A meditation on a nebula, deep time, and us.

What is it about this photograph that is so intriguing? This is the Carina Nebula taken by the James Webb Telescope (NASA). We are looking at a nursery of stars, many far bigger than our own sun. And we are also looking back in time. Deep time. Yet there’s something intimate about it, even though there aren’t any pareidolic references for us to easily latch on to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this image. Perhaps it has such power to so many because we can imagine our souls being birthed alongside these behemoths of condensed energy in great flashes of light. And even with all that bombast in expression, the colourful gasses appear as a gossamer veil that comforts new skin. Any birth is both violent and caressing at the same time, after all. Maybe, therefore, so many of us can relate.

And I keep thinking of where I am viewing it. The living crust of a tiny world, in a tiny solar system, on the edge of a tremendously vast galaxy. A tiny world whose thin, life-giving and sustaining ribbon of air and water is imperiled by the supposed “apex species” that resides upon it. Where the sea and the atmosphere are boiling and seething ever greater with each passing year thanks to the excesses and greed of just a segment of our kind. And for what gain? Power? Status? Access to luxury? Nationalism and flags? Celebrity? Religious dominance?

I think about the video of an orangutan attempting to fend off a bulldozer from her home with only her arms. Being knocked to the forest floor, broken and bloodied. Her home to be razed to the ground likely to become a piece of disposable furniture to be sold in some big box store thousands of miles away, then to be set out on the curb a year later after the trend has run its course. Or maybe to extract palm oil to be used in some overpriced latte at a Star Bucks in LA, where rich people complain about the homeless.

And then I think about that photograph taken in 1946. The one with the military generals and the lady with the atomic bomb hat, slicing into an atomic bomb shaped cake. This was barely a year after hundreds of thousands of human beings were incinerated in two cities by similar bombs. It was celebrating the beginning of years of nuclear detonations on a once pristine atoll in the Pacific, forever polluting the waters and the people who called it home. Celebrating it all, with cake. And I remember how that chapter of madness in history did not end. That the world stands at the precipice of nuclear annihilation again.

I keep thinking of what I would tell a future generation about us on this tiny world. But I’m less and less certain there will be future generations to tell. At least, not of our kind. Perhaps, in deep time, there will be another sentient race of beings who evolve on this celestial stone to create a powerful mirror to see back in time, into the heavens, like we have. Perhaps crows or ants or hydra. Will they be in awe of it too, enough to pause the great wheel of self-destruction that is consuming us now, even just for a moment?

If a nebula can tell us of our beginning, can it tell us how we will end?

Kenn Orphan, July 2022

Image Credit: The Carina Nebula taken by the James Webb Telescope.

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