Notes from a Once Large Planet

Paula Read


The first letter I ever wrote to a magazine was to volunteer to be sent to a space colony so Planet Earth could be relieved of the burden of teenage me, all my human requirements, and hopefully those of many other volunteers. Co-Evolution Quarterly, a 1970s counterculture offshoot of The Whole Earth Catalog, was a publication of idealistic futurism that offered thoughts on what to do about the shrinking place we called home. In the wake of the first images of Earth taken from outer space, Earthrise (1968) and The Blue Marble (1972), we all saw our previously infinite planet floating alone in a vast black sea. The real constraints of our shared sphere had been made shockingly obvious. Resources were demonstrably limited; our passion for growth wasn’t. What to do? Well, for one young teen, the answer to saving the planet was space colonies: “Sure, I’d go.”

Our planetary perspective has been expanding and contracting like an accordion ever since the Blue Marble moment. The Earth is big enough to satisfy our hunger; the Earth is too small to support all our desires. Floating space colonies are no longer the answer, but what about Mars? Or strip mining on the Moon? Maybe the ocean deep isn’t looking so bad, either. What hasn’t changed, not really, is the standard industrial nation recipe for yeasting expansion: Colonize, extract, repeat.

I’m not sure what I imagined life on a space colony would be like beyond the optimistically forested donut-shaped space cities that illustrated the magazine, nor did I have any concept of resources and sustainability, but I know I imagined whatever part of space we might colonize to be a massive void that could certainly support whatever impact we might have on it. And this notion of a place in possession of an endless capacity for intrusion, combined with my blithe sense of belonging no matter where I might go, would have made me an ideal settler colonist. I should know. I come from a long line of them.

My Euro-American family—mostly of English, Irish, and Scottish background, with a bit of German thrown in at some point—started arriving on the Atlantic coast of North America sometime in the 18th century. Family lore has it that we floated over on the Mayflower but family lore is something I’ve learned to treat with the caution of consuming a much-told myth or fairy tale, namely, there might be a kernel of truth, to be taken with a grain of salt. From what I have gleaned, the last of us to leave Europe for the New World came over in the mid-19th century and moved west with the frontier’s cutting edge and sometimes a little ahead of it. My maternal family arrived in Oregon Territory around the time of the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s; by 1900, my paternal family was in Washington State.  Which is to say, we were settlers. Colonisers. We didn’t just migrate across the continent, adopting local customs and trying to fit in. We travelled in our wagon train of an imported civilization and then overlaid entire landscapes with it.

Even as we must surely have participated in some of the worst traits of settler colonists, we also immediately reinvented our own stories in the blank pages of an all-new history book that we opened and held in front of us to obscure anything that had gone before. My grandmother, who was born in 1910, could recite the names of all the tribal lands and reservations around her family’s large wheat farm in eastern Washington, but there was never any indication of how we came by that land or what had been there before, even though it must have been within recent memory of her own parents and grandparents. We didn’t just arrive bearing sacks of wheat seed and porcelain teacups, we brought along sharecroppers to work our land and a profound sense of belonging to this new place, and of this new place belonging to us. My late grandmother used to lament the uniformity of the victorious pale yellow sweetcorn as an all-American crop when compared with the colourful, varied Indian corn of her youth. I think it would have hurt and angered her for me to suggest it as a metaphor.

If you want to create a present time that entitles you to take possession of a place, to truly own it from the soil, down to the bedrock and up to the sky and everything in between, you need to manifest a past that puts you there by rights. No matter what lays before you, whether forest, field, or stream, inhabited or not, what you need to see is a broad empty place, a landscape of unexplored possibility that only you and your fellow travellers can truly understand what it has to offer. It wasn’t just that settlers on the North American continent wanted to take territory away from Native Americans. They were convinced that Native Americans were using the land wrong. The resources were not being properly exploited. The trees were uncut, the prairies unploughed, the territory unmeasured and masterless. We arrived to rectify this.

It wasn’t that my ancestors didn’t see any Native Americans around them; their talent lay in the ability to unsee them. The required skillset was to have encounters that were unfriendly or friendly, contentious or peaceful, but which could be refashioned into the new history by rendering the connection between Native Americans and the land all but non-existent. To paraphrase Ray Bradbury’s stories of colonisation in The Martian Chronicles, indigenous people became no more than passing ghost ships with phantom passengers from a fading story. And like departing ships, their wake quickly dissipated, and the vista could be considered empty, ready to be sailed by our new prairie ships.

In 1979, my grandmother Helen May Dwelley and her second husband, Charles Dwelley, co-edited a collection of pioneer stories for a pioneer historical society in Washington State called Skagit Memories: Stories of the Settlement Years as Written by the Pioneers Themselves. The diary and journal entries are all by and about white settlers (including my grandparents), and all of them extol strong, determined, happy perseverance in the face of all difficulty that is attributed to American settlers. The Indigenous inhabitants who were driven from the land are mentioned mainly in reference to the rivers and regions named after them—Skagit itself is both the name of the Native American people who lived in the area and also the name of their language. As Haitian historian, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, writes of colonialist production of history and silencing, “narrative counts as a practice of forgetting.” Skagit Memories might carry the name of the Skagit people, but they are seen as little more than exotic creatures passing out of memory. 

This re-historicizing is just one mechanism by which forgetting becomes real, and that shiny new real becomes the history we are taught. Along with this history, white descendants like me, and those who learn our history from the same books, learn that we rightfully inherited this destiny built on half-truths and silencing. And if we start to forget that history, if we start to agitate because society doesn’t look as fair or just as we think it might—worse, if we start to humbly suspect that genuine equality and justice might be the only path forward to self-preservation—then we are quickly reminded of this past and its supremacy. 

The noble frontier myth has been used again and again in American popular culture during times of social flux, with pioneer status being treated as if it conferred special credibility. How did a family gain pioneer status? By proving that the family was present in each territory before a certain cut-off date, usually the granting of statehood. Who granted the status? Usually pioneer historical societies. Did my grandparents apply for and gain pioneer status in Washington State on behalf of our family? You bet they did. But not to worry if your family didn’t have the foresight to arrive on pre-statehood territory in a timely fashion. There are plenty of stories told that can almost make you feel like you did, or at least, that you possess that same pioneer spirit.

In eras of social upheaval, one need only look at the continued popularity of the frontier settler myth in the form of series extolling the fierce individualism, determination, and self-sufficiency of the imagined West. Post-WWI societal and financial confusion? Popular Western books, movies, musicals, and television series have formed, fashioned, and kept the frontier myth alive. By the 1950s, Hollywood’s production of Western films outnumbered all other films combined, right during an era when the United States needed the moral high ground for its positions on the world stage and at home. Minor tweaks are made to accommodate a given decade’s progress—the occasional strong female, Black, Native American or a person of colour given a prominent role—but the overall thrust remains the same. Even well-intentioned genre-critical works like Little Big Man (1970) were told from the perspective of white settlers because that’s how we white folk tell stories. The Little House on the Prairie books have been wildly popular since they were first published in the 1930s and 1940s and became even more popular with a long-running television series (1974-1983), unleashing an entire industry of sunbonnet sewing designs and flounced long skirts. 

How we talk about the past influences how we envision the future—not just how, but perhaps more importantly, it influences our own ability to envision different futures from our past. Every time we approach different visions, along comes a reinforcement of our past and its unassailable importance. 

What if all homey pioneer nostalgia trends included a bit of the other parts of the pioneer experience? Growing up on the West Coast, my white family and most of my friends held ourselves daintily apart from the racism of the South and its unresolved legacy of the Civil War. We, our people, sunny sun-kissed sun-loving people of the West Coast, were not a part of that history. We, the fortunate coast-dwellers whose pioneer ancestors hoofed it across the continent, slave-free and in good conscience, had nothing to do with that unseemly debacle!

My family moved from Washington State to California in the 1930s and 1940s, this time making an easy, motorised migration within their own culture rather than colonising via horse and wagon (and with continued freedom of movement and location not necessarily available to everyone). What I didn’t learn in school was that California was granted statehood in 1850 only under a compromise that allowed slaveowners to claim any fugitive enslaved people within California, even though the state constitution prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. I didn’t learn that enslaved people had indeed been brought West by white slaveowners and that some were taken back East when white owners returned there. And when they refused, they could be considered fugitive. What this means for me as a fifth-generation white descendant is that there is a non-zero chance that at least some of my ancestors were slaveholders as they moved west. And as a West Coast citizen, I certainly wasn’t taught about how Chinese and Japanese immigrants had been barred from citizenship until 1943 and 1952 respectively, even though I went to a primary school in San Francisco that was predominantly filled with Japanese-American children.

My people moved across a landscape cleansed of inhabitants and history before them, and they had the freedom to liberate the family lore from any unpleasant truths like so much mouldy baggage left by the side of the wagon trail. When people talk about a ‘hidden history’ of something, like slave ownership or discrimination in the Golden State, what’s meant isn’t that something has been lying around, undiscovered like chunks of gold in a riverbed. The concealment has been active and ongoing from the very beginning.

We are carefully trained, not by some outside nefarious force, but by ourselves, in the art of not-seeing, of wilful ignorance, of seeing empty space in a populated landscape, space that is patiently awaiting our arrival. It’s a perfection of dreams being manifested in real-time by the wishes of those dreaming, untethered from their manufacture with every new influx of story-telling helium. We linger, buoyant on our own gas, high above this landscape of our own imagining, seeing only the parts that serve our story and our elevation, and obscuring the rest with hands held aloft before our faces so we needn’t see.

What would my childhood have been like if we had told the other stories, the full story, behind our family’s claim-staking as they settled the American continent? I can’t imagine it, because none of them could either. Looking for better opportunities, whether economic or social, they left behind places that didn’t serve them in search of places that did. They were reinventing better pasts for themselves to create the landscape where they had arrived and where they one day hoped to arrive. I try to imagine this seesaw of knowing and then unknowing each time you think the place is empty without you, waiting for your story to be written upon it, and then I realise that this is my inheritance.

Settlers described the New World as if it wasn’t an Old World itself, because we needed that open range of possibility in order to expand our own lives across a place that already had its own narrative. It goes almost without saying that people who are not descendants of these settlers, nor the descendants of later arrivals who choose to wrap themselves in the flag of this specific history, in short those who didn’t grow up with these roots, already know about parallel narratives and people who are hothouse bred and raised to drift along in blissful not-seeingness. 

I can’t blame my ancestors for being of their time, for doing what everyone around them was doing, what their government encouraged and supported, what they had been raised to do. But what I can do is live my life in more knowledge and humility at what my history—the little I actually know of it, to be honest—has given me when it comes to thinking I could float above a landscape of unabated progress. Time to come down to earth, this Earth. 

It would be comforting in a way to think that the prospect of colonies in space, or on the Moon, or on Mars, would be different than the colonisation processes of history, with the patterns of genocidal expansion and oppression, just because space, the Moon, and Mars presumably have no current inhabitants. None that we can see scurrying around, anyway. Or to believe that due to population pressure, or climate change, or pollution, or inequality, that abandoning this home for the promise of another is a realistic alternative that would solve our problems. After all, other planets, other terrains, offer an idea of the proverbial blank slates to be fashioned into new Edens, or at least, survival pods for refugees from a self-scorched homeland. 

We once had a larger planet that seemed like an endless universe, one that dazzled us with the knowledge of territories that most of us had never seen, across the seas and continents, as distant as the Moon. Now that we know this planet is finite, we turn our eyes to the skies, to people who promise us uncharted dominions to be conquered, to draw our own new maps on ancient lands.

In the space colony narratives being discussed, I see the same sense of limitless entitlement of my ancestors. The same tenacious self-belief that their desires will lead to great progress, put in the service of entitlement and unequal privilege. The same hunger of Manifest Destiny has never led us anywhere but to exactly where we are now, looking for another way out.

Paula Read

is a

Flash Editor for Panorama.

Paula Read is a writer and translator. She has written fiction and non-fiction for many publications, including The Independent, Undark, Litro and elsewhere. Born and raised in California, she has lived in France for many years.