by Shane L. Larson
For the past week, I have been trundling westward across America, from my home in Illinois to the forests of my youth, high in the mountains of Oregon. Tomorrow, I’ll arrive at Indian Trail Spring, my family in tow, to join hundreds of others who have made the same pilgrimage to a rocky mountaintop, far from lightbulbs of our civilization, and a little closer to the sky than most of our backyards.
Soon after I arrive, the sun will slowly sink behind the western mountains, and the velvet shadow of the Earth will rise in the eastern sky. Daytime will fade to night, and a soft breeze will drift cross the rocky fields. I’ll zip the collar of my fleece up all the way, and craning my vision skyward, peer around looking for the first star to pop out of the rising dark. All the while, standing sentinel next to the hulking shadow of Equinox, a telescope that I crafted when I was in graduate school. We’ve spent many long hours under the dark, Equinox and I, sifting light from distant corners of the Cosmos.
Why do I do this? Tomorrow morning will come all too soon. My seven year old daughter, with the boundless energy of a second grader, will get me out of bed to go exploring the 40 sprawling acres covered by the Oregon Star Party. Of course, I’ll get up and I’ll probably be tired. But you know what they say? “Well rested astronomers are grumpy astronomers!” 🙂
The truth is there is something calming, something deeply soothing about communing with the night. I’m reminded of hiking through Zion once with a grad school friend of mine, when he turned to me and gestured widely at the soaring red canyon walls, declaring emphatically, “This is my church.”
I get that.
Standing under the cathedral of night, I feel entwined with the Cosmos in the deepest, spiritual ways lauded by Thoreau and Muir. There is a deep connection between humans and the night sky, as if when we look up to the sky we are peering through a window looking home. And we are looking home, for the deep reaches of the Cosmos are where we came from, and some deep pocket of our souls knows this when we look to the sky.
It is an awesome fact that our simple brains are capable of knowing. Knowing we are connected to the Cosmos, and in the deepest ways imaginable. As has often been said, we are starstuff. We were made by the stars, the stars are our parents. One of the most awesome memes that has run around the net lately is this one, which claims to be a very old picture of you.
The picture is indeed very old, for the starlight that was captured on that film left on the long journey to Earth many thousands of years ago, before recorded history as you and I know it began. But is also a picture you when you were very young. The cosmic gametes that became everyone of us were born in the fiery hearts of stars just like this one.
Those atomic seeds that became me and you were flung out into the darkness of the galaxy a billion nights ago when our grandparent star, wherever it may have been, died in a titanic explosion called a supernova. Perhaps our fascination with things that blow up is a faint echo of that birth, a genetic memory of our humble beginning in the Cosmos. I can see the skeletons of stellar grandparents all over the sky. After darkness falls, I’ll swing Equinox toward the eastern wing of the constellation Cygnus and lose myself in a maze of woven tendrils of light known as the Veil Nebula, the remnants of a star that died a scant 8000 years ago. Billions of years ago, a star like this died, providing all the atoms that became you and me and the rocks and trees.
Some days, like today, I just feel like bursting because I am fortunate to have two minds about this — I am both a professional astronomer and an amateur astronomer. By daylight, I plumb the mysteries of why and how stars live their lives, and ponder the inscrutable mysteries Nature presents us. By starlight, I plumb the depths of the sky, drinking in the beauty of the nebulae and galaxies and stars, marveling that all of those atoms could arrange themselves into collectives like you and me, that could wonder where they came from. It means I don’t sleep much, but well rested astronomers are grumpy astronomers!
There are a few things I hold to be true on the Internet, one of which is this oft repeated Serbian proverb: “Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars.” I get that, standing out in the dark, staring at the sky. Tonight, long after your cat is fed and curled up on your bed, close your laptop, wrap your blanket around your shoulders, and go stand in your backyard for a little while and look up. Up there, through the window of the sky, you’re looking home. We all came from there. We are made of the stars.
That is an awesome thought, a gift from our parent, the Cosmos.
Next year, there’s a spot right next to me and Equinox, if you want it. See you on a mountaintop.