Terraforming is an extreme notion, modifying an entire planet to create a biosphere within which Earth-based live could thrive. But a recent BBC story (thanks to Erik Anderson for the tip) takes on a kind of terraforming that we’ve already accomplished on the South Atlantic island of Ascension. Up until now, I had always thought of Ascension in terms of the BBC transmitter there — in my shortwave days, I always knew who had a relay station where and on what frequencies. But the vision I had was solely of high-tech antennae amidst volcanic debris. Now I learn Ascension has its green side.
Image: British programmer and traveler Les Smith has made several trips to Ascension Island and has produced a wonderful photo log of his travels. This image shows the view looking down from Green Mountain. Further on in the story is a second image from Smith, this one of a garden showing how verdant some places on the island have become as a once barren landscape takes on new life.
David Catling (University of Washington) has been following the travels of Charles Darwin and investigating his association with botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker. Darwin reached Ascension in 1836 at the tail end of his epic voyage aboard the Beagle. The island in those days was, as the inhabitants of the more southerly island of St. Helena told him, no more than a cinder, a volcanic outcropping between Africa and South America, and a long way from each.
The description reminds me of Iceland, which can be unexpectedly verdant in places (particularly the southwest, south of Reykjavik), but which also houses landscapes that are positively lunar in appearance, so devoid of evident life in all directions that you are reminded sharply of the place’s geological immaturity. But just as Iceland has its areas of farmland and growth, so Ascension has acquired a green patina on Green Mountain, its highest peak. The difference is that Ascension’s burgeoning ‘cloud forest’ is entirely artificial. Catling speculates that Darwin had a hand in the eventual growth, which Joseph Hooker became instrumental in creating.
Darwin evidently goaded Hooker to advise the Royal Navy to begin sending trees to Ascension, the idea being to create more water for the growing naval base on the island. From the BBC story:
The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.
So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.
Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.
Back in England, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution were busily uprooting the Garden of Eden.
But on a green hill far away, a new “island Eden” was being created.
The story goes on to quote Dave Wilkinson (Liverpool John Moores University), who discovered plants that seldom co-exist growing together on Green Mountain. Wilkinson is interested in the principles Ascension demonstrates, the notion that brute force terraforming should give way to helping life gradually transform an environment. Could such principles take hold on other planets? The answer is at the other side of a great and necessary debate, one that questions whether we have the right to impact possible life forms on other worlds, and whether even on a lifeless world, such terraforming is more important than preserving what nature hath wrought.
Meanwhile, Les Smith’s photography renews my interest in one day making the South Atlantic island tour, which would take in Ascension, St. Helena, and the incredibly remote Tristan da Cunha, along with a side journey to the Falklands. The Darwinian echoes at Ascension spur me on, as does interest in how the community on Tristan has survived its long isolation.