For many years I’ve thought about and taught the idea that it was with our space flights beginning in the ‘60s that we were given the gift of seeing the Earth as a whole. This was an idea I first learned from Joseph Campbell, in the multi-part film interviews he did with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.
In the last segment of that inspiring series, the screen was filled with an image of the Earth seen from far beyond the atmosphere. Campbell’s voice spoke about the unique psychic opportunities presented to humanity by these images of the whole Earth – a chance to view life as planetary, transcending tribes and nations.
What I have said over the years since I saw The Power of Myth is that I was not born with a consciousness that saw the Earth and its life as a whole, but had to learn it, albeit as a very young person. By contrast, our children were born into this consciousness as natural to them.
Then, this year, during Holy Week I had a revelatory experience. In the small hours of Holy Saturday, Sheila and I got up to watch the progression of the full lunar eclipse. As I stood quietly for about half an hour, watching the face of the Moon be covered by the shadow of the Earth, I suddenly thought, “We have been seeing the whole Earth for as long as our species has existed; we have been seeing the whole Earth by means of its shadow.”
People have had many explanations for what caused lunar eclipses. I remember a colorful, playful children’s book that we used to read to our daughters that was based on a South American myth – the Moon was a great sugar cookie, and a cosmic wolf monster came night by night to eat it up. Papagayo, the noisy parrot scared it away so that it didn’t disappear altogether. This myth was more about the waxing and waning of the Moon, rather than about eclipses, but it shows a different explanation than the shadow of the Earth.
Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher who lived in the middle of the 4th Century BCE is the first person in recorded history to speculate that it was the shadow of the Earth that caused a lunar eclipse. Perhaps Anaxagoras was not the first to intuit this truth, but still it is a long time in human terms for us to hold an awareness of the whole Earth, through its shadow.
The Earth seen by means of shadow; the Earth seen mediated by lenses borne in spacecraft – these two ways of seeing the whole Earth may yield different kinds of understanding. The sunlit view of Earth, so beautiful and so full of promise, yet has an overlay of our ego on it – “Look what we can do,” “If we can do this, there is nothing beyond our reach.” By contrast the shadow of the Earth is given to us, comes to us uninvited. To receive the gift of the shadow Earth, however, we must show up for it, rise in the middle of the night and gaze on it, reflecting on its alternative wisdom.
You can guess what the domain of shadow wisdom is. While that which lurks in cave or cosmic shadow is frightening, the fear arises because it is counter-cultural – in the light of overwhelming materialism, consumerism, objectification, the alternative is experienced as negative. Traditional ways of knowing and relating to the Earth, to each other, sustainable ways of growing food – all these might be seen as threatening to we who live so fully in a “light” that arose some 300 years ago and that has been intensifying ever since.
The Earth seen by means of its shadow on the Moon is an alternative path of knowledge for us today. It invites us to explore our collective secrets, our shadows of consciousness. Viewing the Earth by means of its shadow is an invitation of the moment, a doorway of understanding for humanity through which we should journey together.