Wisdom begins in wonder. ~ Socrates
The idea that the Earth is alive is at the outer bounds of scientific credibility.
[A colleague said] anything alive deserves a name – what better for a living planet
than Gaia, the name the Greeks used for the Earth Goddess?
~ James Lovelock in The Ages of Gaia, 1979.
I remember seeing the earth as a whole for the first time because of the photo of taken by an Apollo 8 astronaut on December 24, 1968: Earthrise from the Moon. What a gift! Somehow, I knew that for many of us, such a moment and a single photo would shift everything about what it means to be human. We saw that little blue marble we call home in the blackness of space.
James Lovelock introduced the Gaia Hypothesis in the late 1960s when he worked at NASA, putting forth the idea that the earth is a complex, self-regulating, and whole system; a living being. The idea of the earth as an integrated whole, a living being, has a long tradition in many cultures but somehow that understanding mostly got lost along the way in my culture’s worldview. And thus, it had gotten lost in my worldview as well. I love nature and spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence in the woods. I knew nature was alive but I saw it as separate from an inanimate earth. (Seems bizarre now.) That was true until, as a young adult, I had the privilege of being among the first generation of humans to view Earth from the moon.
Seeing the Earth from space helped us re-awaken to the miracle of life on Earth. In The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution author Frank White interviews many of the early astronauts about their experiences. He quotes Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart: The Earth “is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you – all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.“
Between 1971 and 1973, physician and poet Lewis Thomas wrote a series of essays entitled The Lives of a Cell. In one of his essays he wrote: “Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.”
All of this, and more, happened between 1968 and 1973. It was a powerful moment in time half a century ago.
From the AWE Kaleidoscope Lens by Barbara Shipka, 2016.
2021 Note: Today many of us have re-awakened to the point that we take it for granted that the earth is alive. And we have come to see Her and Ourselves as an Integrated Whole and Alive System. We have actively turned the lead of an inanimate earth into the gold of a living earth. And, simultaneously, as She seeks homeostasis for her health, we more and more see the consequences and effects of what we call ‘climate change.’ Climate change reinforces both Her aliveness and the fragility of the only Home we have.