On being in love with this pale blue dot…

22nd April is Earth Day and this blog is dedicated to that very subject – our beautiful home planet.

Carl Sagan was inspired to write his book Pale Blue Dot after seeing an image taken, at Sagan’s suggestion, by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. As the spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system, engineers turned it around for one last look at its home planet. Voyager 1 was about 4 billion miles away when it captured this portrait of our world. Caught in the center of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), Earth appears as a tiny point of light – a pale blue dot.

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Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Sagan’s love letter to our little planet is perfect in describing how easily we forget the importance of cherishing and looking after this world of ours. We damage and destroy and pillage the precious resources our planet holds, seemingly forgetting that this is the only one we have. Wars are fought, people are killed, lives are damaged, hatred is spouted – all on our tiny blue planet.

Yet, there is much that is beautiful and much to love. The delight of our position in the solar system, suspended on a sunbeam, creates a world of such beauty and harbours life and love in every corner.

In honour of Earth Day, here are some of my favourite pieces of the planet I have seen so far…

A tale of forest scrambles and sitting with chimpanzees…

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Set against the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the far west of Tanzania, Mahale Mountains National Park is one of Tanzania’s most remote and isolated parks, accessible only by small aircraft and by boat, and deep in the jungle of the Mahale Mountains live over 800 wild chimpanzees.

Having spent the previous day trekking for 7 hours through the jungle with no luck in finding these fascinating creatures, we were keen to try again that morning.

TIMG_5978he paths through the jungle crisscrossed through thick bush, muddy patches of swamp, and across the numerous small rivers that rushed towards the lake. Overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and sensory experience of being back in the jungle, I found myself forgetting our main objective, until our guide stopped suddenly to listen closely to the cacophony of sounds the creatures of the jungle were making.

“Did you hear it?” He pointed up into the dense forest ahead of us. We listened closely for a few minutes until we heard the unmistakable cry of the chimpanzee.

We scrambled and climbed through the thick trees and bushes with our guide masterfully hacking a path ahead of us with his machete, hop, skip and jumping across the boulders of the rivers, getting our feet wet as would be expected, clambering up steep ravines, grabbing branches and rocks to keep our balance.

Stopping again to listen for the call of the chimpanzees, and our guide went ahead and scrambled up the next steep climb, telling us to wait and he will call on us if there were any further signs of the chimps. We sat on thick tree roots in the midst of the jungle, listening to the the screeches of the baboons and vervet monkeys up in the trees around us, the rattling of the termites and ants that we had disturbed under our feet, the musical warbling of the huge variety of birds in the trees.

IMG_5965“Come!” Our guide yelled from the top of the hill and we hurried up the steepest climb yet, scratching and bruising our legs and arms on the branches and we pushed them out of the way or climbed over them.

Our guide pointed up into the tree and we saw a dark shape swinging across the very top branches – we had found a chimpanzee. Our guide told us to put on our protective face masks before we got any closer, ensuring these wild creatures would not be exposed to any of our germs. We climbed down through the base of the tree, trying to get a better view. IMG_6012Suddenly, we heard the loud shriek of another chimpanzee and the bushes ahead of us shook as the alpha male swooped through the trees towards us. We froze as our guide hurried towards us to make sure he was not in an aggressive mood but our fears were quickly allayed as the alpha male sat down across the ravine from us, keeping us in his sight but seemingly quite comfortable with our presence.

We could not believe our luck – sitting under the trees just metres away from an alpha male chimpanzee. But our luck was just about to get even better as some researchers arrived and told us to come towards them.

As the guides hacked a path down the side of the steep ravine for us, we came across a IMG_6171group of young males grooming themselves, content with the presence of humans merely a metre away from them.

Chimpanzee DNA is 98.3% the same as human DNA. As we watched them, it wasn’t hard to tell the similarities and those essential differences. Their clever hands and feet, while almost the same as our own, were acutely adapted for their environment and needs, perfect for gripping onto trees and reaching into anthills. Their ears shaped just like ours but larger and more defined for helping protect their tribe against those almost silent predators.

“If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee’s eyes, an intelligent self-assured personality looks back at us. If they are animals, what must we be?”
Frans de Waal

What I found most intriguing was their wise faces. IMG_6329With folds and wrinkles around their eyes, their furrowed brows suggested continual thoughts racing through their minds. Their deep, dark eyes seemed to gaze off into the distance at times. They studied us and studied each other – it wasn’t hard to believe that there were questions running through their minds about these strange creatures with the blue and white surgical masks snapping photographs only feet away.

We were only allowed to spend an hour with the chimps – a rule that is kept strictly to protect these creatures and their habitat.

As we returned to our camp, elated after our close encounter with these wild and beautiful creatures, I felt so privileged to have spent that precious hour with them.

Live In The Question…

“You can’t write a script in your mind and then force yourself to follow it. You have to let yourself be.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I’ve never been the kind of person to have a life plan. At least, not since life threw enough curve balls for me to give up on the idea of a plan. Plans are different from dreams and goals and bucket lists. Plans involve specific expectations and inevitable disappointment should the plan not come to fruition. They don’t allow for questions. They pretend to have all the answers and expect your heart to already know what to do next.

I often get asked by friends and family what my ‘plan’ is. To quote a friend: “How long are you going to be away? You can’t do what you’re doing forever. You need to make a plan.”

The problem is, I can’t identify one person in my life who has followed their plan. I don’t know anyone who’s life has worked out exactly how they wanted. And, when it doesn’t work out, they panic and swiftly re-evaluate and create another alternative, adjusted plan, desperately finding temporary answers to the questions in their lives.

img_0104I’ve learned a lot about letting things be. I’ve learned that letting things be allows for spontaneous moments that I could never predict and people I could never have planned on.

I’m also learning to live in the questions. I’m not meant to have all the answers and sometimes the ‘not knowing’ leads to better places and people and experiences.  I never expected or planned to be in Tanzania. I do not know how long I will be here or where I will find myself next.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 I’d rather live in the question and live out my curiosity than plan out what my life will be.