I have a long tradition of getting my readers a little something special for Christmas. Okay, not so long. I started it last year. And it's not like I go shopping and buy something, good honk no. I barely make it out in time to get crap for my dearly beloveds. Thank the baby Jesus for gift certificates, eh?
Not that I'm handing out gift certificates to my readers. What? You think I'm made out of money? What I got you didn't cost me a cent. I got it from somebody else, and I'm passing it along. I suppose you could say I'm re-gifting, but the nice thing about this stuff is, I can give it away and still have it for myself... like when I got my wife that cordless drill a few years back.
No, you're not all getting cordless drills, either. These are things you'll be able to re-gift to your kids and grandkids and on and on. That's why I think they're so special. These gifts will keep on giving long after you and I have trimmed our last tree.
It's likely you've heard about them all already, so don't be looking for no surprises. But my intention is to wrap them up in such a way that you see how truly precious they are--possibly the best things you'll get for Christmas this year.
Samba d' Rain Forest--Earlier in the year, Brazil announced themselves to be energy-independent. They are now producing all the fuel they need from crops grown in-country. That alone was impressive enough, but in early December, they let it be known that an area the size of 125 CEIDRAs was to be under government protection as a nature reserve.
This immense parcel of land has long been under the gun from ranchers and loggers who strip the forest down to the ground and use it to raise cattle. How the Brazilian officials negotiated such a deal with exploitative pirates who are known to have shot preservationists and environmentalists dead, I don't know. But what a gift this is, and not just to Brazil. The whole world is lucky to have such a thing set aside. At just under 60,000 square miles, this area covers one-quarter of the planet's remaining tropical forests and holds (from the Associated Press) "the largest remaining unpolluted fresh water supply in the American tropics."
Aside from the practical benefits of having brand new, rain forest-produced oxygen around for the foreseeable future, isn't it comforting to think there is still some raw wilderness left, even if it is in another hemisphere? And better yet, isn't it nice to know there are still some humans around who believe such a wilderness is worth hanging on to? I say it's too bad we can't bring the entire Brazilian government up and let them run this country for a while. They seem to have a knack for accomplishing things our leaders can't handle.
When the moon base hits your eye--We haven't touched foot on the moon since 1972. For two whole generations, the fact that Neil Armstrong walked on another heavenly body must seem as distant as the Lewis and Clark expedition or Magellan's cruise around the world.
We're going back, though, and this time, we're staying ... so sayeth NASA. They intend to begin construction of a permanent moon base in 2020 and have it done four years later. Lunanauts will eventually stay as long as six months at a stretch.
No doubt, the Space Scrooges will bitch about how much this is going to put taxpayers out, and I don't doubt it'll be steep. I'm calculating if you stacked all the dollar bills it will cost to build a moon base on top of one another, it would reach all the way to ... well, to the moon base.
But we Americans have gone far too long with nothing but paltry dreams and measly goals. From the time we wandered out of Africa, humans have always been explorers. Maybe our finest feature is curiosity (present president excluded) and we are at our best when we're wondering what's over the next hill, across that last ocean ... on the dark side of the moon. This will be good for us, to once more go where no man has gone before. Think about it this way: which would you rather know your great-great-grandchild wants to be when she grows up ... a lawyer? Or a terra-former in New Houston, located on the north rim of the Sea of Tranquillity?
Beat your feet in the Mars mud--We must remember to send a "thank you" note to the Mars Global Surveyor for this one. The little feller--just a machine orbiting the Red Planet, really--snapped some shots recently that offer evidence of water beneath the surface. Liquid water ... not ice. NASA's Mars Exploration Program released pictures of what appears to be a flow of muddy slush running almost a mile down the side of a crater. It sort of reminds you of what sections of Boise's North End might look like after a particularly radical rain.
Scientists speculate that water works to the Mars surface through fissures, then freezes. Eventually, this plug of ice breaks under the pressure and releases a flood onto the surface. It's like a volcano spitting out lava ... only really, really cold.
There's a practical, anthropomorphic benefit to liquid water on Mars, particularly if the moon base goes well. Eventually, some brave new worlder will make the decision to set up shop on our nearest neighbor, and should that happen--and I have ultimate faith it will--any native H2O will come in mighty handy.
But there's a larger consideration here, and that involves water's proven capacity to act as a crucible for life. It is almost impossible for current scientific thought to visualize living things where there is no water, but where there is water, the chances of life climb exponentially higher. It's likely we won't know whether the goop on Mars is home for some--probably one-celled--critter or critters for decades. But I have long held that Mankind could receive no greater gift than the awareness life isn't restricted to Earth. That the great and wonderful living bounty stretches from one end of the heavens to the other. That we are not so special, after all.
We have placed ourselves so smugly at the top of the Grand Scheme of Things, it would be humbling to learn there is even a Grander Scheme of Things than we had heretofore imagined. I don't think it will take something smarter than us (dropping in for a visit from Vulcan, say) to do the trick. Just to know that life is a not-uncommon expectation instead of an improbable miracle would go a long ways in popping our self-important, and so destructive, bubble. It would be a gift not only to ourselves, but to every living thing around us.