|The following reflection on The Home Planet is taken from the introduction to the book THE RAREST OF THE RARE Diane Ackerman
From a bookcase by my desk, I pull out a copy of one of my favorite books, The Home Planet, a dazzling collection of photographs of Earth taken from space, and open it to a particularly beautiful shot of the Indian Ocean with a feathery smear of clouds above it: Earth at its most marble-like and blue. The oceans that gave birth to us support vast herds of life. Not least the phytoplankton, right at the bottom of the food chain, on which much of life on Earth depends. How can we allow something as large as an ocean die? And yet, the Great Lakes are already dead. The Mediterranean is in its death throes. Some whales contain such high levels of poison from all the pollutants dumped into the ocean that, even though they're living animals, they would qualify technically as toxic waste.
Leafing idly through The Home Planet, I stop at a picture of the whole Earth floating against the black velvet of space. Africa, Europe, and Russia are visible under swirling white clouds, but the predominant color is blue. This was the one picture from the Apollo missions that told the whole story-- how small the planet is in the vast sprawl of space, how fragile its environments are. Seen from space, Earth has no national borders, no military zones, and no visible fences. Quite the opposite. You can see how storm systems swirling above a continent may well affect the grain yield half a planet away. The entire atmosphere of the planet-- all the air we breathe, all the sky we fly through, even the ozone layer-- is visible as the thinnest rind. The picture eloquently reminds one that Earth is a single organism. For me, the book contains visual mnemonics of how I feel about nature. At some point, one asks: Towards what end is my life lived? A great emancipation comes from being able to answer that question. A sleeper can be decoyed out of bed by the sheer beauty of dawn on the open seas. Part of my job, as I see it, is to allow that to happen. Sleepers like me need, at some point, to rise and take their turn on morning watch. For the sake of the planet. But also for their own sake, for the enrichment of their lives. From the deserts of Namibia to the razor-backed Himalayas, there are other wonderful creatures that have roamed Earth much longer than we, that are not only worthy of our respect but could teach us about ourselves.
Some of those wilds I know personally, at the level of sand, orchid, wingless fly, human being. So, each photograph is an album, a palimpsest, and a pageant. There is Trichina, the little island south of Tokyo, which is the final stronghold of short-tailed albatrosses. There is French Frigate Shoals, the last refuge of the Hawaiian monk seal. There is Antarctica, home to vast herds of animals. While I look at a photograph of the Hawaiian Islands-- puddles of ink on a bright copper sea-- I remember the sound and rumble of humpback whale song cresting over me as I swam. Humpback whales have had a civilization without cities, a kind of roaming culture, for many ages. To us, they live in the ocean as in a wide blue cave. They pass on an oral tradition, teach each other their songs, copy them, abandon old versions, and use rhyme. Our recordings of them only go back to 1951, but even after forty-one years, the whales haven't returned to their original songs of the Fifties. Just imagine the arias, the ballads and cantatas of ancient days that have filled the oceans with song, and then died out, never to be heard again. Today we can visit the campfires of a few remaining tribes of stone-age people and hear the stories they tell, stories marvelous, imaginative, and rich with wonder, told in terms of their own belief systems, logic and language. But we will never know all the lost stories of the cave people. The same may be true of humpback whales. As I page through the book, I feast on habitats far-flung and dizzying. Life haunts every one of them, no matter how distant, dry, hot, salty or sunless.
Diane Ackerman, from THE RAREST OF THE RARE