Mother Earth

In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Here There Be Tygers,” an interstellar mining expedition touches down on a planet that looks like nothing so much as an unending fairway at the local country club back home. This suburban paradise apparently has no inhabitants, but it could not be more welcoming, providing the crew with every creature comfort almost as soon as they can think of it. The trees sprout fruit to feed them. The rains fall all around them, but they never get wet. The streams flow with vintage white wine. A breeze gently lifts them into the air so they can fly. “If ever a planet was a woman, this one is,” says the expedition’s leader, Captain Forester. But Chatterton, the mining company engineer, is unmoved. “Woman on the outside, man on the inside,” he growls. “All hard underneath, all male iron, copper, uranium, black sod. Don’t let the cosmetics fool you.” He is convinced the planet is alive, and he warns the crew about a map he remembered from medieval history, with the inscription, “Here there be tygers.” Chatterton has come millions of miles with his drilling equipment, and he has no time to waste. But from the first, the planet seems intent on thwarting him. The ground shakes when he first steps on it, then swallows his drilling machine. He heads back to the ship, which has a nuclear arsenal he can use to subdue the planet. His path takes him through a forest, where he disappears. The crew finds only claw marks and blood at the edge of the forest, and in the distance they hear the roar of a tiger.

Although "Here There Be Tygers" is set on a planet unimaginably far away, Mother Earth has rarely been portrayed so literally – both her nurturing qualities and her vengeful side. The prototype is the Greek goddess Gaia, the primeval divinity of the earth, who emerges out of chaos at the dawn of creation to give birth to the sea (Pontus) and the sky (Uranus), along with a host of other gods and goddesses, as well as mortal creatures such as ourselves. According to Greek mythology, she is mother to us all. But, as Captain Forster notes at the conclusion of Bradbury’s tale, one must beware a woman scorned. Uranus is fearful of the sons he has sired by his mother Gaia and imprisons them in the earth, causing her pain. She then turns on Uranus, persuading her son Chronos to castrate him with an iron sickle. The pattern thus established, Gaia later assists Zeus in overthrowing Chronos, who also makes the mistake of imprisoning her offspring. Zeus himself eventually becomes the target of her ire, although he is able to fend her off.

Gaia, as it happens, is also the name given to the scientific theory that the earth, the seas, the sky and all life on our planet work together as a single self-regulating system. The novelist William Golding suggested the name to his neighbor, the British scientist James Lovelock, who first formulated the idea in the late 1960s. Lovelock had been hired by NASA to devise experiments that would eventually be used by the early Viking landers to detect signs of life on Mars. The Martian probes took soil samples to look for traces of organic compounds but found nothing. However, Lovelock realized you didn’t need soil samples to conclude the planet was lifeless; you didn’t even need to send rockets. The composition of Mars’ atmosphere alone told you everything you needed to know – specifically, that there were no gases produced by organic processes. Its atmosphere was in a state of chemical equilibrium, made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide, with trace amounts of other gases. The earth’s atmosphere also once had high concentrations of carbon dioxide, but it was transformed by bacteria and photosynthesizing plants, which produced a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, with trace amounts of other gases. The composition has remained steady over eons, despite the fact that the atmosphere is not in chemical equilibrium. The salinity of the oceans has also held constant, and the surface temperature of the earth has remained within habitable ranges, even though the brightness of the sun has increased 25% to 30% since life first emerged on the planet. According to the Gaia hypothesis, this remarkable homeostasis is maintained by complex feedback mechanisms involving life forms interacting with the earth, oceans and sky. In recent years, Lovelock has warned that the disappearance of tropical rainforests and the simultaneous buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will severely test Gaia’s ability to maintain homeostasis. He believes balance will eventually be restored, but the short-term prospects for the human race could be dire. The title of his most recent work, appropriately enough, is The Revenge of Gaia.

Lovelock’s original hypothesis was greeted with silence from the scientific community when first introduced, then sharply criticized for its teleological approach (directed toward a goal). Naming his theory after a mythological figure certainly didn’t help, nor its eager embrace by New Agers. Lovelock subsequently backed away from any suggestion that Gaia’s feedback mechanisms were purposeful. He developed a rigorous mathematical model that silenced many critics, and supportive evidence began to accumulate. But whether or not Gaia operates intentionally, the effect is the same. In a universe that is otherwise hostile to life, our planet shelters us from deadly cosmic radiation, feeds us, protects us from extremes of temperature, acidity and salinity and fills our lungs with breathable air. There is no denying that this small planet is a welcoming place. As one of the characters in Bradbury’s story says of the faraway paradise that reminds them so much of home, “Suppose the purpose of this world is to make us happy.”

© Copyright 2004-2018 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved