I love a good graveyard.
By that I mean an old one, with stories of the people buried there chiselled into headstones. We don’t do that in modern graveyards. It’s just names and dates now, with maybe an RIP or a brief ‘dearly beloved’ line. Hints as to how and why death occurred are utterly absent.
A few weeks ago, on a blazing summer afternoon, my daughter and I strolled the stones around Christ Church in Russell, the oldest wooden church in New Zealand. And found there a marker for sailors who died when two ships collided off the coast in 1875. What? How, in the great vastness of the empty Pacific, could two ships bang into each other?
Dee whipped out her iPhone and in a couple of seconds we had all the details of how, in the middle of the night, one sailing ship rammed another. Why? The one that was sunk carried no light. It’s all you had then to signal your lonely presence upon the sea – one little lantern. And they didn’t have one lit.
Zoom forward to this morning. I’ve just been watching the opening ceremony Winter Olympics. It shimmered with light, so much light. It was a celebration of shimmering, shooting, lasering, exploding light, crafted into astonishing patterns and pictures that were beamed up to satellites and bounced down into our living rooms. And into those slender, all-powerful phones that we now hold so tight they are almost part of us.
How astonishing it is that in less than 150 years – a mere blip in time – humankind has zoomed from the age of oil lamp to where we are now.
It seems not long ago since I was at concerts waving a cigarette lighter with actual flame over my head. Last night, that huge Olympic audience waved their glowing smartphone screens.
Just this week we’ve seen an bigger blast of light beneath a rocket as we gasped at Elon Musk’s barmy notion of pushing a red Tesla car out into space. Equipped with a repeat soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ it is set to spend a billion years in orbit with a dummy in its driver’s seat.
How mad, how wonderful, how extreme!
Here in New Zealand we watched our own recent, smaller launch as RocketLab’s founder Peter Beck sent up a rocket with a different kind of payload – a shimmering faceted globe that will track across the world’s night skies for just nine months before its orbit crumbles and it politely disappears. It’s called The Humanity Star.
Beck put it up as a “bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe”. You can check out how to see it from your place here.
How Bowie would have loved all of these events.
The BBC World Service is currently running a drama that imagines his last days in the studio as he worked on tracks for his final album, Black Star.
The script is imagined but the quotes are his and I love this one: “Once you lose the wonder at being alive then you’re pretty much on the way out. I’ve never lost that wonder.”
On the news today I heard that astronomers have just spotted a big asteroid that is about to whoosh past us. Its track is only 39,000 miles away – which sounds distant but is SO close. And they saw it only five days ago.
What are the chances it might encounter a lonely, shiny red car tooling along out there and blast it into oblivion? Not high. But then you could have said that about a couple of small ships bobbing around vacant New Zealand seas in the 19th century.
We live in a time full of chances and happenings both wondrous and appalling. With such dazzling news coming along almost every day now it’s no wonder all these extremes can seem too much.
But the remedies for all this stress still work as well as ever. You know the drill. Switch off and head outside to breathe good air, get amongst trees, walk on grass, swim, or sink bare feet into a sandy beach.