I remember well the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on Mama Luna’s surface. It was July 20, 1969 and I was set to begin my senior year in high school. My parents were hosting a party for the interns at Weyerhaeuser, where my father was director of forestry research. Perhaps it was the year of the luau: long tables in the side yard, tropical fruit salad in a boat-sized bowl, salmon grilling over the open fire, probably sweet corn cooked in the coals and blackberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. (There was no concern, apparently, that Hawaii—home of the luau—has no natural salmon; it was the specialty of the house.)
We stood in the yard that clear evening, fish oil dripping and crackling in the fire, looking up at the waxing crescent moon in awe that two people were standing on it. I particularly remember the lone female intern being singularly unimpressed by the whole thing, and I not getting how it was possible not to be moonstruck. Perhaps my enduring love affair with the moon began that night.
And not to forget Michael Collins keeping orbital vigil, though I am sure we did. I wonder now, as I write this, did Michael Collins feel cheated after coming so far only to sit alone in the command module while his colleagues did the unimaginable, picking up moon rocks, planting the flag, and garnering all the attention? I Google my wondering and find a New York Times interview with him from a few days ago.
For half a century, Michael Collins [88 now] has been answering variations of the same question asked by reporters, he says.
“Mr. Collins, weren’t you the loneliest man in the whole lonely history of this lonely planet by your lonely self behind the lonely moon in this lonely orbit? Weren’t you terribly lonely?” he mused.
He did not mind his solitary time aboard the spacecraft.
“I had this beautiful little domain,” Mr. Collins said. “It was all mine. I was the emperor, the captain of it, and it was quite commodious. I had warm coffee, even.”
In another interview, he said, “I felt like I was Neil and Buzz’s meal ticket home. I was in no way, shape or form lonely.”
Mr. Collins still remembers the view of the moon as they closed in.
“It filled up a whole window, and it was absolutely three-dimensional,” he said. “The lights a lot lighter, the darks a lot darker, the delineation of them so clear. The sunlight was behind, and the sunlight was cascading 360 degrees around the rim of the moon. It made the most glorious spectacle you’ve ever seen in your life.”
But it is the view of Earth from 230,000 miles away, blue and white with a smudge of tan, that made more of a mark on him. “The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility,” he said. “And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”
Monday night when I went to bed and looked out the window from my pillow, the one-night-short-of-full moon was glowing through the cloud cover, slipping out and back, out and back. Another layer of cloud hovered far below it, high enough above the valley floor that I could still see the lights of the trailer village. It got me back out of bed and out onto the deck for a wider view. In the silent night, it was the most beautiful sight. (One that I couldn’t, without a real camera, photograph.) It took my breath away.
I think about the fragility of this planet. It seems to be fighting for its life. I weep at what we are doing to it. I read about the melting ice cap, the dying whales, the disappearing rain forest. I hear about those both in powerful places and observe those down the street who don’t believe humans bear any responsibility in the partnership with earth, that it is here to be exploited for our gain. I am heartbroken and furious.
I hike in the mountains and nearly swoon with ecstasy high on a ridge so close under the bluest sky, surrounded by green valleys and snow-capped peaks and feel so drunk with joy I nearly burst. At the same time I am filled with gut-wrenching fear and remorse for the future of this planet.
I’ve just finished reading an excellent memoir by Pam Houston, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. She writes beautifully about these dual emotions. “I wanted to be large enough to contain the totality of both feelings. [Can you grieve for the earth] without loving it any less?”
I worry for my grandsons and their children’s children. What will their lives be like? Not like mine, of that I am certain. I grieve. And denying my own pleasure of being in this beauty now doesn’t help the planet. I know I’m not doing enough to change the trajectory, and that no one or three of us can; it will take all of us. But I am doing my part to love her. She deserves that.
Two friends recently hiked a trail through the area burned two years ago in the Norse Peak fire here in Washington. Brilliant paintbrush, lupine, bear grass, violets, and phlox blanket the ground under blackened trunks. Life comes creeping back, but it won’t ever be the same. Pam Houston includes in her memoir a stunning diary of a fire that threatened her Colorado ranch, with respect for its power and for the necessity of fire to kill the beetles that made the trees susceptible; and deep sorrow in the loss of 100,000 acres of wilderness.
I feel that duality too when I hike at Mt. St. Helens. It will never again look like it did when I was a child. And I must learn to love what is now. She deserves that. (Read here about my latest trek to the volcano.)
Tonight I will look at the moon and be awed by the courage of the pioneers, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, and the brilliance of minds that made the first landing there possible. And I won’t be sorry that moon missions were abandoned. The moon is not ours.
“I want to live simultaneously inside the wonder and the grief without having to diminish one to accommodate the other.” Pam Houston