Astronomy as poetry

Navigating the canals of Mars

I BELIEVED IN it. I more than believed in it – I was obsessed. It was a vision of something amazing, something I thought could never happen on Earth. A vision of co-operation among all the beings on a planet to overcome adversity – to survive as a global community with none left out.

For reasons I will explain, that vision changed my life for the worse. It started with a book. There it is, the damned thing, the guilty thing, still on the topmost shelf in my study between Disturbing the Solar System and The Cambridge Photographic Guide to the Planets. I should have ditched it, shredded it, burnt it years ago, but it’s too good-looking. Like a lover who gives you grief but is too attractive to break with.

Sometimes I even lift it down to admire it – satisfyingly heavy, bound in burgundy-coloured leather with a fine corduroy effect, the title embossed in gold on spine and front: Mars as the Abode of Life. I’m not the first to fall under its spell. On the flyleaf a previous owner pasted a cutting from the Daily News of 19 October 1926 saying changes in ‘dusky streaks’ on Mars might hint at vegetation.

It was written by Percival Lowell and published by Macmillan in New York in 1908. Lowell belonged to the dynasty of Boston Brahmins that included Amy and Robert. In the 1890s, after a career as a diplomat in the Far East, he was excited to hear astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had seen canali on Mars. He decided to devote his fortune and energy to the study of the Red Planet and built a private observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona. (The dwarf planet Pluto was discovered there in 1930, fourteen years after his death, based on his prediction.)

Night after night, on his perch at the head of a wooden ladder, under a clear sky of the deepest violet, he interrogated that carmine disc. He thought he saw signs that intelligent inhabitants of a dying Mars constructed a planet-wide system of irrigation, distributing water across thousands of miles of desert from melting ice caps north and south. When the canals were more prominent, he assumed the cultivated vegetation alongside was flourishing with the season. He counted 437 canals. Dark nodes at their junctions might even be cities.

It was the map of Mars in that book that was so seductive. I wrote to Lowell Observatory requesting a full-size copy for my bedroom wall. I’m looking at it again, opposite page seventy-four in the book. A network of delicate straight lines (some doubled) links dark areas shaped like abstract art. On other pages are detailed illustrations with poetic captions: Early winter snowstorm in the Northern Hemisphere of Mars. A section of the Canal Eumenides-Orcus terminating in the junction Trivium Charontis. The length of this canal is 3,500 miles. Back then I painted a small globe red, let the paint dry while away on holiday in Eastbourne, then carefully, in Indian ink with (appropriately) a mapping pen, added the canals on their great circles. The similar axial tilt of Earth and Mars made the thing look authentic.


THE YEAR WAS 1955. The Second World War, the Holocaust, the displacement of millions of people were recent memories. The Korean War had ended in stalemate. Rationing in the UK had only just been abolished. African and Oceanian colonies were at last breaking free of their imperial masters. The United Nations embodied a grand idea, but in practice its influence was marginal.

The United States and the Soviet Union had tested hydrogen bombs a year or two before. Russia feared a rearmed Germany as a member of NATO. America feared the spread of communism. Hydrogen bombs, we learnt, can be a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We began to realise that one false message, one paranoid over-reaction, one accident could end civilisation. Its many languages, cultures, traditions, cathedrals, mosques, sculptures, paintings, books could be wiped out in an instant. Everything familiar could be melted down in the crucible of history to join the Akkadian and the Inca empires. No wonder the Martian dream of planet-wide co-operation was so compelling.

No region of Mars would dominate another. There would be no north-south divide between prosperity and poverty, no tension between east and west, no ‘spheres of influence’, no colonies, no forced movement of populations. I imagine the work of canal-building done willingly, not like the building of the pyramids for the benefit of one sole being, but a grassroots movement, a vast workers’ co-operative, because the task would be for the benefit and survival of all. Would it be too extreme to imagine there would be no hierarchy of occupations? That everyone might have a turn at being a hydraulic engineer, a horticulturalist, a surveyor, a labourer?

There would, of course, be jokes. The people in Trivium Charontis (not under that name, of course) might be lampooned as parsimonious. The people in Ascraeus Lucus might have a reputation for being oversexed. But these characterisations would be good-humoured – there would be no real prejudice, no racism, no apartheid, no classifying one group or gender as inferior or irresponsible.

The canals on their great circles would create strong, direct links between cities, emotional bonds. Although they would impose a certain uniformity across the whole planet, the spaces between would retain a great variety of landscapes – huge, rugged mountains, plunging ravines, plains, craters, tablelands, badlands – enough to satisfy any craving for the sublime.

Mars is much smaller than Earth, so it may appear that the task was more manageable than we might think. But comparing the surface area of Mars, which has no seas, to the land area of Earth, we find they are not too dissimilar: 145 million square kilometres for Mars, 149 million for Earth. That gives a sense of the scale of the project.


IN 1955 THE threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us all. But even then, when it was new, it was possible to forget it and engage with the ups and downs of everyday life. At fourteen, my main aim was to have a girlfriend.

Life on Earth wasn’t right? No problem – there was a universe out there to daydream about. When a girl I’ll call Carol was on my mind and I was on holiday with my parents and sister, I sat alone among the beach pebbles thinking Sinus Iridium – the Bay of Rainbows! On the moon no less!

So I was ready to be captivated by Mars as the Abode of Life. I found it in the basement of my favourite second-hand bookshop, that magic realm with its glorious smell of musty pages. There the book was, in one of the dim, labyrinthine passageways between high shelves. It was the names of the canals that first hooked me: Pyriphlegethon, Hiddekel, Djihoun, Hades, Erebus, Helicon, Eumenides-Orcus. And because I was absorbed by evocations of Greek gods by John Keats, those names from Greek mythology had special resonance.

Even when at last I did have a girlfriend (I’ll call her Leonie) that spectacle of planet-wide irrigation obsessed me. There was tension between us – I was possessive and prey to jealousy, she often uncommunicative and hard to read – so I still clung to the heavens for comfort. Was I avoiding the challenge of relating to Leonie? Was I like a modern teen escaping into Minecraft or Call of Duty when I sat in the garden reading chapters with epic titles such as ‘The Genesis of a World’ and ‘The Sun Dominant’? When I looked in the appendix and wondered whether Lowell’s calculations, full of advanced calculus, would ever make sense?

They never did. This was where it all went wrong. When I studied the photo of Lowell high on a platform reached by its rickety ladder, the crisp wooden framework of the observatory behind him, I wanted more than anything to be an astronomer. How could I fail to realise it required brilliance at maths and physics? How blind not to see my struggles with homework in those subjects portended failure? Instead I took, and failed, a degree in physics.

It still torments me, that decision. I was in the A-stream at a leading grammar school, near the top of the class in English and modern languages. Had I pursued those subjects I might well have gone to Oxford – in my generation the usual route to being a distinguished poet. Victor Hugo, in Les Rayons et les Ombres, says that astronomy is akin to poetry. Not for everyone, Victor, not for everyone.


IN 1965 EVERYTHING changed. Lowell’s theory, long vigorously opposed, received its death blow that July when Mariner 4 flew past Mars. The ‘canals’ were optical illusions. It wasn’t just the loss of that poetic vision that affected me. It was a kind of horror that a professor of astronomy at MIT, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, author of an inspiring book full of splendid maps, could spend his life pursuing a mirage. Still clinging to the dream despite the evidence, the next year I made a pilgrimage to Lowell Observatory. It seemed to have changed little since Lowell’s day. I have a photo of myself and my two-year-old son in front of it, squinting into the Arizona sun.

Who can blame me for enjoying the romance of canals? I’ve always enjoyed the beautiful curves of the bridges, the gearing of lock gates, the sunlight sparkling on water. The canal structures we earthlings produce are poetic. The amazing Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, 35 metres in diameter, lifts boats in water-filled caissons to connect canals at different levels. The hair-raising Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales is a cast-iron trough on brick piers 38 metres above a valley.

And looking online I find the exact image of what I pictured on Mars. A qanat at Jupar, Bagh-e Shahzadeh in Iran, a qanat being a neatly constructed waterway, lined with stone and flanked by lush vegetation. In arid regions Iranians support agriculture by tapping alluvial aquifers at the heads of valleys into waterways many miles long. My dream was here on Earth all the time. Except that Iran is hardly a utopia.

Seduced by the lines and curves and shading of Lowell’s map, I now know confident statements can be lies and photographs doctored. But I still get a frisson thinking of thousands of miles of waterways feeding a thirsty planet, water sparkling in the sunshine as it courses through them. I enjoyed the levadas of Madeira. I enjoyed restoring a stream on my land, which a mudslide accidentally diverted, seeing the flow return to a dry stream bed. How much greater a thrill to think of that worldwide system of channels.

So Mars as the Abode of Life can stay there on the top bookshelf, almost out of reach. It does at least remind me of happy, sunny teenage years. But I won’t open it again. Reading the text, I realise Lowell’s inflated style was a bad influence back then. Here is his take on a possible future for our planet, subjunctive and all. Assuming Earth will eventually lose water like Mars, he writes:

With steady, if stealthy, stride, Saharas...are even now possessing themselves of [Earth’s] surface. The outcome is doubtless yet far off, but it is as fatalistically sure as that tomorrow’s sun will rise, unless some other catastrophe anticipate the end. It is perhaps not pleasing to learn the manner of our death. But science is concerned only with fact, and Mars we have to thank for its presentment.

Back in 1908 he could hardly have imagined what would really threaten our planet. He could hardly have pictured a situation a century later when only worldwide co-operation between governments can offer any hope. But his vision of a global community of beings, with their unimaginable language and appearance but fears and aspirations just like ours, their talent for creating works beyond anything they could have thought possible, is still, though it never existed, one to inspire us. There may be a future for Earth.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review