The  Lowell Letters

Extract
from 'Letter 5'
Extract from Lowell's "Letter 5"

    ...It was clearly high spring in the Southern Hemisphere of Mars. The soufflé-thin polar cap was beginning to melt, and I noted a dark ring around it. I was reminded inevitably of a ring of the Antarctic Ocean. I saw a uniform dark belt in this hemisphere, too, stretching unbroken from the Hourglass Sea to the columns of Hercules. The laculae, of which I counted no less than forty, were at the intersections of the canals and, although small, were unmistakably of a viridian hue, and I wondered even as I looked whether these were centres of life on the planet.

    It was the canals, or canali as recorded by Professor Schiaparelli in 1877, that provided the greatest reward. It is an irony of the Italian language that Schiaparelli created a minor storm by innocently using the Italian word for channels as he did, and now, seventeen years later, I find that these canali are indeed canals in the true sense of the word. The planet was absolutely criss-crossed with these features. Not only did I see again the canal Lethes, which seems to be a little wider than most of the rest, but I was able to see many others. Some were double in form and I was able to make out most clearly two instances of canals that were triple in formation. It was indeed a revelation.

    It was after studying the planet’s disk for five minutes or so that I became aware of two things. The first was the dawning realisation that I should be sketching what I saw, instead of just gawping at it like a helpless child. In my defence I must point out that a helpless child is exactly what I was. After all, I have spent several hundred hours at the eyepiece of a telescope and never before have had I enjoyed ‘perfect seeing’ for a fraction of this time, and never when the telescope was trained upon the Red Planet. And what I was seeing!

The second thing of which I became aware was an insistent pecking at my sleeve. It was, of course, Pickering tugging at my garments to attract my attention. I cannot tell you with what reluctance I made way for him, but I did (to my eternal credit, I think!) Belatedly I tried to catch up with my sketching while he was at the telescope, but there was much too much in the way of detail to make an adequate record. Even had I begun sketching immediately, I fear that I would have recorded only a small part of what there was to see.

After what subjectively seemed a long time but, measured by the chronometer was quite the opposite, Pickering indicated with a shake of his head that the wonderful time we know as ‘perfect seeing’ (I had not fully realised before this morning just how apt that description is) was over...