I would like to add a few additional insights to my last blog, ‘The New Icons or the Appearance of Particulars.’
The pictures from space I discussed convey a layer of meaning that is often missed, as does the name Gaia. The name of the Greek goddess is often equated with Mother Earth. But Gaia is not Mother Earth. In the Greek pantheon this role was assigned to the goddess Demeter. She was the earth goddess, ruling life, cycles, seasons and fertility. Demeter is a younger, third generation goddess, and like the earth, a child of Chronos (Time).
Gaia is more primal. She is the first divinity and precedes other gods and hence creation. She is the mother of all. ‘Nature’ would be a better translation than Mother Earth, if by nature we understand not just the earth, but also all that surrounds her: the sun, the moon, the wandering planets and the steady stars.
For all this is Gaia’s domain and creation. The same applies to her iconic predecessors such the Egyptian Isis, the Gnostic Sophia and the medieval Madonna. A last, comprehensive version of these conceptions appeared in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ In his metaphoric journey from hell to heaven the Italian poet maps the earth as part of an all-encompassing cosmic system. His ‘earth’ is still embedded in the planetary spheres and inseparably related to them. His ‘ecosystem’ includes the visible universe and its invisible causes. Grand conceptions like Dante’s faded in the age of particulars.
Today we have again begun to think terms of wholeness. The earth is emerging as a living totality. And somehow we have come to imagine this life unique and therefore separate from our cosmic surroundings. There are historic reasons for this:
The idea of a living earth began with James Lovelock investigating the possibility of life on Mars. This led him to two brilliant insights. He deduced from the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere that it held no life. Mars exhibit a chemical stasis antithetic to life.
The earth on the other hand is in a dynamic chemical state, conducive to life. And not only that: it is able to maintain this ‘lively’ state in spite of greatly changing conditions of sunlight over long periods of time. In other words, the earth maintains its own immune system, and acts as a living organism.
However, seeing earth as the only spot of life in an otherwise lifeless universe, promotes a kind of artificial separation that neither corresponds with the facts nor with the meanings implied in the iconic pictures from space. It belongs to the mindset of particulars, the paradigm of separation. The result is that we see life on earth as an exception, a cosmic fluke inside a hostile environment. The planet becomes an endangered species, battling for survival.
While the earth holds its own against the sun, it cannot exist without it. Planetary life remains linked to its solar source. The moon not only tugs the tides of the oceans but exerts its influence on every body of water, even the tea in a teacup. What other planets may or may not do we can leave to a future science. The fact remains that the earth is what it is because of its surroundings. It has coevolved with its neighbors. And what has coevolved remains related.
It may be time to extend the notion of a living earth and include the totality of its environment. Life on the earth then becomes a particular manifestation of the life of the solar system: it holds its own with, rather than against, its surrounding. This, at any rate, is what the name Gaia implies, as do the pictures of a bright-lit planet in the velvet embrace of black. Black here represents space and all it contains: the rest of the universe.
Seen from this perspective the earth is not the mother but the child. The mother is what surrounds the earth, the cosmic environment. The immediate impact of the image supports this conjecture. The picture of the fresh, clear, brightly-lit, blue-tinged earth does not convey the mood of motherhood. The warm, dark, comforting embrace of space, however, does. The earth that is a mother to us is a child to the cosmos. And a lively one at that. This liveliness too is an immediate, aesthetic experience. Gazing at the blue planet, we experience potential, promise, hope. We see a countenance continuously alive with fleeting clouds, winds, weather. We gaze at the lively child of the solar system, the cosmos, the offspring of Gaia, and are emotionally called to a gesture of care, protection, love.