Rediscovering wonder in a glimpse of scarlet


"Listen to us," I heard a woman named Betty say this summer. "Standing around talking about birds like a bunch of old people." What's that? Talking about birds is a geezer thing? I'd thought the recent sighting of a scarlet tanager was pretty neat and worth mentioning; others in the conversation thought so, too. Until Betty cut us off. Bird talk -- it's not hip, it's not hop, it's not cool, it's ... what old people do.


So I consulted a friend, who has a black belt in Zen.

"Actually," he said, "watching and talking about birds is a sign of maturity, not old age. It reveals an appreciation for something other than yourself. When you're 20-something or 30-something, you're too self-centered, and you don't stop to smell the roses. Actually -- actually -- talking about birds is a reversion to childhood because it means you've rediscovered wonder, that sense of wonder you had as a child."

One dose of Zen and I was feeling much better.

Good enough to visit Barron Kemp.

Kooky -- but wonder-full

You have to be in a ready-to-rediscover-the-child-within frame of mind for Barron Kemp.

He's a mild-mannered eccentric with a rap about Mars that will sound to most people like a bunch of man-in-the-moon ravings with absolutely no foundation in science. You will be inclined to dismiss what he says as crackpot unless, of course, you are mature enough -- "old" enough -- to hear the wonder in his voice.

Take a ride with me.

We find Barron inside a modest rowhouse on Glover Street in Southeast Baltimore. He's wearing the vest and pants of a blue plaid, tropical-weight suit, a white short-sleeved shirt and bow tie. He wears glasses that sometimes fall to the tip of his nose. His hair is white. He's 70 years old and retired from a career in electronics. He reminds me of a country doctor or a high school science teacher. His voice still has a trace of Southern accent (Barron grew up in Selma, Ala.).

"I'm not an overly religious man," Barron says. But he has seen things in the heavens that "absolutely knocked me out."

Barron started looking into space only about 25 years ago, after he ordered photographs of Mars from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The photographs fascinated and enthralled him. In time, he spent thousands of dollars on color and black-and-white prints, many of them taken during the Mariner and Viking probes.

Barron has pondered these photographs for hours and days and week and years. And he has made discoveries.

Where NASA scientists saw only dust and rock, shadows and craters, Barron saw a giant martian eye, a human face, a massive bird with a man's face, a 50-mile-long anthropoid, some kind of dinosaurlike creature, martian pipe work. Conveniently -- for a man who has only photographs to work with -- life on Mars is of massive scale, Barron says. Giants probably live there. They can be spotted by simple examination of the NASA photographs.

But here's the kicker: We are not necessarily talking about life as we know it. In Barron's mind, life on Mars might take the same form and shape of mammals, but it has the metabolism of vegetables. And they are growing all the time -- large human heads and other familiar mammalian forms spreading across the martian plains.

Barrons says such life forms are always moving through the dTC universe. He believes microscopic organisms bop around for years on meteors.

Sound familiar? It should. Two weeks ago, NASA announced that scientists had found what appear to be the chemical and fossil remains of microscopic organisms that lived on Mars 3.6 billion years ago. They were discovered on a meteorite -- ALH84001.

The discovery, one of the biggest since Columbus gave us the Bahamas, pleased Barron Kemp because it tended to support his beliefs, which are an appealing distillation of the big-bang theory, Darwinism and creation science.

"That meteor [ALH84001] didn't come from Mars," he says with the serenity and certainty of a man about to quote the Bible. "It came from where all life comes from -- a place in space several billion light years away. ... You see, all life in the universe has a common source. Meteors which impact with planets have this microscopic life form on it and this life form grows and develops and adjusts to the environment. If the environment has oxygen, it becomes an animal that breathes oxygen. If the major atmospheric gas is carbon dioxide, it develops the metabolism of vegetables."

Barron also believes that Mars was once just like Earth. In one of his many essays, he writes: "Mars enables us to foresee the fate that will eventually overtake our planet should we continue the senseless destruction of the rain forests and ozone layer and the proliferation of atomic, human and industrial waste."

I know. It's kooky, a kind of play-science. But I've heard things that were a lot kookier from people who were a lot more unpleasant and unhappy. Barron Kemp is like that boy in the grass, lying on his back, looking up at the clouds, trying to decipher meanings from their shape. He tells me he never much pondered Mars as a child; he came to this fascination fairly late in life. I say better late than never.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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