Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Midsummer Lessons from Mars and Lascaux

Water Droplets on a Leaf, San Francisco, (c) by Maja Trochimczyk

 It is never too late to learn something new. Two bits of scientific knowledge have recently captured my attention. First, a new method of dating ancient artifacts with radioactive isotopes resulted in rewriting the chronology of Paleolithic art: apparently, the astounding frescoes of bisons and horses in the caves of Lascaux, France, were not painted 20,000 years ago by our direct ancestors, homo sapiens, but, instead, were created over 43,000 years ago when Europe was inhabited by the Neanderthals. Therefore, we have to change our preconceived notion of the hairy Neanderthals as ape-like primitive brutes. What a discovery!

Second, the inventive laboratory-on-wheels Curiosity landed on Mars without a glitch and began sending back to Earth photographs of its rocky surroundings. I had seen a life-size model of the probe during the annual open house at JPL: with legs taller than me and two wheels on each leg, this futuristic vehicle was able to drive in any direction, over piles of rocks under one leg and smooth sand under another. On a Sunday night in August I was a guest at JPL’s California control station watching the Curiosity landing – or, rather, watching rows of engineers in blue shirts doing something important and intently staring at their screens. We enjoyed lectured lectures by JPL staff between computer animations of Martian landscapes traversed by the spacecraft, while waiting for the numbers on a small screen on the side to confirm that all engines fired, the silicone parachute deployed, all temperature sensors reported normal data, etc. Not only was it a “blind” landing on instruments alone: the landing was actually operated by the machines pre-programmed to follow a certain course of action.

The radio signal, traveling at the speed of light, takes nearly 15 minutes to come to Earth from Mars. Our screens reported each stage of the action 15 minutes after it already happened! What a feat of human ingenuity! But this 15-minute delay also tells us how important it is to live in the present, here on Earth (Memento Vitae). We are stuck here, for now. It is really too far to go somewhere else.


A poem of mine, "Memento Vitae" was published in Serbian translation in the largest daily paper; French, Spanish and Chinese versions are in the works… Thanks to my friend Dr. Mira Mataric, who translated five of my poems for a Serbian literary journal, I now have a publication in the same alphabet (though not language) than my Belorussian grandparents used. The publication in the daily paper was quite a surprise. I hope we all cherish our lives 43,000 years after the Neanderthals first decorated their caves. How? Read my poem "A Lesson for my Daughter!" But first comes a reflection from the beach...

Desert Rocks (Mars Lookalike) (c) 2011 by Maja Trochimczyk
Walking on Seashells

broken pieces of fish bones
lie scattered by the tide
where sandpipers feed

hermit crabs move into empty shells
whose former inmates
lost their future, devoured

the ocean of death surrounds us

ants troop in and out of the eye
of the beetle that lies
in the middle of my path

crushed sea shells paint the beach
bone-white – prickly sand
slowly changes into rock

fossils capture cruel snapshots
of transient past

unperturbed, we march on,
treading on traces of old tragedies

insects die first, yet outlive us
we do not mind their deaths
with a gaze fixed above,
we ignore countless incidents
of random murders, as we walk into
the gaping mouth of the Behemoth

Green Leaf (Fingerprints) photo (c) 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk

 Memento Vitae 

Let's talk about dying.
The gasp of last breath.
The end. Or maybe not,
We don't know.
Let's talk about the last day.
What would you do
if you knew?
Whom would you love?
Would you find your dearest,
most mysterious love?
Or would you just stay
in the circle of your own?
Would you rob, steal
or insult anyone?
Would you cry?
Burn your papers?
If the fabric of your future
shrank to one day,
or maybe just an hour?

Let's talk about living, then.
The next breath,
that will take you
to the next minute,
the next heartbeat.

Just about – now.

© 2008 by Maja Trochimczyk

Flower Bud in the Spring, photo (c) 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk
A Lesson for My Daughter 

After a ruby-colored glass of Merlot
I told my daughter the secret of the Universe.
I solved it at noon, by the river.

Questions do not matter.
The right answer to life is: "Yes."
If you build a circle of "Yes" around you,
Affirming the essence of beauty,
You'll be safe.

If you say "I love you" to everyone
(Very quietly so they can't hear, but you know),
You'll walk in a sphere of gladness
No insult or curse may pierce.

You'll be whole and holy:
Living deeply where love blossoms,
Laughter bubbles, and joy overflows.

© 2006 by Maja Trochimczyk 

NOTE: Photos from San Francisco and Los Angeles, (C) 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk

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