English sculptor Phyllida Barlow (no relation to me although I would love to claim her as a kinswoman—after all, so talented AND she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin) has captured an essential distinction in just two sentences:
Things aren’t just visual. They are sensations of physicality.
That “sensation of physicality” calls to each of us in its own way. I am inexplicably drawn to images of planetary bodies, our own as well as those now being captured of our entire solar system by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
I’ve been studying these images for years, and the most recent addition to my library is a stunning small book, Earth & Mars: A Reflection, by Stephen E. Strom and Bradford A. Smith.
Both Strom and Smith are life long astronomers. Some years ago Strom expanded his mastery into photography, publishing a number of books pairing his images with poetry and text. In this book Strom and Smith have coupled these two planets, Earth and Mars, in an exploration that is both artful and scientific. Bringing together stunning images with thoughtful and informative essays, this book is a deep dive into that stunning “sensation of physicality”.
In the introduction, Strom shares his personal connection to these images:
I could not help but be drawn to the commonality of motifs manifest in the martian and terrestrial images. That these patterns are manifest on vastly different scales on different planetary surfaces speaks to the profound beauty inherent in forms that results from the action of universal physical laws over time and space and the interaction of the classical elements: earth, fire, air, and water.
Why did these patterns call to me so strongly? Is it the rhythmic repetition manifest in the ripples that are the inevitable by-product of the motion of air over a sand surface? Is it the fractal character of the channels produced by ancient martian rivers or the spiderlike patterns produced by the interaction of carbon dioxide with the fractured martian regolith? Is it the simplicity or universality of these landscape patterns that are somehow imprinted in biological or cultural deep memory? I invite the reader to explore these images and the aesthetic questions they raise.
How reassuring: A scientist articulates feelings that I have had repeatedly, that sense of recognition and connection with these images. Strom’s legitimizes that sense with his reference to biological or cultural deep memory. Yes to that.
The book is divided into four sections—earth, fire, air, water—and an essay by Smith begin each one. Written for comprehension but also with respect for the mystery of how earth happened to have been made inhabitable, these essays left me feeling a reverential respect for overcoming incredible odds. How fragile it all is, the chances of a planet ending up with water.
In Smith’s words:
At first, both planets acquired substantial atmospheres and oceans of liquid water. Our more massive Earth, however, would retain most of its atmosphere and water, while less massive Mars would lose much of its atmosphere and most of its water. Over time, both Earth and Mars would experience a series of surface-altering processes, including impact cratering, volcanism, tectonics, and erosion by wind and water—but on vastly differing scales. These divergent processes have been responsible for the two completely dissimilar planets we see today, one water rich and life bearing, the other cold, dry and forbidding.
I love this book. I’ve already bought one copy to keep at my studio as well as one for my library at home. This is pure resonance for me, a source book for many of the images that just seem to emerge as I work.
And as an added bonus: Through this book I was introduced to this exceptional online catalog of images: HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). 40,000 images to feast on and freely available for all.
A special thanks to artist and friend Diane McGregor for sending this to me. (She does have the inside track to all this since brainy Bradford A. Smith is her husband.)