size of the estate, which originally was spread out over 5,000 acres, covering about eight square miles. One of my favorite points of interest was a huge tree along the gardens in the West Front area, which very likely existed when Jefferson walked those paths.
While we know so much more now about this controversial figure from American history, the fascination contained in any study of all of his accomplishments and contradictions seems never to diminish while standing in this architectural marvel or walking on the grounds just as Jefferson no doubt did many times during his tenure at Monticello. When Jefferson died in 1826, he was deep in debt, in today’s equivalent of several million dollars, and everything in the house and the property itself were auctioned off to pay his debtors. For some years afterwards, the house fell into disrepair and was nearly lost to history, but for the efforts of Uriah Levy, a Commodore in the U.S. Navy, who purchased the house and several hundred acres surrounding it in 1834. When Uriah passed away in 1862, the preservation efforts fell to his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy who took over in 1879, who restored many of the features of the home. In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the property from Levy and began years of restoring and purchasing of neighboring property and original artifacts, and has handled the care and preservation of Monticello ever since.
The memory I now carry with me of a sense of the Spirit of Jefferson’s Monticello, may largely be a part of my lifelong interest in stepping through the door, and the realization as a grown man that my childhood dream of standing in that house had finally come to fruition. The experience itself affected me profoundly, while still educating me in the ways which the flawed and very human Jefferson didn’t always keep in step with his words and declarations. The same might be said of any one of us, and while I found these revelations sobering at times, I still experienced a sense of awe as I walked the halls and staircases of Monticello.
As 2017 winds down and 2018 approaches, I would like to extend my personal, heartfelt “Season’s Greetings” to all of my readers and visitors here at John’s Consciousness, and to express my gratitude for the many thoughtful comments and communications from visitors all across the globe. It has been a turbulent and challenging year for many people in all parts of the world, and in spite of what must seem like a particularly daunting year for many of us in the United States and elsewhere, I still feel strongly that with the right emphasis, we can move forward into the future with hope for all of humanity.
Recognizing that there are still many areas in the world where the conditions and circumstances of everyday people are more challenging than my own, as someone who has persistently pursued the topic of the nature of subjective experience, I set myself to the task recently of composing a theatrical scene that would address questions surrounding the sometimes challenging circumstances for individuals, and at the same time, speak to the important matter of the spiritual component that I feel certain belongs in any discussion of human consciousness.
As we gathered this year at our annual family Christmas celebration, preparations were made to perform this scene for what is always the rousing and chaotic audience who is my extended family. As a former student of the theater in my youth, I trained as an actor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and had a fair amount of success in those endeavors. While I ultimately chose to concentrate on English literature in my subsequent studies, I never lost interest in all things theatrical.
I had the great good fortune to be joined in this effort by my beautiful and talented niece, Laura, who graciously agreed to perform the scene with me on very short notice. A recent graduate of the University for the Performing Arts in New York, I felt sure she would enjoy the challenge of performing before such a familiar audience. I sent her the material I had prepared with notes on how we might improvise during the impromptu interactions, along with a basic foundational script to support the performance. I was additionally blessed by the assistance of several family members in arranging for lighting and sound support, and in acquiring props that enhanced the production.
Throughout the preparation phase, I was astonished to find that I began to have many of the same emotions and anxieties as those which always overtook me when performing years ago. It was as though the neural pathways which contained those memories were suddenly lit up…well…like a Christmas tree! Last minute instructions to our hosts for the evening yielded yet another level of cooperation and help that proved invaluable as the lights dimmed and the performance began.
The scene opens with my character, Grandpa, sitting in a wheelchair, talking to himself as he awaits the arrival of his granddaughter. The theme throughout emphasizes how the human spirit can provide a true basis for hope, but also how that same spirit can move us to continue in the face of adversity. It takes place some fifteen years in the future, where my character is in his eighties and partially disabled. He’s doing alright but is becoming increasingly frail, and dependent on his family for his regular care. As the scene unfolds, he secretly contemplates his own mortality, but with the spirit of a hopeful soul. The thoughts that run through his mind are not carefree, but clearly tempered by longevity and a lifetime of loving.
Here is an excerpt from the opening monologue:
“There are so many reasons for me to have hope for the future, however long it might be for me. In spite of the sometimes unceremonious departures from this life of others in the same neighborhood of age as mine, I have seen the brightness of spirit that filled many of the moments of their lives, and I am heartened beyond measure to have shared such a range of wonders with these bright spirits, that it begs the question for me, “What contribution have I made?” and “What might I still contribute in the days that remain?”
“My granddaughter will be here shortly for her annual Christmas visit and I want so much to share with her my appreciation for the joy she brings me throughout the year, but especially at this time in my life, when every morning is a gift, and every effort requires the presence of hope.”
The arrival of his granddaughter for her annual Christmas visit clearly improves his mood, and her bubbling and vivacious demeanor is a most welcome development anytime. Laura’s professional and heartfelt performance gave the scene a certain power and heft that inspired my own performance, and she surprised me several times with her improvised responses.
Laura responded well to my brief story about the sadness I felt being estranged from my only son, and encouraged me well to continue to hope, in spite of his years of total absence from my life.
At one point, caught up in the emotion of the moment, her acceptance of the invitation to perform together with her aging Uncle became a gift in itself, and it felt like it always did when I performed on a public stage.
Here is an excerpt from the closing monologue:
“I don’t know how much time I have left, but I do know who I am on the inside. I know what I feel. I know there are like spirits that surround me. And when I say they surround me, I know they may not be in close proximity. They may be far away or years removed from me, but the spirit knows no boundaries. No matter where they reside, they are still with me…or within me.
When I’m alone, looking back over the years, I can still here the beautiful song of hope that played in my head as a child. It was like a siren song, but I still believed in it. I believed in it because I could sense that it was not a song that would lead to destruction, but one that was calling me to my task. That beautiful voice gave me hope.
Now that I look back on it, I know that it was not just one voice. I know that each time I heard it, I recognized the spirit who dwelled within it. Perhaps, it may have been the voice of my as yet unborn grandchild, or maybe a voice from the future or from an ancient past. But when I heard that voice, I knew that essence.
In unguarded moments, in the silence between words, in moments of quiet contemplation, I know that it is a part of me, telling me to move forward with hope.”
Just as it appears that another Christmas will pass with no word from my son, the knock at the door, which I expected would be from my caretaker daughter, turns out to be from my son, who enters with a familiar greeting that ends the scene, as I gasp, “…My son!”
The whole experience was extraordinary from start to finish, and the rewards were almost entirely spiritual, although the curtain call at the end was also quite wonderful!
May the New Year bring all of humanity an improvement in their circumstances, and to each and every one of my readers and visitors here, many new reasons to look with hope to the future.
Warmest regards…..John H.
November has flown by with a swiftness of a fleeting blink of an eye. The autumn this year was reluctant to begin, with summer-like temperatures holding fairly steady well into October in the Northeast corridor, and the delay in arriving at more seasonal weather seemed to mute the changing colors when they finally began to change in earnest. As I came slowly to consciousness this past Saturday morning, I awoke to the sound of a robust and formidable wind stirring the trees outside my bedroom window. Since I had no urgent events scheduled for the day, I was able to awaken slowly and reflect for a bit before rising.
I sat up for a moment or two once I had gathered my wits and took a few photos as the day began, and then settled back down again to contemplate the day’s beginning and the events of late that accompanied the strangeness of the reluctant autumn taking place all around me. I generally try to capture some seasonal images as the earth alters its course around the sun each year, but this time around, it seems that mother nature had other ideas, and stubbornly withheld the expected changes until just last week.
In the yard next door, my usual view out the window on that side would have displayed this scene a month ago, but only last week came into full blossom with many of the leaves already missing. In just the last few days, most all of the foliage in the trees lining the street was gone. The wind had wreaked havoc on whatever plumage remained and the tree now appears almost totally bare. This experience goes against the traditional one I generally expect at this time of year, and as I lay in bed pondering these changes, I looked back over several extraordinary life events that led up to the strangeness of my early morning awakening.
Beginning in late August, as I traveled to the first of three family gatherings as autumn approached, the sky above me looked so strange and peculiar as I rode astonished at the sight, that I had to capture the event, as though it were an omen of some sort. I couldn’t decide if this sky was ominous or simply extraordinary.
Gliding down the highway in silence, almost mesmerized by the sight of it, it gave me shivers as I held my eye up to viewfinder. What an amazing sight!
Last month brought me once again into the emotional rollercoaster ride as Father of the Bride. As we gathered for the marriage of my youngest daughter in the spectacular landscape of rural Virginia, the anticipated autumnal awesomeness was only barely underway as we prepared for the outdoor ceremony in the afternoon of Saturday, the 21st of October. Driving through the beauty of the sun kissed scenery, my heart already primed for the flood of feelings and memories, I was struck by the contrast with the previous driving experience, and could barely contain myself as I soaked in the spectacle before me.
On the first morning in Virginia before the wedding, I awoke at sunrise in the mountains, and was able to observe the first light while chatting with my daughter who called me on the phone. It was a compelling moment of many that would occur during the trip, but all the more poignant as I was able to share some fatherly advice with a nervous bride.
The view off the deck of the rental house above was taken on October 23rd and offered only a hint of Autumn’s colors, and while the temperatures were mild during the day, it was still chilly in the morning and that helped to remind me that we were indeed experiencing the autumnal transition. The thoughts passing through my mind on that morning turned to one of the most poignant moments that occurred over the weekend, when I first saw my youngest daughter in her wedding dress. I nearly fainted!
With one day available to me after the wedding to relax and look around, I decided to travel to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia to satisfy a lifelong desire to visit Monticello–the home of Thomas Jefferson. Ever since I was a small boy learning American History in school, I had wanted to visit this historical home, and it was another monumental and emotional experience on a weekend full of them. I will be writing a separate blog post about that visit soon, but I wanted to include an image from that day. The visit and tour of the estate will remain as one of the most significant of the many I acquired in any autumn season.
There have been so many moments throughout the season before winter this year that seemed to overwhelm my ability to process them well, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the confluence of each of these events and what the meaning might be for me personally. The perspective of years of memories of past autumns has run the gamut from the most stunningly beautiful to the personally devastating, and all along the way, every variation in between has contributed to the auguries of autumn for me.
It is sometimes said that a person in their sixth decade of life is approaching the “autumn of their years,” but I wonder now just how close the winter might be, and what wonders await me.
As many of my regular readers may recall, back in 2012, my family and I suffered the personal loss of our dear brother, Michael, and at that time, our personal experiences surrounding that loss, and having to endure the profound sadness that accompanied those events, presented us with an unprecedented challenge of finding a path forward that did not include his presence among us. It seemed, in many ways, like an impossible task, and although each of us still struggles to some degree with the memories of the last days of his life, in the intervening five years since then, we have continued to support and love one another, and to honor his memory by celebrating as a family whenever possible.
Over the past few days, as the five year mark has approached, I have spent some time considering the broader view of the significance of life, including lessons from the past, as well as those of our own time, and I hope a brief look at the value of this moment from a different perspective, will be of some small comfort and solace to those who may presently be enduring a similar challenge in their own lives.
Beyond the potent personal memory of the loss which occurred on this day in 2012, this commemoration also provides an opportunity to share what are, perhaps, the even more important aspects of our contemplation, which are, to remember our dear brother with love, and to celebrate the abundant love we all still share, as we constantly seek a new beginning; a way to look ahead to the future with hope.
In preparing to write this blog post, I came across a bible passage from Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the heart of the matter. It’s taken from Chapter one, verses four through eleven:
“One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down…All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full…There is no remembrance of the men of old; nor of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after them.” Ecclesiastes 1:4-11
The world in which these words were written was a very different world than the one we now know. When it was written, which scholars believe was probably about three centuries before Christ, Alexander the Great was moving through Asia and into Europe, and he eventually conquered most of the known world, before succumbing to a fever, at age 32.
By Charles Le Brun – , Public Domain, Alexander’s Arrival in Babylon
While we rightly mourned the loss of our beloved brother at the age of 61, who was known primarily to his extended family, friends, and coworkers, I couldn’t help but ponder, in contrast to the effect of our loss, how much impact the loss of Alexander must have had on the world at large, when one of the most famous human conquerors and world leaders of all human history passed away having barely entered his thirties.
What is now apparent to our modern sensibilities, with the benefit of an historical perspective, is that the precise world that Alexander knew, the empire he established and which endured over many centuries, has now also passed into history. Generations of human beings have been born, have perished, and have been followed by succeeding generations, and yet, the earth remains.
From age to age, the human race has continued, but each one of us, exists only briefly on this earth, like a shadow, quickly skimming across the surface of the planet, with the changing light of day.
Considering the lives of all the previous generations of our family, the world that WE all know, is a reflection of their tireless efforts to promote and preserve the values that we now possess as the inheritors of that legacy. Our family history is replete with examples of steadfast love and support, across all the generations that preceded ours. It has been an unshakable love, which created a robust tradition of faith and family values, all too often absent in the world these days.
But neither the earth, nor the world in which we exist upon it, remain unchanged. Each new generation builds upon the one before, and although we create our individual worlds as we grow, we introduce changes which are sometimes profound, and perhaps sometimes unnoticed, but undeniably, these differences contribute either to the destruction of what came before, or to the construction of the world that is yet to come.
It should give us pause to consider, especially now, as we contemplate the passing of the most recent previous generation of our family, that we must find a reason to be grateful, and to be encouraged, and perhaps, to be a bit more hopeful regarding the prospects that life holds for us, as we make our way into the future. In Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that humans often don’t remember long the people and the lessons of the past, but no matter how many generations come and go, our legacy of love will endure if we nurture it.
Our science tells us that even the earth will eventually succumb to the death of the sun at the center of our solar system, which nourishes our planet currently, but what it is that has been created here on earth, and indeed, throughout the entire universe itself, is the manifestation of the divine source of all things, and that, like the love we now inherit from previous generations, truly does abide forever.
I found myself traveling today along the rural back roads near my home, on my way back from visiting with my children, and I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a pleasant drive through brilliant sunshine and vibrant blue skies, surrounded by farmland and the exquisite greens of a late summer afternoon. My heart has been burdened lately with a host of concerns that have made settling down to write here on my blog a bit problematical, and today it finally seemed like the sun was poking through within me, just enough to gather a few words to share with all of you.
As I traversed the beautiful byways between where I was and where I was going, I decided to insert the soundtrack to the film, “Amadeus,” into the CD player, (yes…some of us still do that…) and the music brought me to a place that nearly always is provocative and contemplative simultaneously–the musical landscape created by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The traffic was light today, so driving down the road alone, taking in such spectacular visual delights as I listened, allowed my mind to wander a bit, and also to connect with the creative human spirit which was Mozart, opening my heart and mind to both the nature and the nurture possible in such circumstances.
The visit with my son included an opportunity to enjoy the play of light and the elements that make up the environment where he lives. Lounging in the old fashioned kitchen was the perfect prelude to the journey through the rural landscape, and before I headed out on the highway, I took a few minutes to capture several images of the magic light which always seems to illuminate the kitchens in our family.
As I turned out of the driveway, I slipped in the Mozart CD and was surprised by the power of the music to fill in the gaps of the silence within me; it seemed to accompany the passing sights perfectly, particularly two choral renditions, one from his opera, “Don Giovanni,” and the Requiem, K626. The performances were nearly hypnotic in their effect, and I thought it a bit synchronous for the music which was created so many years ago, (Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791) to be able to match perfectly this 21st century road trip.
My inner landscape also seemed to match the outer one as the excursion progressed, and I briefly felt completely one with all the elements of my experience, placing those concerns and delights into a temporary state of equilibrium. A recent conversation with a dear friend who encouraged me to continue with my work here, gave me just the push I needed to find a moment to bring it all together and share it with all of you.
The challenges are great for me at present, but I have been journaling and recording ideas for expanding my mission and my vision, even though none of it, so far, has made an appearance here. As I contemplated what I might write about this particular day, it occurred to me that having to endure situations like mine is one of the reasons God sent us Mozart. He was like a brilliant shooting star across the skies of life in the 1700’s, but his music and his genius have endured across the centuries to fill in the gaps of our inner silence, even today…
…more to come…
Hugh in his element…
We don’t often have cause to think very much about what it means to be alive and walking amongst our fellow travelers in this life from day-to-day. Most often, we rise in the morning or whenever our normal day begins, and we normally just set ourselves to the tasks which have become familiar to us as our daily routines unfold. Once in a while, though, sometimes quite unexpectedly, we are thrust into circumstances which make it much more of an immediate topic for contemplation.
Just over a week ago, on April 28th, my dear friend, Hugh, died in his sleep, apparently of heart failure, and it stunned me to think of him as no longer being alive and walking amongst those of us who cherished his friendship. There were no indications of any heart problems in the weeks prior to this unfortunate event, and during our last visit together, just a few weeks prior, we enjoyed a typically lively and animated conversation as we always did, and thankfully, before we parted, we embraced and wished each other well until our next chance to be together. The photo at the top of this posting was taken last summer during a back yard barbeque, when he fell through the fabric in the lawn chair he was sitting in. We all had a good laugh as he struggled a bit at first to get up out of it, and when I lifted my camera to capture the image of the event, he obliged me with what had become his iconic pose for just about every occasion, smiling with his hands up in the air as if to say, “oh well.”
Looking back over our many conversations over the years, it occurred to me that we actually had discussed the topic of how long we both might expect to be around in the future. As was his way, the subject generally was accompanied by some joke at the end of the conversation about the dubious assumption that he would be around much longer to worry about it. He had retired some time ago, and seemed to relish the fact that “…everyday is Saturday now.” He still had lots of stories to tell about his own working days, whenever our chats turned to the jobs we were engaged in, and we had quite a bit in common as it turned out in that way, and we both enjoyed giving the other a related story whenever the subject came up.
On his 73rd birthday last year, we celebrated in the usual fashion, making merry at the local Applebee’s, and on this particular occasion, rather than singing the usual awful cheer that restaurants generally give you, all of the available staff came out and sang the actual Happy Birthday song, much to his delight. He had promised them he would walk out if they did otherwise. He seemed to enjoy the attention anyway, and as many of our visits with him unfolded, there was much laughter and hugging at the end of them. As much as he said he didn’t want a fuss made over him for any reason, once in a while he seemed to really shine when we did. He was funny that way.
Hugh was one of the few people with whom I could carry on a lengthy conversation about philosophy or science or the state of the world, depending on the occasion, and I remember distinctly the day we started talking about my blog here on WordPress.com. He listened patiently as I described the basic premise of the writing, and even seemed intrigued as I retold the story about the circumstances which began my investigations so many years ago. Hugh was no slouch when it came to having a broad grasp of many different subjects since he did a fair amount of reading, and when it came to comprehending the world, he often had insights to offer, and never had any trouble keeping up when complex subjects came up. He always made you feel like your stories were just as interesting as his, although his were often filled with details which astonished me, especially considering that he could recall them so well. I will miss those conversations greatly.
As was his wish, there were no memorial services or typical funeral events of any sort. He had the final say on that, just as he did with a number of considerations which affected him when he walked this earth amongst us. Our memories of him and his stories now must suffice as any conversation starter in his absence, and there are many which no doubt will be heard in the years to come. We will miss him very much, but in the best way possible, his life made ours that much better while he was here, and that is tribute enough, as he would often say.
God Speed, dear friend….
An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA
Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:
I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.
Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:
Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:
The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”
The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.
We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.