Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On owning a hole in the ground

When I was a child of ten, my father and I drove from Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Along the way, we stopped to see the Meteor Crater about twenty miles west of Winslow, AZ. I reckon we were warming up for seeing one of the world's most magnificent canyons made by a river by looking at a smaller, but not unimpressive, hole in the ground made by a meteor. As I remember it, the meteor crater was just a big hole in the ground which a person could view by standing at the rim and looking down. My father, a geologist, explained the meteor crater to me in his own gifted way of explaining geology to a child. A few days later, he explained a good deal of the Grand Canyon to me. I still cherish those explanations. The geological time-frame and the astronomical scale of space became part of my life-long worldview, along, of course, with the theory of the evolution of species through random mutations. It was, and still remains, a worldview in which God was never seen as a necessary hypothesis.

I mention this background information to set the stage for the sense of dismay I had last week when I went to see the Meteor Crater again, this time with my wife, this time not as a lad of ten but as a man of sixty-four. The current site is quite a bit different from how I remember it. Now it's in a big enclosure surrounded by high fences with barbed wire on top. There is a museum, a gift shop, a Subway sandwich vendor, and a big wall commemorating all of America's astronauts, some of whom reportedly had some lessons there in geology in preparation for viewing craters on the moon. There are several viewing decks equipped with viewing tubes aimed at interesting sights. One interesting sight is a cardboard cutout of an astronaut down at the bottom of the crater.

There are other differences. These days there are guided tours. It costs $15 per person ($14 for seniors 60 or over) to view the crater. The ticket sellers and tour guides and clerks in the gift shop all wear uniforms that make their wearers look as though they might be US Park Service employees, but they are not. The uniforms have a big American flag on the sleeve, but there are no official US government insignia. Where such insignia usually appear on a real US Park Service uniform, the employees have various pins attached to their shirts. One pin I managed to read said JESUS SAVES. My wife and I listened in on one of the guided tours. At one point the tour guide said “To my mind, the only thing more interesting to study than this crater is God himself.” There were several other references in his talk to Our Maker, the Big Guy in the Sky, the Man Upstairs and our Lord and Creator. (The tour guide also mentioned Geraldo Rivera, for some reason.) He made a point of pointing out that early geologists had been “spectacularly wrong” in their hypotheses about how the crater got there; some reportedly thought it was a volcano. The reason for poking fun at the mistaken hypotheses of geologists seems to have been to set the stage for the telling the crowd that the person who first realized the hole was made by a crater was the businessman who eventually bought the property on which the crater is found and whose family still owns the property. The underlying message seems to be that scientists get things wrong and so perhaps should not be trusted as much as businessmen who know how to turn a hole in the ground into a steady source of revenue.

The whole thing leaves me with a sense that the meteor crater is a symbol of so much that is profoundly wrong with American society as it has evolved. It strikes me as wrong that the meteor crater is privately owned, just as it strikes me as wrong to think that any parcel of earth can be owned. The entire earth surely belong to all of us who are passing through, not to any individual or corporation. The very idea of private property is surely delusional to the point of being almost psychotic.

It is especially offensive that the people employed to sell the crater to the public so openly invoke references to God. Surely anyone who seriously believes in God must know that natural wonders of the world can never be owned by creatures. The land and the sea and the waterways and the sky are all of them public domain that should never be allowed to be seen as private property.

At least the museum at the Meteor Crater wasn't too bad. It was, however, certainly not worth $15 a person (or even $14) to visit it. Similar facilities run as national monuments by the US Park Service would probably be free or maybe up to $5 apiece, and I think Park Service tour guides could probably manage to talk about the geology and astronomy of a meteor crater with considerably less theology mixed into their talks. If the Park Service managed the site (which they cannot do, because National Monuments cannot be operated on privately owned land), it would be educational, not an infomercial for a business entrepreneur. If the Park Service managed the site, it would be about meteors that fall to the earth and the moon and other planets from space, not about human pilots who go into space as part of a massive propaganda enterprise of a nation obsessed with patriotic sentimentality. If the Park Service managed the site, it would not be allowed to become just another commodity. Calling the site Meteor Crater Natural Monument and dressing the tour guides and ticket sellers and gift-shop clerks as much like US Park Rangers as possible is clearly intended to create the impression that one is visiting a National Monument managed by the US Park Service, but all the basic values of the US Park Service are in fact being mocked.

It so happened my wife and I visited the Meteor Crater, with its wall commemorating all the American astronauts who have been into space, just a few days before the fortieth anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. Visiting the Meteor Crater left me feeling heartsick in many of the same ways the first moon landing left me feeling heartsick and discouraged back in 1969. The first moon landing happened when America was being torn apart by a pointless and immoral war, and when people who were fighting for the exercise of the most basic rights of American citizenship were being beaten, sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses and killed. The moon landing distracted a nation into celebrating its collective wonderfulness at a time when there was very little going on in America that was worthy of celebration. The moon landing was not celebrated as an achievement for human science, but as a monument of American prowess and domination. It was shameful when it happened, and it is shameful now. Seeing the Meteor Crater turned into a monument of the American space program reminded me of that shame. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to be reminded of that shame.

The only thing symbolically appropriate about the Meteor Crater Natural Monument and all it has come to celebrate is that it is a big hole in the ground that was until fairly recently officially known as Canyon Diablo.