There are words in many languages for ‘other place’: the Chinese have wei guo: outside country; the Scots have a neat phrase to cover ‘locational outsideness’ of all kinds: outwith. The placename Wales is simply the (corrupted) Anglo-Saxon for foreigner. But alien is something rather more extreme, and that’s how this rock feels. Too heavy for its size, as if it carries with it some physics that runs parallel to that of this universe. Glossy and smooth like glass, yet somehow to solid, too rock-like, to be glass. Not a hint of translucency: a dark black-brown. It is otherplace, a piece of elsewhere, formed 5 billion years ago and never re-formed, making it older not only than any rocks on our planet, but older than our planet itself. I’m not allowed to touch it because the liquid in my hands would react with an element it contains and create hydrochloric acid, and this in turn would dissolve the rock itself. And that element does not exist on our planet. So we’re in Tintin land, expecting apples to become giant spiders and great popping mushrooms at any moment.
Except, of course, that we are all made of this same, basic and eternal matter, endlessly (if sometimes very slowly) combining and recombining. My hot flesh, your frozen glazed weight: both are ultimately stardust. And as the astronomer talks, and we pass the meteor along, imagining its impact on the Argentinian grasslands 5,000 years ago; considering that a piece of comet this size travelling at this velocity would wipe out the average small town instantaneously, it is the otherness of this tiny piece of place that dawns on me.
Islands, icebergs, moons, meteors: tiny universes of their own. To visit, to explore, to sit by one’s campfire as the icy island disintegrates into meltwater; as the place of grass and granite is consumed by tectonic force; as the crater-strewn globe gradually edges away from the planet whose gravity keeps it only temporarily captive; as sheer airless hurtle becomes furnace-hot fall, shattering impact, anhillation. And just as I was getting to know you.
I’d heard, as many know, that the possibility of finding complex life elsewhere in the universe depends on finding a sun with a planet in the ‘temperate zone’ in which atmospheres made of suitable gasses can be held near the surface at appropriate temperatures. These are not common, they say, but already quite a few have been identified. But, just in passing, the astronomer mentions other factors. Life doesn’t only need certain chemical and atmospheric conditions: if it’s to get the time to be more-interesting-than-amoeba it needs stability. We owe much of our relative unchangingness to the presence of our moon, which happens to be big enough to help stabilise our passage around the sun and make our weather and geology less prone to frequent events on a catastrophic scale; likewise, it is the collossal mass of Saturn and Jupiter we have to thank for attracting away from us countless comets that might otherwise come our way, with equally dramatic consequences.
The universe is a big place, and its by no means proven that complex, conscious, communicative life cannot develop in ways other than that which created us. But nevertheless, this tiny, heavy piece of otherplace makes our own great place, this ball of soil and water, seem almost unbelievably lucky, contingent, coincidental.
Just published, copywritten by yours truly:
The latest in a series, all of which I did:
The day had been cold, grey, damp; but some kind of front moved over and left a deluge as it passed; and as swiftly on its tail there was clear sky and suprising warmth: a springmark, that, when clouds go and the air warms up instead of plummeting downwards, coverless.
I cycled into this to find the snaking dry valleys of the chalk filled with cottontails of mist. They flowed down these long wrinkles in the fields, following the way that water would go if there was water there.
At first I thought them the emanations from the great piles of silage I could see, staw-damp to the nose, drifting listlessly along the lowest path of resistance, following the smokefall. They gave the silage a haunting presence, piles of dead matter making steaming life.
But then I saw the same wreaths cling to hilltops like an opaque white cloud; saw their fingers draped over the Down and only just approaching the valley bottoms.
The chalk is full of these forms, carved by ice, by frost, by lost water; and now the vapours follow them. These kinds of h20 are so superficially different, so profoundly the same. One we can stand on, one we can swim in, one we can walk through. Two will shape the landscape; one will let us breathe it.
And all are a reminder of the strange absent water of the chalk, this ocean-made rock into which everything slips; a reminder of its curious billowing and its strange sudden valleys, lost drowned places of the antedeluvian Cretaceous.