Monday, December 5, 2011

The Speck

I have just finished looking at some photos of our solar system and those beyond. I'll probably return to these pictures again and again. One of the photographs was of a sunset on Mars - blue near the horizon and red above - the opposite of what we experience on earth - and it jolted me awake to the reality that a sunset here on earth means that our part of the world is tipping away from the sun and that the colors we see are our atmosphere - the dome we live under. Would it make a difference, I wonder, to our strife, if every human on the planet was required every day to acknowledge the reality of our position on this marble we call Earth? I personally find something reassuring about the idea of worlds infinite beyond our world; beyond our comprehension. It takes the pressure off, somehow.

Here in Maine the sky, so broad and unfettered, presents our position quite clearly for one with the will to notice. I am not sure this awareness can occur with any regularity for city dwellers who spend so much of their time in the bubbles of their cars, buses and trains and the sanctuaries of their neighborhoods and homes. It's not their fault - it's just not so easy to notice the heavens infinite when dodging oncoming traffic or traveling upwards in an elevator. Even in the suburbs construction intervenes. As a former city-dweller I remember the elaborate contortions necessary to witness sunrises and sunsets through and around neighboring houses, trees, and lamp posts. The world is a comfortable cocoon for most of us...predictable and familiar. Until we look out.

I get the same physical feeling from looking at photographs of deep space that I get from taking (or anticipating) an amusement park ride or an airplane journey - a swoop of pleasurable fear and a thump of adrenalin-induced pulse. I don't like heights but can't resist looking down on fly-overs at the strange patterns we humans make across our world and at the beautiful and even more mysterious patterns the world makes over itself. But while looking down produces those not unpleasant reactions, looking out produces those and something else I can't define - a feeling of connectedness and also disconnectedness with the universe that I find dizzying.

This feeling is what draws me out into the cold in the middle of the night to look at the stars. I know about dying suns, satellites, dead planets whose light is just reaching us, space junk reflecting sunlight, dust particles, meteors and comets so I can look at a clear night sky in two ways: as a glorious sprinkle of light - twinkle, twinkle - or as a space that enlarges as I watch - out and out and out forever. This last observation usually first inspires incalculable awe; then, tips into a feeling of unreality that sends me scurrying back to a warm bed.

And I don't like to think about that ball of fury that is the sun. At all.

But I love the realization that, as I walk along our road or sit on the couch or putter in the garden, I am at right-angles to the universe, held down firmly by gravity as the clouds and the boundless blue that curves over my world roils and rolls overhead and the earth turns in a majestic pirouette, lonely and beautiful.

A few days ago I set off early and as I turned into the road the rising sun struck a flash of light off some object up at the top of the hill. My mind flipped through possibilities: tail light-soda can-roof flashing blown down by the wind? As I got closer the light grew smaller but no less brilliant, raying up from the road like a star and finally resolving into a single crystal of salt among the showers the town road crew had spread out earlier over a skim of black ice. There it sat, a tiny cinder amid the universe: bright, beautiful, unique, significant. And therein lies the wonder.