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In the almost liturgically serene film, Upstream, a camera attached to a drone follows the River Dee in Scotland to its remote and snowy source. Voiced over the austere landscape, like a rippling plate of water, runs the evocative music by the German composer, Hauschka, the stone-pure language of Robert MacFarlane, and most haunting of all, a breeze of ghost voices and Gaelic whispers. In the course of the 30 minutes or so, not a single hint of civilization is seen. As viewers, our arms are wings, our eyes like the eyes of birds, watching the river spill through its clefts or ripple through its aboriginal curves. It’s a backward voyage, a voyage to source––maybe our deepest archetype.

Quite by chance, I saw another video, produced by Emergence Magazine, documenting the flight of Apollo 8 to the moon and the first sighting, by anyone, of our planet from that far out in space, a blue luminous droplet in the blackness of the cosmos. As in Upstream, nothing is seen of human presence. No cities can be discerned, no national borders. Just browns of land and blues of sea disclosed through a prayer veil of vapor.

Imagine the thrill of seeing what never had been seen––that far, far, half-lit globe. The astronauts talked about grabbing a camera, hardly believing their eyes. One picture became an icon, known all over the world––Earthrise. In a weird omission, NASA had not even instructed the astronauts to take a picture of earth. It happened in a scramble. As Apollo emerged from the dark side of the moon, there, half-lit, the earth appeared, nearly unrecognizable as their planet. Preposterously beautiful, as fragile as an eggshell. Quick, another camera.

The astronauts, in subsequent interviews, spoke of their hopes that Earthrise would change the world a little, inducing us to think of ourselves as citizens at large of this fragile sphere and less as adversaries within the enclosures of countries, factions or faiths––boundaries that weren’t just invisible from that distance in space, but that somehow seemed irrelevant in the black expanse of the cosmos. I used to be a Catholic, one astronaut says, but after a taste of that vastness, that startling view of the earth, I started to wonder. We and our gods are not the center of anything.

Maybe we were inspired for a moment. But soon we went back to the play-by-play of our old antagonisms, our incising of boundaries. Hating and destroying were ancestral addictions too large for even an image like Earthrise to modify.

I have thought quite a bit about the obvious dejection of the astronauts, Frank Borman in particular, over why that image of a half-lit earth hanging above the contour of the moon did so little to make us better, more appreciative of our collective humanity. It was poignant to see (even more so to remember) that dewiness of idealism from fifty years ago. A concordant planet that we could imagine. A John Lennon planet.

Where did it go? A novelist friend insists, oppositely, that in her line of work you gotta paste in conflict. Iago is indispensible. Extrapolate that down a thousand paths. The great and perhaps ineradicable hindrance to all idealism is just how profitable conflict is.

You see the River Dee as it narrows and rises (the camera is going upstream) to the high snowy massif of the Cairngorms, up, up until it is hardly more than an intermittent scratch of ink, finally dissolving into a breathtaking majesty of silence, vastness and time beyond time. More than a world that is, more than one that in its atavistic mysteries always was––this is a world (our planet too) that is waiting to still be imagined.

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