Bushwise Field Guides

Cast your mind back to when you were a child.  A time when your mind was free from boundaries and influence; not having to constantly worry about the rat race of our modern life.  It was a time when anything was possible if you just imagined hard enough.  Who among you at one time or another didn’t dream of being an astronaut, piloting the cosmos in a futuristic spacecraft?  But our adult brains are constantly solving problems, be they related to jobs, families or bank balances, and simply do not have time to wander like they used to.  However, there is a primitive trigger in all of us:  that distinct moment where, even if just for a seconds, the mind remembers that its prison of personal, social and economic commitments in fact has no boundaries.

For some it may be the endless expanse of the ocean, the comforting sound of rain falling on a roof or a giraffe silently gliding across the African savanna, but for many, staring upward at a clear night sky is the best form of escapism.  We feel almost compelled to look up and wonder, and unleash our dormant powers of imagination.  Despite our Earthly confines, there is an undeniable deep connection between man and space.

Photo by Ben Coley

Unfortunately though, for many this is a sight that is rarely beheld.  Such is the extent of mankind’s relentless spread across the globe, skies free from light pollution and smog are few and far between.  However, there are pockets of clarity in our deteriorating skies and there is little coincidence that they are to be found in wilderness areas.  People flock from all over the world to visit places untouched by man’s destructive hand to view nature in its virgin glory.  They are seduced by the wide open spaces and the simple yet brutal lives of its inhabitants during the day and when night falls, people stand in awe of the raw beauty of the night sky.

For the safari industry, this is an untapped resource.  Guiding has always been about illustrating the relationships of all things, how everything on Earth is connected.  But why should it stop with Earth?  Like it or not, we are part of something bigger.  Much bigger!  And there is undeniable evidence that we, and everything else on Earth, owe our existence to a multitude of cosmological factors.  Carl Sagan famously said: “The cosmos is within us.  We are made of star-stuff.  We are a way for the universe to know itself.”  And when one understands the relationship between stars and our own existence this rings potently true.

In the early universe, the majority of matter was hydrogen, the lightest and most basic element we know.  The period table is ordered according to atomic weight, or more simply put, by the simplicity of the element.  Hydrogen is number 1, followed by Helium, Lithium, Beryllium and so on, including carbon (from which we are all made) and oxygen…  But elements cannot just appear; so how did the universe develop these heavier elements?

A star is basically a giant nuclear reaction held together by the opposing forces of radiation and gravity.  Hydrogen gas is subjected to immense pressure by the forces of gravity causing it to fuse into helium, giving off massive amounts of heat and light, and as the pressure increases so helium is fused into a string of heavier elements (dependent on the mass of the star) all the way through to iron.  The core of a star does not possess enough energy to fuse iron and thus the radiation given off by the star begins to wane whilst the gravity continues to increase.

Eventually a tipping point is reached and gravity overcomes the star’s radiation, causing it to collapse and explode with a force more powerful than we can imagine.  Within a few split seconds the massive energy created in the ensuing supernova is enough to fuse iron into a whole host of heavier elements.  This hodge-podge of building blocks is then sprayed into the universe to be recycled in the form of new stars and planetary systems!   This includes the so-called precious metals of silver, gold and platinum.  It is no wonder then these particular elements command such a high price – there is very little of them as they can only be created inside a dying massive star!

Evidence of these catastrophic events can be seen from Earth with the naked eye in good conditions.  M1, or the Crab Nebula, in Taurus is a supernova remnant: trillions of tons of freshly created elements dispersing into space to spawn future generations!  M1 can be resolved as a smudge in dark skies without binoculars yet is only one of many deep sky objects visible in conditions found in the majority of game reserves in South Africa.  To better understand the universe gives people a unique perspective of just how much exists outside our own realm.  It forces us to think more, to imagine more and perhaps loosen the chains imposed on us by society’s struggles.  To communicate and illustrate this new perspective is a hugely powerful ability and can be a life changing experience for visitors to this great continent!

It is no wonder then that humans feel such a connection with space.  It is the Earth’s birthplace; our birthplace; our history; our heritage; and ultimately our future.

Blog by Ben Coley