Better Conquerors than Stewards

July 22, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — The comet blasted through the news like a celestial bulletin. An alphabet of fragments crashed into Jupiter and slammed into our consciousness.

For once, a cataclysm of truly astronomical dimensions dwarfed the man-made disasters that dominate the headlines from places like Rwanda, Haiti and Bosnia. Astronomers, as exuberant as physicists witnessing a big bang, stepped up to share their excitement at this once-in-a-lifetime -- perhaps once-in-human-lifetime -- experience.

As the blow-outs and bruises emerged on the face of Jupiter, these scientists struggled to bring the story down to human scale. A crater the size of Rhode Island. A black eye greater than the diameter of the Earth. A blast larger than all the nuclear weapons in our arsenal.

But this was one event that would not be cut down to our size. For once the word ''awesome'' -- that staple of the teen-age vocabulary applied to every new song and every new sneaker -- took on a literal meaning.

What a week in the solar system. While comet fragments pummeled Jupiter, we held a celebration for the silver anniversary of the man on the moon.

But our planetary party was nearly as modest as its hero, Neil Armstrong. Today we are not sure if that small step for man was a giant leap for mankind.

An American generation has grown up that takes our trip to the moon for granted. Been there, done that.

Those of us who were once stunned at the feat now came to the anniversary party wondering what it all meant. Was it just a Cold War circus trick? What are we left with? Technology? Tang?

On the 25th anniversary of the moonwalk, another space shuttle was in its 12th day circling the earth. The news from the good ship Columbia, buried in the back of the paper, was that a second newt brought aboard had died after laying eggs.

For years, long after Armstrong had been there, Americans told ourselves, ''If we could put a man on the moon'' we could do anything. But that belief in science and technology as cure-alls has evaporated. We may be nostalgic for the sense of purpose that propelled us to the moon. But we are skeptical of the purpose itself.

In retrospect, the landing on the moon doesn't seem like the beginning of a new age. It seems like the end of an era -- at least in our relationship to nature. By 1969, we had completed the centuries-long transition from a species in awe of nature, to a species that believed in the conquest of nature -- even space.

On the anniversary, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, complained about ''an eerie apathy [that] now seems to inflict the very generation that witnessed and was inspired by those events.'' He talked about a ''withered capacity to wonder.''

But today, it's not an excess of apathy or a lack of wonder afflicting us. Our relationship to our natural world has changed again, from awe to conquest to -- what? -- guilt?

To many, the idea that humans should strive for dominion over nature seems as quaint now as planting a ''waving'' American flag on the windless surface of the moon.

It turns out that we were better conquerors than stewards. We tried to take the awe out of nature, to make the world we lived in safe and settled. But we ended up endangering species, including our own.

Our own most ''awesome'' accomplishment -- splitting the atom -- left a mushroom cloud over our confidence. By sheer numbers, we've tilled, built and devastated what was wild. Now every day we see problems of our own making. If we can put a man on the moon, we cannot necessarily protect the earth.

Today the massive technological feats with astronomical price tags are likely to be clean-up operations for earth, air and water. There is the sense that instead of blazing new frontiers, we have to pick up our own earthly border.

In great and small ways, we are struggling to understand our tenuous place within the world. Not just over it.

So on a summer day, maybe it's not the memory of footsteps on the moon that rivets our attention, or engages our sense of

wonder. It's a vast celestial event out of all human proportion, a comet crashing into a distant planet in alphabetical pieces.

We are back to where we started: a natural state of awe in the face of nature.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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