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Coprates Chasma in the Valles Marineris on Mars, photographed by the Mars Express spacecraft. Appearing in the top half of this image, it ranges from 60-100 km wide and drops 8-9 km below the surrounding plains. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

The Siren Call Of The Wilderness Can Be Heard On Mars, Too

Mar 26, 2013

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You step down from the all-terrain camper and out into the bright sunlight. Your boots crunch on the cold desert soil. It's been three solid months in the office with just Sundays off (at best). But now, finally, you are out in the open once again. Above you the sky is its usual brown-hued butterscotch color. Ahead of you is the trail leading to the canyon. The plan is to spend the day walking a trail at the edge of Coprates Chasma, a canyon almost a thousand kilometers long (more than twice the length of the Grand Canyon, they say). You adjust the breathing mix on your hiking Thin Suit and get started.

It's good to be back in the Martian wilderness.


This weekend I made the long trip into the Adirondack Mountains for a backcountry first aid course. Our excellent teachers regaled us with stories of ice climbers plunging down 200-foot cliffs and searches for lost, frostbitten winter hikers. Listening to their tales, I reflected on the elemental drive that brings people into the mountains again and again, in spite of the inconvenience and occasional danger. It is, of course, all about wilderness, a word drenched in poetry. With the snow piling up on pine trees outside, the astronomer in me couldn't help but ask how closely bound that poetry is to the world of our birth.

When the time finally comes for us to expand beyond the boundaries of the Earth, will we find wilderness on the other worlds in our solar system. Will Mars have wilderness, for us?

To answer that question we must ask what wilderness means for us at the dawn of the Anthropocene, with humans relentlessly reshaping the the Earth.

Human beings were born wild. We domesticated ourselves voluntarily. The origin of our species, Homo sapiens, lies a few-hundred-thousand years in the past. For most of our history we lived in small bands that moved with the herds and the seasons. During those many millennia, wilderness could not be separated from any other aspect of experience. It was just where life played itself out.

Then something remarkable happened.

As the last ice-age glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago, we slowly began experimenting with a new way of being human. Over time we learned to settle in one place and put the earth to plow. Agriculture brought surplus and those surpluses allowed villages to become cities and then cities to become empires. In the wake of our great city building experiments, the place we imagined for ourselves in the world changed.

That was when wilderness was born. The "wild" was outside the city walls and it was, for the most part, dangerous. Fairy tales speak of dark, haunted woods and hungry, cunning wolves for a reason. They are the collective memory of the terror that lay beyond "civilization."

This sense of wilderness changed when the machine age dawned a mere 200 years ago. As railroads crossed continents and frontier taming went industrial, it suddenly dawned on us that the wilderness was shrinking fast. It is no accident that the great push to create the national parks in the United States began just as our relentless march across the West concluded. In a hyper-domesticated society where most people worked in offices and factories, wilderness suddenly became sacred. John Muir articulated this new sense of wild spaces when he wrote in his journal:

There is a love of wild nature in everybody an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.

The exponential advance of human culture has only deepened our hunger for wilderness. As we stand at the edge of the Anthropocene Epoch, the place of nature in our lives is directly challenged every day by human development. In response, nature's appeal to our souls becomes ever more urgent. Our collective actions now shape what wilderness will remain and what role it holds in our imaginations.

That is where Mars comes in.

I take it as a given that — if humans avoid societal collapse — we will figure out ways to live on other worlds in the solar system. In 300 years, perhaps, we will have tented large craters on Mars, allowing pressurized atmospheres and open cities to thrive within. Who knows? We are a damnably creative and inventive species. I believe we will be making ourselves at home out there sooner rather than later. But those human habitations will still exist within larger landscapes of fierce beauty and — in their own way — wildness.

The Coprates Chasma our imaginary weekend hiker was setting out to explore is just one part of a continent-sized Martian canyon system called Vales Marinaes that stretches across 4,000 kilometers and to depths of 9 kilometers (for comparison, the Grand Canyon is a mere 446 kilometers long and barely reaches a depth of 1.8 kilometers). And Mars has more than its share mountains that would put Everest's 8.8 kilometers to shame. The great Olympus Mons, the tallest peak on the red planet, stands at 22 kilometers and almost pokes above the Martian atmosphere.

How could a person stand in such an environment, before such shear natural scale and not feel that she is standing in the midst of a wilderness? As anyone who has ever explored high alpine terrain knows, the landscape itself embodies and radiates great power. It is the power of nature, something wholly greater and more complete than our own.

So, I believe Mars will have wilderness waiting for us when we settle there. The same is true for the methane lakes of the Saturn's moon Titan and the frozen, world-girdling oceans of Jupiter's Europa. It may be alien, but it will be our own wilderness that we find on these worlds.

That's because, in the end, our voyages to the planets will be a continuation of the long journey that began with our domestication. It's the same path that took us from forest and field into village and city.

We made a bargain with ourselves when we took up the plow (and then the piston and then the silicon chip) that has always left us with a lurking sense of unease, even as it has granted us vision and reach. It's the trade-off that took us out of nature and into civilization. That is why we will always need wilderness.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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