Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 1, 2008
If you look at a nighttime satellite picture of the United States, you’ll see a glow of lights across the nation. There are a few dark spots in the high plains of the Midwest, but the darkest place is in the Canyonlands of southern Utah.
Camping in that dark corner of the country last week, my son and I hiked deep desert canyons on slickrock trails. The silence there has an ear ringing clarity that is just as captivating as the otherworldly rock formations that form walls, spires and Neapolitan-layered mounds of every shape.
At night ” and the nights were long and cold ” an even more incredible vista emerged. After the sun set around five, the heavens opened to a world of glimmering pinpoints that beckoned with the beauty and mystery of ancient skies.
What we saw on those three long nights was a star lit sky seen by few people in the modern world. Our view was that of the earliest members of the human race, who studied the stars and planets in the eons before light pollution blotted them out.
Sleeping out in the open provided a study of infinity, where the naked eye astronomer can see all the way to the Big Bang and back again. As pupils dilated to the inky blackness there emerged a coagulation of stars comprising the great swath of the Milky Way.
Taking in the view from my warm down sleeping bag, I was reminded of what Thoreau said when people inquired if he didn’t get lonely living the life of a monastic hermit in his small cabin at Walden Pond. “Why should I feel lonely?” he asked rhetorically. “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?”
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The primary input is visual ” a sweep of millions of stars ” but the mind sees far more. Beyond the visible is the imaginative. Being face to face with infinity dissolves the limits of human thought and catapults one deep into space. It is also incredibly humbling to an Earth-bound creature on this tiny orb to ponder the scope and scale of the universe that encircles us. From my humble vantage I watched expectantly, but there were no meteor showers, no bright-tailed comets, no moonrise. A fixation on the heavens suggests a static condition where all thing are stable in gravitational equilibrium, a universal balance. I had intentionally left my watch at home to avoid the wristwatch reflex. But on a 14-hour night it is comforting to gauge the approach of the long-awaited dawn.
The constellation Hydra became my timepiece. I watched it rise in the east, not far behind Orion, whose belt and sword passed overhead with silvery brilliance.
Hydra includes a tight cluster of stars that are most easily seen through one’s peripheral vision, which is the best means we have of glimpsing faint light and subtle motion.
Hydra is the bright star to the east of the cluster, but it’s the cluster of the constellation that caught my eye. Tracking its arc, I learned that morning was near as it set in the west over a huge sandstone monolith behind which Polaris marked the grand pivot point.
Following on the radiant heels of Hydra came Leo and Virgo, with Sextans, Crater and Corvus to the south.
Wakeful during my 12-hour slumber, I noted particular stars like Regulus and Spica and marked their progress against the craggy branches of a dead juniper.
No wonder ancient man invented pictures and stories from the star-studded night skies. In the ages of antiquity, it was the best entertainment in town ” a precursor to the drive-in, but with no admission fee and only the patterns of the cosmos to trigger allegorical scenarios in the fertile, untainted, imagination of man.
Finally, in what seemed an eternity, came the creeping gray light of dawn when the sun eventually bleached out the night sky. Still, there was no dread of dusk, no remorse for sliding into my down cocoon at night, for it meant a communal magic between me and the infinite… and with the ancients who first understood the wonder of being.
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