For the U.S.N. Dirigible, Macon
The noon is beautiful: the perfect wheel
Now glides on perfect surface with a sound
Earth has not heard before; the polished ground
Trembles and whispers under rushing steel.
The polished ground, and prehistoric air!
Metal now plummets upward and there sways,
A loosened pendulum for summer days,
Fixing the eyeball in a limpid stare.
There was one symbol in especial, one
Great form of thoughtless beauty that arose
Above the mountains, to foretell the close
Of this deception, at meridian.
Steel-gray the shadow, than a storm more vast!
Its crowding engines, rapid, disciplined,
Shook the great valley like a rising wind.
This image, now, is conjured from the past.
Wind in the wind! O form more light than cloud!
Storm amid storms! And by the storms dispersed!
The brain-drawn metal rose until accursed
By its extension and the sky was loud!
Who will believe this thing in times to come?
I was a witness. I beheld the age
That seized upon a planet's heritage
Of steel and oil, the mind's viaticum:
Crowded the world with strong ingenious things,
Used the provision it could not replace,
To leave but Cretan myths, a sandy trace
Through the last stone age, for the pastoral kings.
Some background, and a link:
One of the stories I enjoyed hearing when I was a child was how, when she was a girl, my mother saw the dirigible Shenandoah fly over her neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles. It was the first big airship she had ever seen, and she was very impressed. The brief period in the 1920's and 1930's when the Navy experimented with dirigibles produced the largest objects ever to take to the air. The largest of them were as vast as ocean liners. I was born too late to ever see them, but I recall how their smaller cousins, the blimps, once brought a faint echo of that great age to the skies above my childhood home. I never tired of seeing the plump little vessels floating slowly by, their engines humming.
When I grew older, and learned of the string of disasters which had plagued the technology, particularly the destruction of the Hindenberg, I was astonished at how dogged was the determination of its supporters. Altogether, I think more dirigibles were lost to disasters than were ever scrapped. Even when the ships themselves were not in danger, there was risk for those who worked with them. In particular, I remember that harrowing film footage of the four members of a Navy ground crew who were dragged aloft by one ship (I think it was the Akron) when it was forced to abort a landing. In our more cautious era, had the space program been plagued with as many disasters as the airship program was in its time, it would most likely have been abandoned long ago. Yet, what was learned from the work done with airships did prove valuable, even though the big dirigibles passed into history. During the Second World War, blimps did more to protect shipping from the depredations of submarines than any other aircraft. Were it not for the coastal zone of protection provided by airship cover, the task of supplying Britain and Russia with essential materials, had it not failed altogether, would at least have proved far more costly both in ships and the lives of seamen.
Even today, those old black-and-white photographs of the dirigibles of the great age have an evocative power. They seem at once both terribly modern, and cloaked in nostalgia. Looking at them, one can sense the air of adventure and optimism that surrounded them. These ships still seem like products of pure imagination, and they provoke a sense of wonder. People actually flew in these things!
Perhaps, as Yvor Winters felt, industrial civilization is like a meteor, streaking across history only to burn itself out. If it isn't, then the things that keep it alive will not be the materials it uses, but those more ethereal fuels; imagination, courage, and determination. The solutions to problems lie in the willingness to look beyond the short-term goals and inevitable setbacks, and the narrow interests of the day, and envision the greater possibilities which can be opened up. Whether it is the need to develop sustainable resources, or to generate global co-operation aimed at enhancing the opportunities of all mankind, rather than jockeying for temporary advantages over competitors, it is the products of the mind, not those of the earth, which are most important.
Whenever I see one of those splendid pictures of distant galaxies, sent back from the Hubble telescope, I remember how ancient is the light that inscribed them. This remarkable device reveals things as they were when the materials that made the Macon, and Challenger, and Columbia were not yet part of unformed Earth. It gives one a novel perspective on time. There has been, and is, so much of it!
The photographs of Earth itself which have been taken from space also create a new perspective. The thought which always comes to my mind on seeing them is of that comment by Buckminster Fuller: What will happen when we realize that intelligence is a global resource? And, of course, not just intelligence, but imagination, courage, and determination. The remarkable thing about great technological projects is that they have the power to stimulate these ethereal forces which, unlike steel and oil, are limited only by our willingness to use them, whether creatively or destructively. It was the bending of desires toward the creative use of these powers which brought us those pictures of Earth, unmarked by the borders of our familiar maps. If industrial civilizations survives, it will be due to those imaginative, courageous and determined individuals who have bent human desire toward the creative expression of its powers.
U.S.N. Macon, February 15, 1935
Space Shuttle Columbia, February 1, 2003
For those interested, here is a page about the Macon, with some of those evocative black-and-white photographs redolent of the airship era.