These pictures from Mars are causing a strange uneasiness in me. When I admire the shapes of the hilltops, carved by millions of years of indifferent winds, I realize that no human has ever admired those hills. A few hundred thousand years ago, the outline of their peaks looked much different. Their beauty was expressed in a different way, but no one ever saw them for all those epochs.
It dawned on me that I’ve been anthropomorphizing the mountains on earth. I perceive our mountains as big, slow-moving people who want nothing more than for the rest of us to look at them and admire the curve of their spine. People rarely do. But I do–all the time to be honest. I do it out of empathy for the mountains. I know what it’s like when people never notice your subtle differences—those things that make you entirely unique.
Perhaps another reason I admire the mountains is a throwback to my old religion. God placed the majestic mountains there to remind me how great he is. Right? Wrong. The mountains of Mars are no less majestic, and there is no one there to see.
But still, I look at the shape each mountain makes. I imagine how the rain falls and runs into its recesses, and forms rivulets and streams that run to the canyons below. I admire the texture of flora that grows on its slopes. I also marvel at how after ten times the duration of my lifetime of howling winds and torrential rains, the subtle shapes formed by the mountain will be almost … exactly … the same.
This admiration of nature is my religion, in a way. After having eschewed a religion that proscribed more specific rites of veneration, I found myself unable and unwilling to do anything but stand before the almighty universe and open my mouth and feel amazed. The more I learned about science and my place in the universe, the easier this act of veneration became. It’s amazing that the infinite expanse of hydrogen produced complex stars that produced planets, one of which produced life that became increasingly complex until it actually produced me. And, though temporary it may be, the fact that I’m able to stare back into the void and just say “Wow” is enough for me to find meaning in my own random existence. It transcends poetry. It transcends spirituality. It is nothing and it is everything, just for me to be alive and enjoy perceiving everything around me. It amazes me every day, and so this act has become my religion.
But those hills on Mars have never been beheld—until now. For millions of years, geologic forces have raised and lowered mountains without the slightest nod of approval. Even though I find such bliss in perceiving them, they never needed me, and I suspect they have never cared.
Maybe my unease is the knowledge that geologic time marches forward on Mars at the same rate that it does here on Earth. It’s humbling. No matter how good we get at finding meaning in our universe, the universe has ways of hiding it again.