Browsing through the BBC’s website this past week, I came across two photos set side-by-side in their “Week In Pictures” whose juxtaposition really struck me. The first picture was a satellite photo of a wild fire on the Greek island of Chios. The smoke from the wild fire threatened to burn down large numbers of mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus) from which mastic gum or resin is harvested as one of the main export products of the islands.
From the map, I noticed that Chios is located just north of the island of Icaros in the Icarian Sea. In the ancient tale of Daedalus and Icarus from the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Bk. VIII. 183-235), Icarus’ father Daedalus advises his son regarding the use of his fabricated wings of feathers, twine, and wax: to fly neither too high lest he burn his wings (ne…ignis adurat); nor too low lest he be weighed down by lethargic waves (unda gravet pennas); and to stray neither too far to the left nor to the right from a course marked out (astrologically) by guiding constellations in the heavens.
As the story goes, Icarus vainly flew too high in imitation of the gods such that the binding wax of his wings melted, and he plummeted into the sea.
Given the southern trail of smoke in the satellite photo, one might have concluded that Icarus himself had unsuccessfully attempted flight again only to have flown to the north of his primordial perilous path (from the isle of Delos towards a midway point between Samos and Lebinthos) and crashed and burned on Chios.
Ovid’s poem has often been read as a metaphorical warning against trying to act contrary to one’s nature. Flight was the purview of the birds not humans. The psalmist recounts a similar sentiment which might also have fallen futilely on Icarus’ ignoring ears:
“Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me.” (Ps. 131:1)
So imagine in some sense my chuckle at the irony that came with the second picture from the BBC website – a photo from the Mars rover Curiosity of the vehicle’s tracks it had traced in the Martian sand.
Have we too now tempted fate as Icarus did? Are we crossing over the threshold of the gods? This trek to the Red Planet does not constitute an attempt to be other than what we are nor to change within ourselves that nature which is our gift from God. While it’s true that reason combined with an unchecked curiosity has led to some of the greatest evils in the history of our race (e.g. nuclear weapons), it’s not the desire for truth (and ultimately He-who-is-Truth) but the manner and aim toward which we apply this desire that determine the moral value of our exploration of nature.
The recent passing of Neil Armstrong, who bequeathed to us a photo of his own tracks left in extraterrestrial dust, reminds us that no amount of passing glory on this earth nor scientific knowledge will keep us from that common fate we all share…Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.