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Ecopoesis

Gerard Woodward
18 July 2005

Now it is time that gods emerge
from things by which we dwell

-- Rilke

1. Mirrors

The sky had nested itself in the rocks,
The regolith, the frozen poles.
They had digested its curled-up weather,
Its soufflé sunsets and Pavlova hurricanes
Locked in sub-surface cupboards of ice
Well beyond the nip of our tools.

Being vain men ourselves, our first
Thoughts were of mirrors, fleets
Of them hanging in the sky
To redirect and concentrate the sunshine,
And when they were built – a vast
Necklace of reflecting pearls in orbit,
Made from the scraps of sails,
Shafts of holy light appeared,
The sort that might bring simple
Shepherds to their knees
But which failed to convert
A single pebble of that
Endless beach. After fifty years
We took the mirrors
Out of their echelons
And sewed them together to make
Just two huge patchwork quilts
Of silver, each the size of the state
Of Michigan, focusing all
Their vicarious light on the poles.

At certain times, if the incline
Was right, a telescope would reveal
A planet multiplied by double reflection –
Trailing off like beads on a string into the curved
Darkness of space. A good sign, we thought,
The first step to an infinite universe
Of habitable worlds.

2. The Bombardment

When the mirrors failed to fill
With more than a puddle
The depressions of the minor deserts,
Our third plan was put into action.
We found the hypothesised asteroids
Out beyond the orbit of Saturn
Wandering lamely like demented
Children in trouble with their guardians
And dressed in torn frocks of ice,
Rich in ammonia, which gave them
A lemony blush, as though a crop
Of daffodils had appeared in this
Little quarter of the infinite.
We strapped our nuclear rockets
To their backsides and let them
Fart across the parsecs until
They crashed on Mars – thump
Thump. They sprinkled the arid
Plains with their valuable, volatile
Salts and compounds, disturbing
The sleep of the sky as it lay still.
The proto-colonies had long since left
And we witnessed a landscape shift,
Dusty weather clearing to reveal
The impacted prospects,
The new lowlands where ranges
Had been, and a shock of orange
Liquid brimming in the remembered
Courses. The rivers went where rivers
Had been, redefining the estuaries
And islands with sharp, golden shores.
We’d refilled the drained cup
Of the oceans, a trillion tons of water
Converged on a bed the size of Connecticut,
And we cast our nets in a sea of piss.
So much, we thought, for ecopoesis.

3. The Factories

Having done our violence,
Within sight of the tear-drop shaped
River Islands south of the Elysium
Volcanoes, out beyond the sulphur
Scablands and the potassium forests
We built our first factories.
They sat like any factories
Though fashioned out of native materials,
With silica and quartz-encrusted
Fumaroles they looked like colossal,
Empty evening gowns
Standing alone in the desert,
And had no product,
Only by-product, the halocarbons
We longed for, the CFCs,
The cocktails of halogens,
Fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine,
The redeeming pollution. It took
So much work to produce
The necessary filth, our complex grew
To the size of Maryland, trainloads
Of matter every day, trainloads
Of refined waste leaving, a work crew
Of thousands, as if bred for the sole
Purpose, and yet looking at those
Sequined chimneys you couldn’t swear
That anything was happening
Until one day we noticed how the air
Began to weigh heavily on us,
How we each began to feel that we
Were carrying a small child on our shoulders,
A little, grey-haired girl called
Barometric Pressure who told us
We had at last fastened the atmosphere
To the planet and that we could go
Naked for the first time in centuries.

4. New Forms of Architecture

From poor Mars to rich Mars,
But the only enduring thing we had
Was our language. We pitched tents
Of it. We shepherded information,
Penned and stalled ideas, farmed
Conversation, planted orchards
Of discussion which fruited,
Ripened then fell, spawning
New lines of thought, of argument.
And sometimes our talk
Was a shed of crumpled tin
And sometimes a limestone
Cathedral, until by the time
We had the chance to build
Something permanent, we felt
Almost afraid for the demolition
Of our own history, word by word.
And this made us shy from the question –
How should our cities look?

Until then our habitats had been
Mere attachments, things pegged,
Clipped, riveted or bolted
To the surface, memos on a planetary
Noticeboard, but when we had
The chance to work with stone,
To embed ourselves with foundations
And cellarage, we found ourselves
Reverting to classical forms, the old
Orders – columns, pediments,
Entablatures, scrolled finials,
Pilasters, though we lacked
The essential tools and skills
To make our parthenons anything
But rough-hewn, wonky
Approximations of venerable
Geometries – like Cornish mansions
Our schemes had all the ambition
But none of the craft.
Some of us planned to build
Venice from an old book,
As an island city it seemed
Strangely appropriate, palaces
Teetering on a brink, but it was enough
To have the idea only, its execution
Seemed neither necessary nor possible.

And we sided in the end with those
Who wanted to shake the habit
Of being human and take the chance
To start afresh and let our buildings
Somehow grow like the green corn
That had taken so well, that we should
Farm our houses and let their form
Be determined by their time and place.
And so the ancient cities of Earth
Made their reappearance.
We still had our bodies, that
Was the problem. Houses are somatic,
Born from our dimensions and habits,
Ur, Nineveh, Babylon, their dumpy
Ziggurats, trailing plantlife, floods...
It took our cities to remind us
We were human.

5. We Were Pedestrians

We called them the Icarus Years
Because nearly every day
A boy would fall out of the sky,
And girls, their parents,
Uncles, Grand Uncles, whole
Families, sometimes several
In one day, sometimes the sky
Was a weeping mosaic of silver
Parachutes falling slowly,
Seriously, the airbags bouncing
Unpredictably in market squares,
Scattering geese and goats, landing
Sometimes in a fountain or fish pond,
To then hatch with a sound of zips
And Velcro unfastening (how touching
Those sounds), and out they’d step,
Carrying a sack of photos and keepsakes,
A chair, the odd statue, and always
A packet of seeds.

It took the average factory worker
A thousand years to earn enough money
To emigrate to Mars, so that it was
Only the rich who fell from the sky.
Money travels just one way through space.
Perhaps that accounted for the looks
Of horror on their faces when they
Discovered how we lived, as goatherds,
Burlap-wearing scratchers of livings,
Bearded, Biblical, folksy. They were shocked
To find we were pedestrians. Mars
Was to have been a gateway to an infinite
Universe of habitable worlds, they
Told us, and look what you’ve done.
Where there could have been space ports,
Universities, bridgeheads to miracles
Exploiting low gravity and untold
Mineral wealth, there were chickens,
Cathedrals on crutches, mucky
Compounds. They lectured us
On economics, reminded us
That the ecopoesis of Mars consumed more
Of Earth’s energy than was used
From the founding of the Roman
Republic to the birth of The Beatles.
Of course, that was before
They ’d seen the maize we ’d cultivated
In green swathes all across
The Basin of Hellas, or the vineyards
That thrived on the tongue-shaped
Lava flows of the Tharsis volcanoes,
Or the lupin fields that dressed
With pink and purple skirts
The giant Olympus Mons.
They remembered the old pictures,
The bouldery tracts, courtyards
Of nothing, Empires of Emptiness.
They knew they would never
Want to go back.

6. Flora, Fauna, Geography

It was good to have new geography,
New shapes on the maps
To have so much to name
On the small, local scale of things.
We soon knew our way round.
The yellow lake (called Yellow Lake)
With its crystallised shores, almost
Named itself, as did the hill
In the shape of Brian’s nose
(Called Brian’s Nose). All this was new
And varied, and meaningful,
But when it came to animal
And plant life, we have to admit
We lack variety. So far, our ways
Are birdless. Try carrying an egg
From Earth to Mars without
Breaking it and you’ll see how
Difficult it is. And fledged birds
Cannot cope with zero gravity,
I’ve heard how they beat
Their wings to no effect, to fall
And drift regardless was something
Neither hawks nor nightingales
Could cope with. Insects were easier,
They came in boxes freeze dried,
Like gravel, though one had to remember
To pack a packet of the seeds of their
Feeding matter. So we planted nettle groves
For the butterflies, dock, rock rose, gorse,
But it is an edited evolution we enjoy,
The minimum needed to sustain
An eco system, we make up for
The absence by a burgeoning of fairytales.
And we tell our own histories
Over and over. My father, and my
Grandfather, dealt in horses – shoed them,
Broke them, sold them at fairs
In the fields beneath Neil Armstrong.
My mother sold milk and butter.
Her people were pig breeders
In Nixon where the pink rills bubble
And the downfall glitters on the plateau.

7. Looking Back

The last millionaires fell from the sky
A century ago. They brought with them
Sad stories of the lives they had left,
How a belief in unicorns and mermaids
Had revived, how the cities had been
Consumed by privet and laurel,
Of sickness, reforestation, wars of religion.

Our children listened entranced
And filled with longing to be
In the world of islands with all
Its rich, rewarding dangers.

Our atmosphere factories have begun
To take on something of the mystery
And charm of pyramids, though
They remind me more of coffee pots,
Or cafetières, and the pillowy mountains
Behind them with the croissant-shaped
Pebbles that strew their slopes always
Remind me that what we have made here
Is one vast room, world-sized,
Near whose ceiling two acorn
Moons float. Sofa hills. Lamp-stand mountain.
You have to keep a sense of proportion.

Last week the mirrors were ripped
To shreds as they re-entered the atmosphere,
And poured their mirrory rain over a field
The size of the state of Missouri.

minarets

“Minarets”, Ansell Adams, 1930s

Ecopoesis is from Gerard Woodward’s new collection of poetry We Were Pedestrians, a Poetry Book Society recommendation, available from Chatto & Windus.

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