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Playing Alien Can Help Us See Beauty Here at Home

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

One sunny blue sky winter day, some twenty years ago, I was driving along the Skyline Parkway in Shenandoah National Park in route to a conference relating to natural history education. The scene was nothing short of magnificent: crystal clear air with not a trace of industrial odor; delicate trees standing on ridges against deep blue sky; waterfalls frozen in time as ice-flows cascading over cliffs. Had it been during summer time on a weekend, I would have been immersed in a stream of traffic, an almost metropolitan population of people escaping in search of fresh air and beauty to be found in mountains. Being a weekday during winter, however, it seemed that I traveled alone along the backbone of the world. Such pleasant surroundings foster philosophical contemplation of the best kind. Thus it was, on that day, that I discovered a game that since then I have played to reawaken my spirit to the splendors of planet Earth.

I call the game "Alien" and I introduce it to you now in hopes that it might prove useful in times of need to widen perspective of the marvelous world our lives run through. Being a closet planetary explorer, I had probably been thinking, as I often did, about how truly wonderful it would be to journey to some totally different world and explore it. How marvelous to be the first human to set eyes upon some alien landscape, then go into it, touch and record the treasure trove of objects and phenomena it contained. Then, my thoughts reversed on that day to become something like this. "What if I were an alien from a world out in space, orbiting some distant star--a world very different from Earth. What if I had just arrived at this place to experience it for the first time? How would it seem to me then? How might I react to the scene before my eyes?" "Wow!," I thought, "what a spectacle lies around me. How could I describe it?" In an exuberant moment, my intellectual and emotional breath was taken away. "Surely if I had traveled so far over such a long time to get to this strange place, I would appreciate it in ways that otherwise I could not. Or could I? Perhaps if I suspended disbelief and assumed the mental stance that I was an alien dropped into this landscape, I could capture elements of the place that might otherwise escape attention."

So I played the game as I drove along. My pulse-rate rose and, if I recall correctly, at one point I simply shouted out to the deer and trees, to the rocks and sky, "what a miraculous place this is!" The rest of the trip seemed all too short in time, yet long on pleasure. I suppose that was one of the emotional and intellectual highs of my life.

This experience, simple and personal as it was, has returned to me frequently since that day. Once I wanted to carry it to another level. Having been asked to present a lecture, I briefly considered devising a method of presenting myself to the audience as a true alien from outer space. I would step to the podium in strange dress with some sort of electronic voice modification to add to the illusion. My message would be one of "look around at the glories of this world and do not waste a moment with anything that might detract from the miracle of existence within such wondrous beauty." Not being one with demonstrated acting ability, I chickened out, and although I have thought about it since, I have not seriously considered attempting such a difficult task. I have concluded that the motion picture The Day the Earth Stood Still does the job rather well.

What will always remain with me from that Shenandoah experience is the realization that we can alter our perception of most any situation. By a simple mental posturing we can focus attention on vistas and details we might easily ignore. We can direct the way we accept information through our senses, gathering stimuli into knowledge that satisfies individual and collective conscious existence. We can, if we wish, perceive something that might otherwise be mundane and commonplace as powerful and wonderful.

In April our part of the world awakens in an organic explosion: things lying dormant through winter spring into color, casting fragrance to the nostrils and eyes. That which appeared to be dead comes alive to elevate our spirits and direct our pathways toward more healthy, ambitious and fulfilling activities. Isn't it marvelous what happens because of the relationship of a planet and a star? Earth cruises into the zone where the Northern Hemisphere receives more and more energy, warming air which moves and melts, and everything living responds in a crescendo celebrating life.

Looking around, at landscapes on Earth or starscapes in space, we can say, "So What?" Or we can assume the posture of an alien on voyage of exploration, experiencing the thrill of discovery from moment to moment as the illusive future unfolds the opportunities of our lives.

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