Saturday, December 13, 2008

"The World Eaters", Loren Eiseley

NOTE FROM JEFF: Loren Eiseley has always been one of my favourite naturalists/authors. In this brilliant chapter he shares insights from his many decades of observing nature in all her myriad forms; he reckons that the form of life that the human race most closely resembles is the cellular slime mold. This comparison is offered neither in "derision or contempt", he explains, only as pure observation. This writing is starkly incisive and ultimately terrifying. From the perspective of an "alien intelligence"...or perhaps that of the whales...this may seem like the true nature of human civilization.

The cycles of parasites are often diabolically ingenious. It is to the unwilling host that their ends appear mad. Has earth hosted a new disease – that of the world eaters? Then inevitably the spores must fly. Short-lived as they are, they must fly. Somewhere far outward in the dark, instinct may intuitively inform them, lies the garden of the worlds. We must consider the possibility that we do not know the real nature of our kind. Perhaps Homo sapiens, the wise, is himself only a mechanism in a parasitic cycle, an instrument for the transference, ultimately, of a more invulnerable and heartless version of himself…a biological mutation as potentially virulent in its effects as a new bacterial strain. The fact that its nature appears to be cultural merely enables the disease to be spread with fantastic rapidity. There is no comparable episode in history… To climb the fiery ladder that the spore bearers have used one must consume the resources of a world… Basically man’s planetary virulence can be ascribed to just one thing: a rapid ascent, particularly in the last three centuries, of an energy ladder so great that the line on the chart representing it would be almost vertical… Western man’s ethic is not directed toward the preservation of the earth that fathered him. A devouring frenzy is mounting as his numbers mount. It is like the final movement in the spore palaces of the slime molds. Man is now only a creature of anticipation feeding upon events.”

“The World Eaters”
from Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid, 1970


It came to me in the night, in the midst of a bad dream, that man, like the blight descending on a fruit, is by nature a parasite, a spore bearer, a world eater. The slime molds are the only creatures on the planet that share the ways of man from his individual pioneer phase to his final immersion in great cities. Under the microscope one can see the mold amoebas streaming to their meeting places, and on one would call them human. Nevertheless, magnified many thousand times and observed from the air, their habits would appear close to our own. This is because, when their microscopic frontier is gone, as it quickly is, the single amoeboid frontiersmen swarm into concentrated aggregations. At the last they thrust up overtoppling spore palaces, like city skyscrapers. The rupture of these vesicles may disseminate the living spores as far away proportionately as man’s journey to the moon.

It is conceivable that in principle man’s motor through-ways resemble the slime trails along which are drawn the gathering mucors that erect the spore palaces, that man’s cities are only the ephemeral moment of his spawning – that he must descend upon the orchard of far worlds or die. Human beings are a strange variant in nature and a very recent one. Perhaps man has evolved as a creature whose centrifugal tendencies are intended to drive it as a blight is lifted and driven, outward across the night.

I do not believe, for reasons I will venture upon later, that this necessity is written in the genes of men, but it would be foolish not to consider the possibility, for man as an interplanetary spore bearer may be only at the first moment of of maturation. After all, mucoroides and its relatives must once have performed their act of dissemination for the first time. In man, even if the feat is cultural, it is still possible that some incalculable and ancient urge lies hidden beneath the seeming rationality of institutionalised science. For example, a young space engineer once passionately exclaimed to me, “ We must give all we have…” It was as though he were hypnotically compelled by obscure chemical, acrasin, that draws the slime molds to their destiny. And is it not true also that observers like myself are occasionally bitterly castigated for daring to examine the motivation of our efforts toward space? In the intellectual climate of today one should strive to remember the words that Herman Melville accorded his proud, fate-confronting Captain Ahab, “All my means are sane, my motive and my object are mad.”

The cycles of parasites are often diabolically ingenious. It is to the unwilling host that their ends appear mad. Has earth hosted a new disease – that of the world eaters? Then inevitably the spores must fly. Short-lived as they are, they must fly. Somewhere far outward in the dark, instinct may intuitively inform them, lies the garden of the worlds. We must consider the possibility that we do not know the real nature of our kind. Perhaps Homo sapiens, the wise, is himself only a mechanism in a parasitic cycle, an instrument for the transference, ultimately, of a more invulnerable and heartless version of himself.
Or, again, the dark may bring him wisdom.

I stand in doubt as my forbears must once have done at the edge of the shrinking forest. I am a man of the rocket century; my knowledge, such as it is, concerns our past, our dubious present, and our possible future. I doubt our motives, but I grant us the benefit of the doubt and, like Arthur C. Clarke, call it, for want of a better term, “childhood’s end.” I also know, as did Plato, that one who spent his life in the shadow of great wars may, like a captive, blink and be momentarily blinded when released into the light.

There are aspects of the world and its inhabitants that are eternal, like the ripples marked in stone on fossil beaches. There is a biological preordination that no one can change. These are seriatim events that only the complete reversal of time could undo. An example would be the moment when the bats dropped into the air and fluttered away from the insectivore line that gave rise to ourselves. What fragment of man, perhaps a useful fragment, departed with them? Something, shall we say, that had it lingered, might have made a small, brave, twilight difference in the mind of man.
There is a part of human destiny that is not fixed irrevocably but is subject to the flying shuttles of chance and will. Everyone imagines that he knows wha it possible and what is impossible, but the whole of time and history attest our ignorance. One evening, in a drab and heartless area of the metropolis, a windborne milkweed seed circled my head. On impulse I seized the delicate aerial orphan which otherwise would have perished. Its long midwinter voyage seemed too favourable an augury to ignore. Placing the seed in my glove, I took it home into the suburbs and found a field in which to plant it. Of a million seeds blown on a vagrant wind into the city, it alone may survive.

Why did I bother? I suppose, in retrospect, for the sake of the future and the memory of the bats whirling like departing thoughts from the tree of ancestral man. Perhaps, after all, there lingered in my reflexes enough of a voyager to help all travellers on the great highway of the winds. Or perhaps I am not yet totally a planet eater and wished that something green might survive. A single impulse, a hand outstretched to an alighting seed, suggests that something is still undetermined in the human psyche, that the time trap has not yet closed inexorably. Some aspect of man that has come with him from the sunlit grasses is still instinctively alive and being fought for. The future, formidable as a thundercloud, is still inchoate and unfixed upon the horizon.


Man is a “tinkerer playing with ideas and mechanisms,” comments a recent and very able writer upon technology, R.J. Forbes. He goes on to state that, if those impulses were to disappear, man would cease to be a human being in the sense that we know. It is necessary to concede to Forbes that for Western man, Homo faber, the tool user, the definition is indeed appropriate. Nevertheless, when we turn to the people of the wilderness we must place certain limitations upon the words. That man has utilized tools throughout his history is true, but that man has been particularly inventive or a tinkerer in the sense of seeking constant innovation is open to question.

Students of living primitives in backward areas such as Australia have found them addicted to immemorial usage in both ideas and tools. There is frequently a prejudice against the kind of change to which our own society has only recently adjusted. Such behaviour is viewed askance as disruptive. The society is in marked ecological balance with its surroundings, and any drastic innovation from within the group is apt to be rejected as interfering with the will of the divine ancestors.

Not many years ago I fell to chatting with a naturalist who had had a long experience among the Cree of the northern forests. What had struck him about these Indians, even after considerable exposure to white men, was their remarkable and yet, in our terms, “indifferent” adjustment to their woodland environment. By indifference my informant meant that while totally skilled in the use of everything in their surroundings, they had little interest in experiment in a scientific sense, or in carrying objects about with them. Indeed they were frequently very careless with equipment or clothing given or loaned to them. Such things might be discarded afer use of left hanging casually on a branch. One was left with the impression that these woodsmen were, by our standards, casual and feckless. Their reliance upon their own powers was great, but it was based on long traditional accommodation and a psychology by no means attuned to the civilized innovators’ world. Plant fibers had their uses, wood had its uses, but everything from birch bark to porcupine quills were simply “given.” Raw materials were always at hand, to be ignored or picked up as occasion demanded.

One carried little, one survived on little, and little in the way of an acquisitive society existed. One lived amidst all one had use for. If one shifted position in space the same materials were again present to be used. These people were ignorant of what Forbes would regard as the technological necessity to advance. Until the intrusion of whites, their technology had been long frozen upon a barely adequate subsistence level. “Progress” in Western terms was an unknown word.

Similarly I have heard the late Frank Speck discuss the failure of the Montagnais-Naskapi of the Labrador peninsula to take advantage, in their winter forest, either of Eskimo snow goggles, for which they substituted a mere sprig of balsam thrust under the cap, or of the snow house, which is far more comfortable than their cold and draft-exposed wigwams. The same indifference toward technological improvement or the acceptance of innovations from outside thus extended even to their racial brothers, the Eskimo. Man is a tool user, certainly, whether of the stone knife or less visible hunting magic. But that he is an obsessive innovator is far less clear. Tradition rules in the world’s outlands. Man is not on this level driven to be inventive. Instead he is using the sum total of his environment almost as a single tool.

There is a very subtle point at issue here. H.C. Conklin, for example, writes about one Philippine people, the Hanunoo, that their “activities require an intimate familiarity with local plants…Contrary to the assumption that subsistence level groups never use but a small segment of the local flora, ninety-three percent of the total number of native plant types are recognized…as culturally significant.” As Claude Levi-Strauss has been at pains to point out, this state of affairs has been observed in many simple cultures.

Scores of terms exist for objects in the natural environment for which civilized man has no equivalents at all. The latter is engaged primarily with his deepening shell of technology which either exploits the natural world or thrusts it aside. By contrast, man in the earlier cultures was so oriented that the total natural environment occupied his exclusive attention. If parts of it did not really help him practically, they were often inserted into magical patterns that did. Thus man existed primarily in a carefully reorganized nature – one that was watched, brooded over, and managed by magico-religious as well as practical means.

Nature was actually as well read as an alphabet; it was the real “tool” by which man survived with a paucity of practical equipment. Or one could say that the tool had largely been forged in the human imagination. It consisted of the way man had come to organize and relate himself to the sum total of his environment. This world view was comparatively static. Nature was sacred and contained powers which demanded careful propitiation. Modern man, on the other hand, has come to look upon nature as a thing outside himself – an object to be manipulated or discarded at will. It is his technology and its vocabulary that makes his primary world. If, like the primitive, he has a sacred center, it is here. Whatever is potential must be unrolled, brought into being at any cost. No other course is conceived as possible. The economic system demands it.
Two ways of life are thus arrayed in final opposition. One way reads deep, if sometimes mistaken, analogies into nature and maintains toward change a reluctant conservatism. The other is fiercely analytical. Having consciously discovered sequence and novelty, man comes to transfer the operation of the world machine to human hands and to install change itself as progress. A reconciliation of the two views would seem to be necessary if humanity is to survive. The obstacles, however, are great.

Nowhere are they better illustrated than in the decades-old story of an anthropologist who sought to contact a wild and untouched group of aborigines in the red desert of central Australia. Traveling in a truck loaded with water and simple gifts, the scientist finally located his people some five hundred miles from the nearest white settlement. The anthropologist lived with the bush folk for a few weeks and won their confidence. They trusted him. The time came to leave. Straight over the desert ran the tracks of his car, and the aborigines are magnificent trackers.

Things were not the same when their friend had left; something had been transposed or altered in their landscape. The gifts had come so innocently. The little band set out one morning to follow the receding track of their friend. They were many days in drifting on the march, drawn on perhaps by that dim impulse to which the slime molds yield. Eventually they came to the white man’s frontier town. Their friend was gone, but there were other and less kindly white men. There were also drink, prostitution, and disease, about which they were destined to learn. They would never go back to the dunes and the secret places. In five years a begging and degraded remnant would stray through the outskirts of the settlers’ town.

They had learned to their cost that it is possible to wander out of the world of the ancestors, only to become an object of scorn in a world directed to a different set of principles for which the aborigines had no guiding precedent. By leaving the timeless land they had descended into hell. Not all the tiny beings of the slime mold escape to new pastures; some wander, some are sacrificed to make the spore cities, and but a modicum of the original colony mounts the winds of space. It is so in the cities of men.


Over a century ago Samuel Taylor Coleridge ruminated in one of his own encounters with the universe that “A Fall of some sort or other – the creation as it were of the non-absolute – is the fundamental postulate of the moral history of man. Without this hypothesis, man is unintelligible; with it every phenomenon is explicable. The mystery itself is too profound for human insight.”

In making this observation Coleridge had come very close upon the flaw that was to create, out of a comparatively simple creature, the world eaters of the twentieth century. How, is a mystery to be explored, because every man on the planet belongs to the same species, and every man communicates. A span of three centuries has been enough to produce a planetary virus, while on that same planet a few lost tribesmen with brains the biological equivalent of our own peer in astonishment form the edges of the last wilderness.

One of the scholars of the scientific twilight, Joseph Glanvill, was quick to intimate that to posterity a voyage to the moon “will not be more strange than one to America.” Even in 1665 the ambitions of the present century had entered human consciousness. The paradox is already present. There is the man Homo sapiens who in various obscure places around the world would rarely think of altering the simple tools of his forefathers, and, again, there is this same Homo sapiens in a wild flurry of modern thought patterns reversing everything by which he had previously lived. Such an episode parallels the rise of a biological mutation as potentially virulent in its effects as a new bacterial strain. The fact that its nature appears to be cultural merely enables the disease to be spread with fantastic rapidity. There is no comparable episode in history.

There are two things which are basic to an understanding of the way in which the primordial people differ from the world eaters, ourselves. Coleridge was quite right that man no more than any other living creature represented the absolute. He was finite and limited, and this his ability to wreak his will upon the world was limited. He might dream of omniscient power, he might practice magic to obtain it, but such power remained beyond his grasp.

As a primitive, man could never do more than linger at the threshold of the energy that flickered in his campfire, nor could he hurl himself beyond Pluto’s realm of frost. He was still within nature. True, he had restructured the green world in his mind so that it lay slightly ensorcelled under the noonday sun. Nevertheless the lightning still roved and struck at will; the cobra could raise its deathly hood in the peasant’s hut at midnight. The dark was thronged with spirits.
Man’s powerful, undisciplined imagination had created a region beyond the visible spectrum which would sometimes aid and sometimes destroy him. Its propitiation and control would occupy and bemuse his mind for long millennia. To climb the fiery ladder that the spore bearers have used one must consume the resources of a world. Since such resources are not to be tapped without the drastic reordering of man’s mental world, his final feat has as its first preliminary the invention of a way to pass knowledge through the doorway of the tomb – namely, the achievement of the written word.

Only so can knowledge be made sufficiently cumulative to challenge the stars. Our brothers of the forest have not lived in the world we have entered. They do not possess the tiny figures by which the dead can be made to speak from those great cemeteries of thought known as libraries. Man’s first giant step for mankind was not through space. Instead it lay through time. Once more in the words of Glanvill, “That men should speak after their tongues were ashes, or communicate with each other in differing Hemisphears, before the Invention of Letters could not but have been thought a fiction.”

In the first of the world’s cities man had begun to live against the enormous backdrop of the theatre. He had become self-conscious, a man enacting his destiny before posterity. As ruler, conqueror, or thinker he lived, as Lewis Mumford has put it, by and for the record. In such a life both evil and good come to cast long shadows into the future. Evil leads to evil, good to good, but frequently the former is the most easy for the cruel to emulate. Moreover, when invention lends itself to centralized control, the individualism of the early frontiers easily gives way to routinized conformity. If life is made easier it is also made more dependent. If artificial demands are stimulated,resources must be consumed at an ever-increasing pace.

As in the microscopic instance of the slime molds, the movement into the urban aggregations is intensified. The most technically advanced peoples will naturally consume the lion’s share of the earth’s resources. Thus the United States at present, representing some six percent of the world’s population, consumes over thirty-four percent of its energy and twenty-nine percent of its steel. Over a billion pounds of trash are spewed over the landscape in a single year. In these few elementary facts, which are capable of endless multiplication, one can see the shape of the future growing – the future of a planet virus Homo sapiens as he assumes in his technological phase what threatens to be his final role.
Experts have been at pains to point out that the accessible crust of the earth is finite, while the demand for minerals steadily increases as more and more societies seek for themselves a higher, Westernized standard of living. Unfortunately many of these sought-after minerals are not renewable , yet a viable industrial economy demands their steady output. A rising world population requiring an improved standard of living clashes with the oncoming realities of a planet of impoverished resources.

“We live in an epoch of localized affluence,” asserts Thomas Lovering, an expert on mineral resources. A few shifts and subterfuges may, with increasing effort and expense, prolong this affluence, but no feat of scientific legerdemain can prevent the eventual exhaustion of the world’s mineral resources at a time not very distant. It is thus apparent that to apply to Western industrial man the term “world eater” is to do so neither in derision nor contempt. We are facing, instead, a simple reality to which, up until recently, the only response has been flight – the flight outward from what appears unsolvable and which threatens, in the end, to leave an impoverished human remnant clinging to an equally impoverished globe.

So quick and so insidious has been the rise of the world virus that its impact is just beginning to be felt and its history to be studied. Basically man’s planetary virulence can be ascribed to just one thing: a rapid ascent, particulary in the last three centuries, of an energy ladder so great that the line on the chart representing it would be almost vertical. The event, in the beginning, involved only Western European civilization. Today it increasingly characterizes most of the planet.

The earliest phase of the human acquisition of energy beyond the needs of survival revolves, as observed earlier, around the rise of the first agricultural civilizations shortly after the close of the Ice Age. Only with the appearance of wealth in the shape of storable grains can the differentiation of labor and of social classes, as well as an increase in population, lay the basis for the expansion of the urban world. With this event the expansion of trade and trade routes was sure to follow. The domestication of plants and animals, however, was still an event of the green world and the sheepfold. Nevertheless it opened a doorway in nature that had lain concealed from man.

Like all earth’s other creatures, he had previously existed in a precarious balance with nature. In spite of his adaptability, man, the hunter, had spread across the continents like thin fire burning over a meadow. It was impossible for his number to grow in any one place, because man, multiplying, quickly consumes the wild things upon which he feeds and then himself faces starvation. Only with plant domestication is the storage granary made possible and through it three primary changes in the life of man: a spectacular increase in human numbers; diversification of labor; the ability to feed from the countryside the cities into which man would presently stream.

After some four million years of lingering in nature’s shadow, man would appear to have initiated a drastic change in the world of the animal gods and the magic that had seen him through millennial seasons. Such a change did not happen overnight, and we may never learn the details of its incipient beginnings. As we have already noted, at the close of the Ice Age, and particularly throughout the northern hemisphere, the big game, the hairy mammoth and mastodon, the giant long-horned bison, had streamed away with the melting glaciers. Sand was blowing over the fertile plains of North Africa and the Middle East. Gloomy forests were springing up in the Europe of the tundra hunters. The reindeer and musk ox had withdrawn far into the north on the heels of the retreating ice.
Man must have turned, in something approaching agony and humiliation, to the women with their digging sticks and arcane knowledge of seeds. Slowly, with greater ceremonial, the spring and harvest festivals began to replace the memory of the “gods with the wet nose,” the bison gods of the earlier free-roving years. Whether for good or ill the world would never be the same. The stars would no longer be the stars of the wandering hunters. Halley’s comet returning would no longer gleam on the tossing antlers and snowy backs of the moving game herds. Instead it would glimmer from the desolate tarns left by the ice in dark forests or startle shepherds watching flocks on the stony hills of Judea. Perhaps it was the fleeting star seen by the three wise men of legend, for a time of human transcendence was approaching.

To comprehend the rise of the world eaters one must leap centuries and millennia. To account fo the rise of high-energy civilization is as difficult to explain the circumstances that have gone into the creation of man himself. Certainly the old sun-plant civilizations provided leisure for meditation, mathematics, and transport energy through the use of sails. Writing, which arose among them, created a kind of stored thought-energy, an enhanced social brain.

All this the seed-and-sun world contributed, but no more. Not all of these civilizations left the traditional religious round of the seasons or the worship of the sun-kings installed on Earth. Only far on in time, in west Europe, did a new culture and a new world emerge. Perhaps it would be best to limit our exposition to one spokesman who immediately anticipated its appearance. “If we must select some one philosopher as the hero of the revolution in scientific method,” maintained William Whewell, the nineteenth-century historian, “beyond all doubt Francis Bacon occupies the place of honor.” This view is based upon four simple precepts, the first of which, form The Advancement of Learning, I will give in Bacon’s own words. “As the foundation,” he wrote, “we are not to imagine or suppose but to discover what nature does or may be made to do.” Today this sounds like a truism. In Bacon’s time it was a novel, analytical,and unheard-of way to explore nature. Bacon was thus the herald of what has been called “the invention of inventions” – the scientific method itself.

He believed also that the thinker could join with the skilled worker – what we today would call the technologist – to conduct experiment more ably than by simple and untested meditation in the cloister. Bacon, in other words, was groping toward the idea of the laboratory, of a whole new way of schooling. Within such schools, aided by government support, he hoped for the solution of problems not to be dealt with “in the hourglass of one man’s life.” In expressing this hope he had recognized that great achievement in science must not wait on the unaided and rare genius, but that research should be institutionalised and supported over the human generations.

Fourth and last of Bacon’s insights was his vision of the future to be created by science. Here there clearly emerges the orientation towards the future which has since preoccupied the world of science and the West. Bacon was pre-eminently the spokesman of anticipatory man. The long reign of the custom-bound scholastics was at an end. Anticipatory analytical man, enraptured by novelty, was about to walk an increasingly dangerous pathway.

He would triumph over disease and his numbers would mount; steam and, later, air transport would link the ends of the earth. Agriculture would fall under scientific management, and fewer men on the land would easily support the febrile millions in the gathering cities. As Glanvill had foreseen, thought would fly upon the air. Man’s telescopic eye would rove through the galaxy and beyond. No longer would men be burned or tortured for dreaming of life on far-off worlds.

There came, too, in the twentieth century to mock the dream of progress the most ruthless and cruel wars of history. They were the first wars fought with total scientific detachment. Cities were fire-bombed, submarines turned the night waters into a flaming horror, the air was black with opposing air fleets.
The laboratories of Bacon’s vision produced the atom bomb and toyed prospectively with deadly nerve gas. “Overkill” became a professional word. Iron, steel, Plexiglas, and the deadly mathematics of missile and anti-missile occupied the finest constructive minds. Even before space was entered, man began to assume the fixed mask of the robot. His courage was unbreakable, but in society there was mounting evidence of strain. Billions of dollars were being devoured in the space effort, while at the same time an affluent civilization was consuming its resources at an ever-increasing rate. Air and water and the land itself were being polluted by the activities of a creature grown used to the careless ravage of a continent.

Francis Bacon had spoken one further word on the subject of science, but by the time that science came its prophet had been forgotten. He had spoken of learning as intended to bring an enlightened life. Western man’s ethic is not directed toward the preservation of the earth that fathered him. A devouring frenzy is mounting as his numbers mount. It is like the final movement in the spore palaces of the slime molds. Man is now only a creature of anticipation feeding upon events.

“When evil comes it is because two gods have disagreed,” runs the proverb of an elder people. Perhapsit is another way of saying that the past and the future are at war in the heart of man. On March 7, 1970, as I sit at my desk the eastern seaboard is swept by the shadow of the greatest eclipse since 1900. Beyond my window I can see a strangely darkened sky, as though the light of the sun were going out forever. For an instant, lost in the dim gray light, I experience an equally gray clarity of vision.


There is a tradition among the little Bushmen of the Kalihari desert that eclipses of the moon are caused by Kingsfoot, the lion who covers the moon’s face with his paw to make the night dark for hunting. Since our most modern science informs us we have come from animals, and since almost all primitives have tended to draw their creator gods from the animal world with which they were familiar, modern man and his bush contemporaries have arrived at the same conclusion by very different routes. Both know their relationship with animals by different ways of logic and different measures of time.

Modern man, the world eater, respects no space and no thing green or furred as sacred. The march of the machines has entered his blood. They are his seed boxes, his potential wings and guidance systems on the far roads of the universe. The fruition time of the planet virus is at hand. It is high autumn, the autumn before winter topples the spore cities. “The living memory of the city disappears,” writes Mumford of this phase of urban life; “its inhabitants live in a self-annihilating moment to moment continuum.” The ancestral center exists no longer. Anonymous millions roam the streets.

On the African veldt the lion, the last of the great carnivores, is addressed by the Bushmen over a kill whose ownership is contested. They speak softly the age-old ritual words for the occasion, “Great Lions, Old Lions, we know that you are brave.” Nevertheless the little, almost weaponless people steadily advance. The beginning and the end are dying in unison and the one is braver than the other. Dreaming on by the eclipse-darkened window, I know with a sudden pure premonition that Kingsfoot has put his paw once more against the moon. The animal gods will come out for one last hunt.

Beginning on some winter night the snow will fall steadily for a thousand years and hush in its falling the spore cities whose seed has flown. The delicate traceries of the frost will slowly dim the glass in the observatories and all will be as it had been before the virus had awakened. The long trail of Halley’s comet, once more returning, will pass like a ghostly matchflame over the unwatched grave of the cities. This has always been their end, whether in the snow or in the sand.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"MUNAMADANY DREAMING (landscape)" Jeff Phillips/Liesbet Verstraeten Mural

Hi! Here is the first of two murals Liesbet and I just finished here in Lucinda Qld. "Munamadany" is the local aboriginal name for Hinchinbrook Island (but I'm not sure which of the five local language groups it comes from) and is the inspiration for these paintings. This one is about 4 meters long. We tried to paint all the faunae we saw on our last visit there, although this time we didn't see any powder-blue pterosaurs this time! In the tree you see the rare red-headed booby-pecker, and to the right an upside-down berry-pincher! On the boulder in the lower left corner you see our little lizard friend, as well as a posse of green ants transporting a fat and juicy March fly to their abode. I believe those butterflies are three sub-species of the previously never seen Pribram-Bohm-Seuss variety, which actually do not exist in this dimension but exist only in a parallel dimension that varies in primary harmonic frequency from ours by a factor of phi, or 1.618 (the golden mean).

The mural itself is a semi-imaginary composite landscape of the main features of the island as seen from here...the peak to the left is Mt. Straloch, and the next peak to the right with the square boulder on top (I think the real one is about the size of a house) is Mt. Diamantina; the bay is the shape of Zoe Bay but may be an undiscovered secret bay!

A more complete story/description will be forthcoming but for now..check it out!

Oh, yes...that's the tail of Migaloo, the mythical white whale who's been seen in Australian waters in recent years...

And those two dolphins are Liesbet and me...

cheers jeff

ps thanks to John and Catherine for making these possible...YOU ROCK!

pps thanks to David Bebbs for digital photography

"MUNAMADANY DREAMING (seascape)" Jeff Phillips/Liesbet Verstraeten Mural is the second of the two murals we just finished...this one is inspired by the local sea-life! You see the Great Barrier Reef on the horizon, and Snoetje and Teddy beneath an umbrella there, with an eskie of Coopers. I won't try to describe the myriad of life-forms you see here, but down on the bottom is an extremely rare "platygong", a cross between a platypus and a dugong. The whale is getting some marine Reiki from the crabs (Munamadany crabs have long been known to possess innate Reiki abilities) and the rainbow eel is preparing to discharge a 2 million ampere/80 giga-Gauss magnetic rainbow across the whole local ocean watch out!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

"The Huxleyan Warning" Neil Postman

“The Huxleyan Warning”, chapter 11 of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman, 1985

There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled. In the first – the Orwellian – culture becomes a prison. In the second – the Huxleyan – culture becomes a burlesque.

No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred by many prison-cultures whose structure Orwell described accurately in his parables. If one were to read both 1984 and Animal Farm, and then for good measure, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, one would have a fairly precise blueprint of the machinery of thought-control aas it currently operates in scores of countries and on millions of people. Of course, Orwell was not the first to teach us about the spiritual devastations of tyranny. What is irreplaceable about his work is his insistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right-wing or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversatioin becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse maturity in America’s consuming love-affair with television. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.

Those who speak about this matter musf often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps fo public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. We are not likely, for example, to be indifferent to the voices of the Sakharovs and the Timmermans and the Walesas. We take arms against such a sea of troubles, buttressed by the spirit of Milton, Bacon, Voltaire, Goethe and Jefferson. But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

I fear that our philosophers have given us no guidance in this matter. Their warnings have customarily been directed against those consciously formulated ideologies that appeal to the worst tendencies in human nature. But what is happening in America is not the design of an articulated ideology. No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty years. For example, it would have been excusable in 1905 for us to be unprepared for the cultural changes the automobile would bring. Who could have suspected then that the automobile would tell us how we were to conduct our social and sexual lives? Would reorient our ideas about what to do with our forests and cities? Would create new ways of expressing our personal identity and social standing?

But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history, and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.

Thus, there are near insurmountable difficulties for anyone who has written such a book as this, and who wishes to end it withy some remedies for the affliction. In the first place, not everyone believes a cure is needed, and in the second, there probably isn’t any. But as a true-blue American who has imbibed the unshakable belief that where there is a problem, there must be a solution, I shall conclude with the following suggestions.

We must, as a start, not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position as outlined, for example, in Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus, and to suggest that they do so is to make no suggestion at all. It is almost equally unrealistic to expect that nontrivial modifications in the availability of media will ever be made. Many civilized nations limit by law the amount of hours television may operate and thereby mitigate the role television plays in public life. But I believe that this is not a possibility in America. Once having opened the Happy Medium to full public view, we are not likely to countenance even its partial closing. Still, some Americans have been thinking along these lines. As I write, a story appears in The New York Times (September 27, 1984) about the plans of the Farmington, Connecticut, Library Council to sponsor a “TV Turnoff.” It appears that such an effort was made the previous year, the idea being to get people to stop television for one month. The Times reports that the turnoff the previous January was widely noted by the media. Ms. Ellen Babcock, whose family participated, is quoted as saying, “It will be interesting to see if the impact is the same this year as last year, when we had terrific media coverage.” In other words, Ms. Babcock hopes that by watching television, people will learn that they ought to stop watching television. It is hard to imagine that Ms. Babcock does not see the irony in this position. It is an irony that I have confronted many times in being told that I must appear on television to promote a book that warns people against television. Such are the contradictions of a television-based culture.

In any case, of how much help is a one-month turnoff? It is a mere pittance; that is to say, a penance. How comforting is must be when folks in Farmington are done with their punishment and can return to their true occupation. Nonetheless, one applauds their effort, as one must applaud the efforts of those who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on television – for example, excessive violence, commercials on children’s shows, etc. I am particularly fond of John Lindsay’s suggestion that political commercials be banned from television as we now ban cigarette and liquor commercials. I would gladly testify before the Federal Communications Commission as to the manifold merits of this excellent idea. To those who would oppose my testimony by claiming that such a ban is a clear violation of the First Amendment, I would offer a compromise: Require all political commercials to be preceded by a short statement to the effect that common sense has determined that watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual health of the community.

I am not very optimistic about anyone’s taking this suggestion seriously. Neither do I put much stock in proposals to improve the quality of television programs. Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. “The A-Team” and “Cheeers” are no threat to our public health. “60 Minutes,”, “Eyewitness News” and “Sesame Street” are.

The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is that we watch. The solution must be in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture. There is certain poignancy in this, since there are no people who more frequently and enthusiastically use such phrases as “ the information age”, “the information explosion”, and “the information society.” We have apparently advanced to the point where we have grasped the idea that a change in the forms, volume, speed and context of information means something, but we have not got any further.

What is information? Or more precisely, what are information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intellgence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? Is there a moral bias to each information form? What does it mean to say that there is too much information? How would one know? What redefinitions of important cultural meanings do new sources, speeds, contexts, and forms of information require? Does television, for example, give a new meaning to “piety”, to “patriotism”, to “privacy”? Does television give a new meaning to “judgment” or to “understanding”? How do different forms of information persuade? Is a newspaper’s “public” different from a television’s “public”? How do different information forms dictate the type of content that is expressed?

These questions, and dozens more like them, are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their television sets, to use Nicholas Johnson’s phrase. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers or Marshll McLuhan’s (quite different answers, by the way). This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to television. Although I believe the computer to be a vastly over-rated technology – that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data – will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

In any case, the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind, one of which is nonsense and can be dismissed at once; the other is desperate but it is all we have.

The nonsensical answer is to create television programs those intent it would be, not to get people to stop watching television but to demonstrate how television ought to be viewed, to show how television recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. I imagine such demonstrations would of necessity take the forms of parodies, along the lines of “Saturday Night Live” and “Monty Python,” the idea being to introduce a nationwide horse laugh over television’s control of public discourse. But, naturally, television would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the programs vastly amusing, in the television style. Thus, the act of criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television. The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials.

The desperate answer is to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem: our schools. This is the conventional American solution to all dangerous social problems, and is, of course, based on a na├»ve and mystical faith in the efficacy of education. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to. Our schools have not yet even got around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. Indeed, you will not find two high school seniors in a hundred who could tell you – within a five-hundred year margin of error – when the alphabet was invented. I suspect most do not even know that the alphabet was invented. I have found that when the question is put to them, they appear puzzled, as if one had asked, When were trees invented, or clouds? It is the very principle of myth, as Roland Barthes pointed out, that it transforms history into nature, and to ask of our schools that they engage in the task of de-mythologizing media is to ask something the schools have never done.

And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of television on their students. Stimulated by the arrival of the computer, they discuss it a great deal – which is to say, they have become somewhat “media conscious.” It is true enough that much of their consciousness centers on the question, How can we use television (or the computer, or word processor) to control education? They have not yet got to the question, How can we use education to control television (or the computer, or word processor)? But our reach for solutions ought to exceed our present grasp, or what’s our dreaming for? Besides, it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.

What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World waAs not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Hi! Here are a few photos from one of the nicest sunsets I've ever seen in Australia . Liesbet and I had just arrived at Cole's Bay in eastern Tasmania back in May, so we could do a three-day trek around the peninsula in Freycinet National Park . If you've been to Tasmania or seen photos, you are likely to have seen Wineglass Bay , a top "beauty spot" on the island...this is behind and to the east over the hills from where we are in these photos. We had just jumped off that shuttle and hadn't even put our gear down when we spotted the light show underway. I stood there with my huge backpack on my back for probably 30 minutes, afraid to take it off as I might miss something! I've never seen such hues of red, plus the "window" formations were very unusual. Our whole visit there was quite enchanted, and on our third day when we were on top of Mount Freycinet we had an amazing view of a huge cloud bank approaching from the east, illuminated by the rays of the setting sun...and surrounding the shadow of the mountain-top where we stood, projected onto the clouds, was a bright circular rainbow, as if the nature devas were saying "Hey, nice to have you and here's a little present from us to you!"

Shot with asa 400 print film, Nikon F5, 24mmf/2.8 and 28-300f/4.5 zoom, scanned at 600 dpi.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Here are three paintings from the book Keringke: Contemporary Arrernte Art (Keringke Art, 1999). The Keringke group consists of a number of women artists from the eastern Arrernte peoples; their community is called Santa Theresa and is located about 90 kms southeast of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of central Australia.

I first heard of them when I was in Alice in 2002. I had been going around to some galleries and showing them my hand-painted rocks. The manager of one gallery saw my rock and told me that I really had to go and meet the Keringke women, that we were doing the same kind of thing.

I rang to make sure it was ok to come, and made my way out into the beautiful desert area where their community is. Not many people were around, but I got to meet Sue Graham who was the director at the time, and Kathleen Wallace, the elder/leader of the Keringke artists.

I was blown away by their work. I couldn't believe the colour, the detail, the aliveness, the beauty of the fabrics, ceramics and canvasses they painted on. I could hardly believe that I was in the presence of art that was unlike that of any "modern" or "western civilization" artist, that spoke to me in ways totally beyond any words, as if it was a "language" of encoded information from the spirit of life or dna itself.

I showed Kathleen my rock (it was my one rock I had retained for a couple years, a kind of rainbow-flower mandala on a round white rock from the beach at Findhorn in Scotland. She loved it and told me that she couldn't believe that I used a brush to do this, as they don't use brushes at all, nor the traditional sticks, but little squeeze bottles with various sized tips!

I was just as impressed by Kathleen's presence as I was with their art; she probably spoke no more than a dozen words the whole time I was there, yet I felt a deep connection with her, a deep and real understanding, from one artist to another, that spanned any differences in personal reality.

I gave her a rock that I had brought, and she gave me a copy of their book. I was so inspired by this encounter that a few months later, in my studio in Hobart, I painted a large flat rock and thirteen little ones, in a completely new style that had come to me in Australia, a style which I call "Mullum-Keringke glyphs" ("Mullum" is short for Mullimbimby, a small progressive town in between Byron Bay and Nimbin, in the Wolumbin volcanic caldera, and where this new style of painting first came to me in 2000), and sent it to them as a gift to honour their unique creativity.

But the freakiest thing that came out of all this, and one of several major synchronicities that have happened with me in Australia, was that when I finally had a chance to look through the Keringke art book, I saw a painting that Serena Hayes had done in 1999, with six circles of dots (attachment 3). It was very similar to a painting I had done the same year, "Elohim Photon Dreaming", with seven circles of dots (attachment 4). I had done this painting after going into Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in extreme western North Carolina on the summer solstice of 1999 and meditating on my connection with nature and trees. I had learned that the ancient Druids had a name for a sacred grove of trees, a nemeton, and that the native Americans (the Cherokee reservation is only just over the hill from this old growth reserve) believed that the growing power of plants was at its greatest on the summer solstice.

When I saw Serena's painting I was blown away by the connection, that she and I had done practically identical paintings at about the same time on two different continents, without ever having seen or heard of each other, and then we were drawn to meet!

A couple years ago I asked my friend Robert Bednarik, who's probably the top rock-art researcher in the world, where he thought the most powerful place in the world is, in terms of Earth energy. Without pausing more than a second or two, he answered, "The Pilbarra."
Robert has traveled to and researched in dozens of countries; I trust his judgment.

I haven't been that many places, but western Australia and Australia as a whole in all her vast beauty and diversity is THE most absolutely wonderful and powerful place on this planet that I've yet to visit, with the possible exception of some of the volcanoes of southern Chile.

In places of power where the beauty and spirit of the land have not been stripped away by extractive capitalism to provide "nutrients" for the oncogenesis of industrial civilization you can still feel the true spirit of the Earth, of Mother Nature, of the dream-time ancestors, and of the indigenous people who still 'walk in beauty.' The Earth calls to us now, to awaken and to love her as she loves us!

Jeff Phillips
Leuven Belgium
July 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008









"Clarke himself was a little like the black monolith in 2001: a huge mathematically-proportioned presence from another dimension bringing 'evolution' to the Earth…for better or worse!"



I didn’t know he had died until I picked up an issue of Time magazine in Hobart last month. He was THE sci-fi icon to me, his name being almost synonymous with “good” science-fiction literature in my mind. And the first thing that always came to mind when I thought of him was his work with Stanley Kubrick on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is not only my favourite Kubrick film, and probably my favourite film of all (after Bambi and The Wizard of Oz, of course!), but also what I consider to be the best work of both of these minds…a uniquely synergic artistic masterpiece that expanded our horizons and still defies “understanding.”

Clarke himself was a little like the black monolith in 2001: a huge mathematically-proportioned presence from another dimension bringing “evolution” to the Earth…for better or worse!

Like the “overlords” in his novel Childhood’s End, he may have been merely a proxy for beings far greater than himself, just “doing his job” in a grand scheme beyond even his own comprehension; regardless, however, of some of the dark under-tones in his work, for example, The Songs of Distant Earth, I always considered his to be one of the best and most imaginative minds among those of homo sapiens.

People sometimes ask me how I “knew” Arthur C. Clarke when they see his name listed on my card as owning one of my hand-painted rocks. Here’s the story…

It all goes back to the dolphins. Around the time I quit college in 1978 and enrolled in a much larger “uni”…the “uni-verse”…I began to receive what has been a life-long “calling” to reach out to, communicate with, protect, and understand our friends the dolphins and whales.

This “calling” originally came to me through the work and writings of Dr. John C. Lilly, a brilliant and controversial “renaissance mind” of science whose background in neurobiology led him to the dolphins. I moved to California in 1980 to get involved with his dolphin communication work; my main angle was in the use of music as a form of communication.

What interested me most in Lilly’s thinking was that the cetaceans are a true “extra-terrestrial” intelligence (literally, “away from land”) who not only live on the same planet we do, but have done so for millions of years longer than us, in the ocean, without hands or external technology, with brains that are more highly evolved than ours. Lilly said basically that there was no way we could possibly hope to communicate with or understand true ‘alien’ beings from another planet or galaxy if we couldn’t even communicate with or understand highly intelligent beings from the same planet as ourselves.

Lilly was the only biologist at the first “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence” conference in 1960, along with minds like physicist Philip Morrison; Bernard Oliver, vp of Hewlett-Packard; radio astronomer Frank Drake; and planetary scientist Carl Sagan.

This conference and Project Ozma which it spawned, were the origin of what is called “seti”, or the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” While most of the attention was on looking for and decoding “needle-in-a-haystack” electromagnetic signals from “out there”, Lilly was basically saying that we don’t need radio-telescopes to study “extraterrestrial intelligence”…they are already here in the ocean!

This revelation was a bit much for the hard-core technophiles who were fixated on the idea that any truly “advanced” intelligence would HAVE to be using powerful electronic technologies like our own; to think not only that true “e.t.’s” are already here, BUT also that we are not rolling our the “red carpet” of diplomacy nor “taking them to our leaders”…we are ruthlessly killing them for commercial purposes…was…UNTHINKABLE! Yet this in fact was the essence of Lilly’s message.

All of this resonated powerfully in the depths of my being. I first met dolphins in North Carolina and was overwhelmed by the “magic” of their energy; I moved to California and was actually “on-lab” on the day Joe and Rosie arrived at Lilly’s facility. They were two Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins who had “volunteered” to be part of the project. Later on I was able not only to swim with them, but also to play some music to them as I swam. Lilly’s team had devised a state-of-the-art computer system which could do real-time frequency transforms of our sound range into theirs, and theirs into ours, with hydrophones in the water. I brought some recorded music by Pat Metheny and Ralph Towner; I got in the water with the dolphins and they started the music. I will never forget what happened next. As soon as the music started…I could hear it as well…the dolphins went into this kind of trance-like state where they stopped swimming and just floated there with this really blissful look in their eyes. I knew then that the stories from the ancient Greek philosophers were true…dolphins really do love music!!! I could see it in their eyes! It was as if they were feeling the music with their whole bodies.

I never really fit in with the Lilly group, for reasons I later came to understand; and Lilly himself, despite his profound contributions and awareness-work, began to violate THE most fundamental aspect of respect for fellow beings…they kept Joe and Rosie captive long after they said they would release them back where they came from. At this point Lilly was losing long-time friends and backers because of this. I could see that having the dolphins there was the group’s “ticket” to celebrity; tv crews and other media personnel were showing up every other day. I could also see that all this had nothing to do with understanding the dolphins, and was making them edgier as time went by.

From this experience I learned two major things: that dolphins love music, and that you can’t keep them captive for any reason.

In 1984 I came up with the “Cetacean/Arecibo Project”, which involved doing live musical “dialogues” with free-swimming cetaceans in the ocean and beaming it into space via radio-telescope using a network of computers and satellites. I created a flow-chart for the project and began to create lists of musicians who I’d like to have, as well as of various technical advisors in different areas.

In the course of exploring the radio-telescope connection and how I might get some time on a major “dish”, as well as technical advice on using one as a transmitter rather than a receiver, I contacted the SETI group of NASA, which was based at the Ames Air Force Base in Mountain View, CA, and became friends with Bob Arnold, their director of public relations.

Bob liked my project and shared a lot of information with me; he introduced me to Seth Shostak, director of the SETI group, and put me onto Frank Drake, creator of the famous “Drake equation.” And he invited me to a 1992 SETI ceremony at the Goldstone installation where I got to meet Carl Sagan. But this was the early 1990’s and the “radio-“ astronomy crowd still wasn’t ready to entertain seriously the idea that the cetaceans ARE a true “extra-terrestrial intelligence.”

Bob could sense my frustration; one day he said, “Jeff, you know who you need to talk to about your project? Arthur C. Clarke.”

I said, “ Hey that would be fantastic. You don’t know him, do you?”

“Not personally. But I can give you his mailing address in Sri Lanka.”

So I wrote a letter to Arthur C. Clarke explaining my background and this and other things I was involved with. I sent him a hand-painted rock and a t-shirt with the “Cetacean/Arecibo Project” flow-chart on it. I also mentioned the work of Roger Payne, who was the first to record humpback whale sounds in the 1960’s, and told him that Carl Sagan had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and was hospitalised. This was 1995.

A few weeks later I was truly surprised to receive a letter back from him. Attached are the pages of that letter. It was a form letter telling of his recent journeys and on-going projects, but it had some hand-written notes to me. Most importantly, his phone number was on it, so I rang him up.

A very polite Indian-sounding voice answered the phone, saying this was Arthur C. Clarke’s residence, and who was I. I said, “This is Jeff Phillips calling from Boulder, Colorado. Is Arthur available?”

After a minute or so he picked up the phone. His first words were, “Ah…Jeff Phillips. Good to hear from you. I want to thank you for the painted rock and the t-shirt…”

I was blown away! Here I was talking with the leading science-fiction writer of the 20th century and he was thanking me!!!

We talked for about 45 minutes. This was before the day of 8-cent-per-minute international calls…I think it cost me about $50usd! A bargain at any price! We talked about all kinds of stuff. First he told me that he personally responds to EVERY SINGLE PIECE of mail he gets…which was voluminous…and that this alone takes a lot of his time, but he took his supporters seriously. He asked me how Sagan was doing…I told him his condition appeared to be worsening. We talked about my project and a lot of technical stuff. He said that he would be happy to be a technical advisor. I asked him what he thought of my article that had been recently published by Ad-busters magazine called “The Age of Infotoxin”, about the weaponization of communication and the pollution of our mental environment. He loved it and agreed that we had serious problems here. But he also emphasized that, in his thinking, it was better to have created the technologies of communication, with ALL that it has brought, as opposed to having never created them at all. This gave me a lot of food for thought. In fact, I’m still thinking about it about it 13 years later!

I spoke with him again a few months later, but then we dropped out of touch. It was a very cool connection to have made.

And the “Cetacean/Arecibo Project” got shelved, not because of lack of interest on my part, but because I realized that what musician Ralph Towner told me in an interview I did with him in 1990 was true. Ralph had long been my very favourite of human musicians, and I liked to tell people that if planet Earth needed one person to represent “us”, Ralph and his guitar should do it. And it was some of his music that I first played to the dolphins in Redwood City that day. I had been telling Ralph about the project, and he said he would be honoured to participate. Then he added, “But you know, Jeff, we should really leave those people alone.”

His words have echoed in my mind ever since. Without even thinking about it, he referred to them as “people.”

It’s weird…in today’s world, it seems to me that the whales and dolphins are truly acting more like real “people” than we are. And they wouldn't possibly be able to respond to our music while they're being harpooned, drift-netted, and blasted by naval sonar!!!

But this is another story, and one that I will soon be telling.

I would like to thank Arthur C. Clarke for his immense and creative contributions to the human endeavour, for taking the time to talk with me, and for inspiring me. His work is a testament to the most fundamental belief held by Albert Einstein: 

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

And I may be the only person ever to get him "stoned"...legally, that is!

24 JUNE 2008

* Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke dies age 90

* This is his “home page”…lots of info…

* Here is a link to the original 1945 article in which he spelled out the details of how to put satellites in orbit around the Earth…

* And this link shows his original drawing…and where we’ve gone with it all…