Ascension Island

34 sq. miles, 850 people and a cloud forest.

Ascension isn’t in the Pacific but it is too good a story to not drag under our Pacific umbrella. Ascension is by geologic standards brand new as it’s a volcanic cone just one million years old. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1501, it was so barren and devoid of plants, water and animals that they didn’t even lay claim to it. There were certainly no local folks to usurp so the Portuguese and all the other explorers just sailed on by until the 1800s when the British Royal Navy decided they had better establish a base there to keep an eye on Napoleon. He was imprisoned by the French on St. Helena 800 miles away. Even in prison Napoleon was greatly feared, though how you monitor the situation from that distance is puzzling.

In that the island had scant water and no food at all it was a very poor garrison. In fact, it was so extreme that they designated the island as a naval vessel, the HMS Ascension which was known as a ‘stone frigate’.

In 1836 a 27 year old Charles Darwin came ashore having just come from the relatively lush St. Helena. He agreed with the saying attributed to the people of St. Helena that “We know we live on a rock, but the poor (six) people at Ascension live on a cinder.” In the 1840s the most noteworthy British botanist and renowned world traveler was Thomas Hooker who was eventually the director of the British Botanical Gardens at Kew. He was Darwin’s biggest supporter and closest friend. They had both been to Ascension and noted that there was but a single tree on the island and little else besides moss and lichen.

What the place looked like before Darwin and Hooker got hold of it

Together, they proposed to the Admiralty that if a naval base was to be successful it would need water and the way to get it was to terraform the island. The government agreed to the project and for the next few decades the navy brought plants from all over the world. Bamboo from Africa, eucalyptus from Australia, bananas from Asia, Norfolk pine from the South Pacific and rhododendrons from England. In the tropical heat they flourished and eventually a cloud forest developed. The trees captured moisture from the passing clouds and it dripped onto the grasses which held the ground water and in a few decades there were creeks running year-round. Ironically as Darwinism was uprooting the Garden of Eden he and Hooker were creating an island Eden.

Over time the British military built up their presence and the Americans moved in and established a key GPS station there.

Napoleon is long gone and I hear he is in Napoleon’s tomb in Paris but who knows. I haven’t seen the fellow.

The project to terraform this island was a long shot. Bureaucracy, scientific disagreements and finances would likely drown this enterprise in the bathwater today. But in the 19th century science was held in high esteem and there was real enthusiasm for the project.

Some writers have used the model of Ascension as illustrative of the possibility of terraforming Mars and other planets. Of course they seem to overlook the absence of air and water in their plans but they claim that that can be worked out. To my mind any effort spent on this idea while we are extinguishing life on planet Earth is a questionable use of one’s time. Some say we need to have a backup plan for humanity when we wreck things here (as if we wouldn’t do the same thing there).

Me, I might just move to Ascension.

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