Just above St. Louis, near the Mississippi River barge channel, camps an oil refinery. The channel and refinery are modern transformations of a low floodplain once farmed by mound-building Indians. A petroleum company built the refinery here more than 25 years ago. Yet it has no real feeling of permanence, for it is a mere plaything to light.

By day it seems substantial enough, though its tanks, smoking stacks, and domes stand in disarray like the bivouac of a retreating army. As light shifts toward evening, the refinery changes shape. In the blackness of the prairie night, tender blue lights pick out only a few structures. Spotlights accent a huge white dome. The refinery becomes a space colony, a solitary human outpost on a galactic frontier. Domes shield colonists from the alien air. Faint blue globes signal rocket hangars and landing pads. A stack -- flaring off gas -- pretends to a memorial obelisk.

In this light the refinery is more symbol than substance. It is a figure for the fragile colony of industrial humanity. The colony clings to earth more as aliens than natives -- manufacturing its own air, coming and going in its rockets as though the planet were but a launch pad. Ours is a tentative colony, as tentative as the hopes that fuel our space probes. We drill into rock and probe into skies with our questions. We send mechanical emissaries into the unknown to poke about with delicate electronic fingers for a place where we can grab hold with the whole hand. Machine eyes gawk at new dawns without the vision to record their poetry.

Waiting here behind, we look at hand-me-down images of the universe and ourselves. We have come to believe that the images of the machine are our images. So we play out a tried old science fiction theme -- the robots take over the ship and turn their human masters into drones. We scurry to feed the refinery in hopes that it will return the favor. As its power wanes, we mourn its loss as our own.

Yet light is already revising this tale. It has few inhibitions before a "solid" refinery. It beckons the drones to awake. Like so many Hagars we cry laments in a desert of our own making. We have a well already within our reach. Our well is our imagination -- our capacity to transform and be transformed by our images.

Light -- mimicking this transforming power -- casts things in a different light. Monet saw this. He followed the transformations in haystacks and cathedrals. Just so Charles Sheeler saw light's handwriting on the sides of factories and silos. Galileo tracked light patterns in the skies. His calculations made a jumble out of the official "order." "They" asked him to put it back the way he'd found it. But, though he might recant, a transforming power had already reshaped the image of the universe.

A new order grows from new images, new symbols. If darkness dims the refinery's power, then a better symbol awaits our imagination. Imagination stokes our courage; with it we go beyond the object to the symbol, beyond the symbol to vision.

It is vision, not machines, that converts hopes to fuel. Pondering this conversion, Arthur Koestler writes in "Sleep-walkers, A History of Man's Changing Image of the Universe," "Every creative act -- in science, art or religion -- involves a regression to a more primitive level, a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted beliefs."

What is our new path of innocence? Perhaps light offers us metaphor in its sun. Yet as we look to this sun, we cannot simply measure it against the refinery, asking will it do what the refinery now does for us? Will it be "practical"? Instead we must ask, what new image will it give us of ourselves and our universe? If we set our pace to light, what will we become?

This planet we have colonized might help us answer -- a more constant ally to light than we have been; it plants, blossoms, harvests, warms and transforms in the sun. Nature's light-impelled changes spark more than romantic lyrics. They also recall our ancient kinship with light, our ability to shift from blind to new paths as effortlessly as light shifts. It we gather our images from light itself, new dawns would find us a colony, liberated, not imprisoned, by our hopes.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.