This picture was taken December 24, 1968, while three astronauts from NASA’s Apollo 8 program were circling the moon. Bill Anders took the picture, and the other two astronauts on the craft with him were Frank Borman and Jim Lovell. The picture was the first photograph to show the Earth’s spherical shape. This year, it will have been fifty years since the picture was taken.
There have been two other images of the universe, each of which has had a long life. One is the Ptolemaic image, from the writings of Claudius Ptolemy in the second century CE, in which the Earth is drawn in the center of a sheet of paper, surrounded by the various planets which move around the Earth in what some called “crystalline spheres.” Drawings, engravings, and woodcuts of this conception were ubiquitous throughout the Middle Ages, and most people would have been familiar with it. The message the image sent to viewers was this is where we are in the universe. At the center, with its accompanying belief, our lives matter.
It wasn’t to last. A second image began to appear in the sixteenth century. The sun was at the center. This conception of the universe was the result of the work of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. During Shakespeare’s time, this image—the Copernican or heliocentric system—moved the Earth off to the side, to the third planet from the sun, a loss of celestial status disturbing for many people. John Donne wrote of this moment, “The New Philosophy”—which is what he called the new science—“calls all in doubt, the element of fire is quite put out. The truth is lost, and no man knows where to look for it.”
Now Earthrise. The image taken by the astronauts in 1968 tells us that it is not just that we are not at the center of things, it is that we are very very far from the next big thing. And, even worse, our position, wherever that is, is not stable. We are “falling.” This is NASA’s word. Our planet is “falling” through space. Space is huge, black, mostly empty, and our home, however beautiful that blue marble, can be swallowed up in that silent blackness. We don’t know what we are falling toward.
When Earthrise was first published, it embodied a worldview as powerful and freighted and as ubiquitous as a picture of a sunset—or the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems before it. What the photograph said to the men who brought it back from space was that the Earth seemed fragile, there in the blackness of space. So small. And people can see that We live very close to one another in a tiny corner of the universe. Whatever differences exist between nations and races and ethnicities and genders and sexualities are trivial compared to the vastness of space. Even the words in our languages—big, vast, immense—are made to be measured in miles and kilometres—and are utterly worthless indicating the size of space. We appear to be alone. There is no God, no one to tell us that we are his children. No one to say, Do this, Do that. Don’t do all these other things. This photograph meant immediately, when it came out, that we are the only adults in this room, and it led almost immediately to the Earth Movement, to Earth Day, to environmentalism and to support for ecological movements—to caring for the Earth. We have to do it, and we have to do it for ourselves. This is our only home.
The astronauts who brought back Earthrise made another point. Falling through space on such a tiny tiny fragile chariot ought to make it easier to work together and to help each other to survive, ought to make it easier to see the fatuous malignant stupidity of a thought like America First.
The Tree of Life
A trope that has become familiar to many people is the one that Terrence Malick’s movie The Tree of Life presents, where the camera, which starts out with the black screen showing the white letters of the words from Job—Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?—focusses on a suburban neighborhood near Waco, Texas, and suddenly shows, as in a flashback, the gas clouds of space and the churning cauldron of the surface of the sun, the Big Bang and the beginning of everything. The people in that neighborhood in Waco include a man and his wife and their two sons, and it is not long before it appears that the couple’s younger son has been killed in war. The death of the son—the surviving son, whose name is Jack, is played by Sean Penn when he’s older, and it is he who is remembering everything that happens in this movie—places the story of the son’s death and his grieving parents solidly in the context of the story of Job.
Earthrise—remember, we used to be in the middle of everything—insists on our memory, on our remembering the other ways we used to see our place in the universe, because these successive images document our unceasing need to discover who we are and who we are becoming. It matters that we know where we are in the universe. A person can be afraid, and the process of discovering where we are and who we are can be painful. I see Earthrise and I think of all the men and women who have looked up at the night sky—spent hundreds and thousands of hours looking up at the night sky—trying to figure it out, exposing their need to know, searching for meaning, putting themselves at risk of discovering that there is no meaning. And we are nobody.
But up is only one of the directions Earthrise directs us. In Tree of Life, from the capture of the gas clouds, the camera zooms in on Earth and gets closer and closer until almost the entire screen of the cinema is taken up by a single biological cell. Then there are two cells, they join, and life begins. Tree of Life insists on an immensely increased scope of our vision, from the gas clouds in a galaxy down to a biological cell, to life in the sea, then on land. It is vertigo inducing. We have seen woodcuts or engravings—which are themselves merely fantasies—of the cosmos, but now we have photographs and have the ability to move smoothly from the gas clouds to the cell, to life, each one implicit in the presence of the other. At the end of the twentieth century and now in the first decades of the twenty-first, This is now the scope of our lives. This is the way we live—with microscope and telescope, from chemical elements to living beings and then back again.
In The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves Christopher Potter tells us that the astronauts came back to Earth exalted. What they saw was unspeakable. The experience of seeing Earth from space was too awesome for them to speak of.
What it was that the astronauts saw and couldn’t speak of was us on our fragile, beautiful home in their camera viewfinders. The astronauts went into space to see what was there and ended by seeing us and where we live. Earthrise.
Aside from the technical achievements of Earthrise—how do you get a camera to the moon?—and even aside from its effect on our philosophical understanding of ourselves, the photograph has another effect. The photographic complexity of the view of Earthrise—a photograph taken from the moon looking toward us—made it more essential that a person be able to see outer and inner at once, the external and the internal, the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small. In one universally accessible photograph, people are invited, even compelled, to expand their vision in both directions at once. They are invited to see the similarity between things, not their differences, the linkages among people and animals and plants and trees—and the Earth. Me and you. Past and present. Simultaneously.
The contribution that The Tree of Life and other movies make by linking what is happening here, on Earth—grief for a dead son—to the context of the immense blackness and emptiness of space expands to include at least the possibility that other kinds of linkages will connect us and our life on earth to dark space. The ancient and most elemental of linkages—cause leading to effect, the past leading to the future—might be found not to be the most important for an understanding of our lives. We understand our lives by the fact that under our feet is the Earth. With Earthrise, we have photographic evidence that our lives exist in other places than Earth, where there is no physical contact between us and Earth, and that no thing gives our lives meaning but ourselves.
The arrangement of objects in Earthrise is disorienting—the foreground is the Moon, and the background is the Earth and space. It is a radical reorientation of the normal, but of course it is itself the true normal, and we realize that the way we have always seen it—us and our universe at the center—is in error.
The two narratives in the movie—the events going on in space leading to the human life going on in the Waco suburb—are linked in the movie by time. In Malick’s beginning, there are sun spots and flares, the gas clouds in space, then a whole series of images of gas clouds, a sphere, the sun, and a volcano, leading to hot springs, and eventually to the creation of life, and what began as the grief that Mrs. O’Brien experiences is set against the creation of life on Earth.
It may be that the before-and-after arrangement of Tree of Life is superseded by what is implicit in Earthrise. We know creation is still going on while Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is grieving the death of her son. There is a contemporaneity about these events that alters our understanding of them. Creation is going on everywhere—the creation of stars, moons, suns, planets, black holes, dark matter, all animal and plant life—and the destruction of worlds going on at the same time, everywhere. Earthrise is the kind of civilization-shattering event matched by only a few other events—I can think of only Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the first performances of Hamlet and King Lear and Oedipus and compositions by Bach, Mozart, and surely one by John Lennon. What we are left with is the silence of Mrs. O’Brien’s grief amid the silence of black space. But the universe is still expanding, and things still grow.
The tension between this destruction and this growing is the sine qua non of the condition of our lives and is what, I presume, has always driven men and women to sail to the Indies and fly to Paris and to go to the moon and to paint the Guernica and to refuse to give up her seat in a Birmingham bus. In the blackness of space, no God, no one hears Mrs. O’Brien weep for the death of her son. What gives her weeping meaning is that she hears herself—my son’s life is worth my weeping—and, in Malick’s movie, Jack weeps for his brother, and Mr. O’Brien for his son. Mrs. O’Brien’s grief gives meaning to everything and every body around her. People, by going to the Moon, by creating life here on Earth, by creating art—surrounded as they are by the deep indifferent silent blackness of space—by their work, are the only source of meaning. I made this.
This is the first of a series of blog posts which are about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.
Keith Spencer, “How seeing earth from space changes you,” Salon, March 3, 2018.
Terrence Malick director, Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn. Cottonwood Pictures, 2011.
Christopher Potter. The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.