Strange sightings from the playpen

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarke

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We hikers who enjoy hitting the trail between dusk and dawn catch sight of some pretty odd things. Sometimes, those odd things consider us pretty odd, too.

I flowed downhill beneath a canopy of oaks in the shadow of Mt. Diablo. As I swung around a bend I spotted two deer spotting me. The doe, in three majestic leaps, disappeared into the fortress of trees. But the fawn didn’t follow.

I eased back, stopped four paces from the little deer and it bleated like a lamb, accessing its ancestral memory, searching in vain for the identity of the long, smooth and shiny, softly rumbling … thing. I was sitting in my car.

I’d quit the trail a few minutes earlier and was settling in for the steep and hairpin trip down middle-of-nowhere Morgan Territory Road on the way back to Brentwood. I’d caught the two creatures’ eyes in my high beams in plenty of time to slow down. The mother bounded away. The child stood there, mesmerized by the sight of an automobile.

I rolled down my window and bleated back at the fawn. It took a step toward me. We were almost nose-to-nose. Its nostrils flared and its head bobbed in excitement. The huge ears were fully alert; a riff of hooves timbrellated off the pavement. Then it dawned on me: I wasn’t doing that lanky toddler any favor by encouraging it to hang out in the middle of the road. I swung open the door and jumped out, shouting and waving my arms like a lunatic. The fawn sprang gawkily off.

Those who claim to have encountered extraterrestrial beings describe spaceships carrying passengers. This we take for granted. This is the way we imagine the human race, far in the future, will explore the stars.

But what physical form would humanity have taken by then? Scientist and futurist Arthur C. Clarke believed the next step in human evolution will entail the transfer of consciousness into some synthetic vessel, something less vulnerable than flesh and blood. Extraterrestrials – possibly thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of years ahead of us in their evolutionary journey – might have attained such a state. According to Clarke, if UFOs represent an authentic extraterrestrial visitation, they’re not necessarily vehicular transport for space aliens. The UFOs might be the space aliens.

Like the fawn, we haven’t a clue. Unlike the fawn, we think we do.

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The main sticking point of the “little green men” theory of ETs is not that ETs look too weird, but that they look too human. Close-encounter witnesses speak of creatures with eyes, ears, noses and mouths – never mind the number – in more or less familiar locations. If there’s anything eerie about the aliens it’s their lack of eeriness: their head-mounted organs of sense; their bilateral symmetry and bipedal locomotion.

Our tendency to anthropomorphize space aliens is reinforced by the universe portrayed in sci-fi amusements such as “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” a universe in which nearly all intelligent beings speak perfect American English – with a Midwestern accent.

That extra-terrestrials resemble us contradicts our experience of the Nature we find even on Planet Earth, where extravagance is the rule. The Nature we know is Beethoven scribbling several dozen versions of a melody just to get it right, recombining tones of the diatonic scale like DNA molecules. What are the odds that sentient life on another planet would take a biological route identical to ours? Astronomical.

“Genuine extra-terrestrials,” wrote Clarke, “would be really alien – as different from us as the praying mantis, the giant squid, the blue whale … We are products of thousands of throws of the genetic dice.”

“Is the human race alone in the cosmos?” is a question for the ages – ages to come, that is. That we can’t produce a single irrefutable shred of proof for alien visitation should be expected. Our radio and TV broadcasts began speeding out of our little corner of the Milky Way’s Orion arm in only the most recent and minuscule fraction of the life of the cosmos. We can’t blame ET for not picking up on hints of our existence. As Clarke put it, “It is not likely that ultimate questions will be settled in such short periods of time, or that we will really know much about the universe while we are still crawling around in the playpen of the Solar System.”

I slipped back into the driver’s seat and pulled slowly away from the site of the close encounter, wishing the fawn luck in its attempt to convey the incident to the herd. “UFO” – however it translates into bleat-speak – is about as helpful an expression as “non-dairy creamer.” Now that you know what the stuff in your decaf is not … what is it?

And what’s the identity of all those smooth, shiny and unidentified objects in our night sky? Since, like the fawn, we’re all infants in this playpen, your guess is as good as mine.