A visit to the mountain

The mountains loom large ahead. Wee ants, we scurry across meadow and stream, hoping to get close enough to glimpse glory. The eyes of the rocks look past us, down over the valleys carved by snow and water, watching over the dominion we have somehow been granted permission to tread across. By our smallness, we are reminded that this world was not made for us. It was simply made, and then we appeared, perhaps by accident, or perhaps to give some meaning to these surroundings.

Just as the birds don’t sing for the benefit of us humans, this majesty wasn’t molded to brighten our lives. Yet its beauty is unsurpassed by anything we could create. How did our eyes evolve to see the drama of the sharp peaks against the impossibly blue sky? How did our ears open to recognize the songs of the sparrows in the trees as something more than birdspeak? How did our minds expand to value such resplendence, to see it as not just our habitat but our sublime fortune to live among? It is a wonder that we are allowed to wander through something we still can’t quite understand, but as long as we are kind, we avoid being swept away by the wind that made us for yet another day.

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This wondrous place, our solar system

We know the other planets are out there. They shine like the brightest stars in our night sky, and occasionally our advanced space technology photographs them in all their glory, revealing to our eyes what we cannot see. Venus is our brightest non-sun star, and because it orbits between the Earth and the sun, we see its phases plainly, a rounded bump when on the far side of the sun and a glowing corona of atmosphere when it stands between Earth and the star we share. We feel a kinship with Venus, a planet nearly our size, though the similarities end there. Smothered in an atmosphere 93 times as massive as ours, it lacks our dynamism, with no plate tectonics to rearrange its visage. Venus is the hell we dream of.

Venus transected the sun yesterday. With the right equipment and a clear sky, Earth’s twin could be seen floating as a small pinprick in front of the hulking sun, the speck of dust a seeming accidental blip in the projector shining light on our canvas. This stirred our imaginations. Usually, we zoom along through space, aware that there are other planets out there somewhere, but they don’t seem quite real, even when seen through a telescope. It’s as if someone placed a dramatic rendering of the planet right over the end of the scope at the precise moment we look through it. We have to trust that it’s really there. But when Venus crosses the sun, we have confirmation that we are not alone. Like when wandering in the forest, we know that there are other hikers out there somewhere – we saw their cars at the trailhead – but we haven’t seen them, so we hum a tune and talk to the birds, turning round and round to take in the view. We think we have the place to ourselves, until we hear a crunch behind us and turn to see one of those elusive hikers coming up from behind, so we move to the side of the trail, pretend to fiddle with our camera or water bottle, then wait until the hiker has gained sufficient ground before heading onward, alone again to enjoy our surroundings. It will be 105 years before we see another hiker, and it will be Venus again. Mercury can be seen from Earth as a star, but its diminutive stature and close proximity to our star ensure that although it crosses the sun every seven years, we will never have Transit of Mercury parties. The planet’s trek is simply unnoticeable to our naked eyes.

Little Mercury…and yet, we are so small. In 4 billion years, when our Milky Way galaxy, in which we are but a tiny speck, finally collides with the Andromeda galaxy next door, our inflated sense of self-importance will be scarcely a blip in time. Nearly that long ago, Earth was just an infant, our own tectonics just beginning to churn. With single-celled organisms just emerging, we were only one step ahead in the evolutionary process of where Venus is now. And somehow we got here, to this wondrous place, which we threaten to destroy long before that intergalactic corporate merge. So we must celebrate the little things like planetary transits, to remind us of our size and the company we keep, for when Milky Way and Andromeda come to dance together for a good long while, we want to have someone around to tell their children all about it.