That is, trying to make sense of events they didn’t understand and extrapolating from that place of ignorance about a future that they can’t imagine.
And by “they” I mean “me,” of course.
On a recent Sunday, I was walking in my neighborhood and thinking about a new year’s approach as the sun set and the temperature dropped. I considered the possibility that I might freeze to death before rounding the next corner, when I saw the sky erupt in red-orange flame. It was a gorgeous sunset, one that made me stop short and hug myself against the cold wind so I could soak it in.
A moment later, I remembered I could photograph it with my cell phone and carry it with me wherever I went, a sunset frozen in time. In the act of freezing that moment, I recalled Robert Frost’s poem about the ways the world might end. “Fire and Ice.”
The end of the world has been a long time coming, at least according to the seers, prophets and prognosticators that get the most press. In the old days, we had to worry about angry gods fighting their last war here, or wiping the planet clean so they could start over with a more agreeable population of worshipers.
These days, we’re able to do the job ourselves, either from pollution, climate change, nuclear war or engineered viruses. And now that our orbiting telescopes can spot massive asteroids zooming through the celestial neighborhood, we have a whole new set of fears to ponder.
I like to think that we’ve begun taking steps to ensure that this civilization of ours, and the species that created it, will continue. We’ve sent probes beyond the edge of our solar system, and the radio (and later, television) signals created here are now floating a century’s worth of light-years away.
Drops in a bucket, yes, but enough drops will get you a bucket full.
Along that line of thought: One of the films I’m looking forward to in 2014 is “Interstellar,” from director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. Set in modern times, it follows the discovery of a wormhole in space that allows astronauts to travel interstellar distances. As usual with Nolan’s projects, little is being said about it this early on, but the teaser trailer evokes the last century of advancement, from Chuck Yeager to Neil Armstrong — to the retirement of the Space Shuttle program signaling an end to manned space flight.
Having pressed into that unknown frontier, we draw back into our caves to see what the gods might throw at us from on high.
And that reminds me of a statement by one of my favorite writers, Warren Ellis, in an essay for Wired magazine. He wrote that the “single simplest reason why human space flight is necessary is this, stated as plainly as possible: keeping all your breeding pairs in one place is a (stupid) way to run a species.”
On the slightest of provocations, my mind goes a-roving. I see a sky alight with sun-fire on a cold evening and imagine a future in which we never stepped back from the frontier, in which the future is an unending quest to know and to be more.
Some say the world will end in fire. Looking to a new year dawning, I prefer to believe it won’t end at all.