Harrison, I know that already you love to find the moon in the evening sky. Your sister is learning to do the same; I will have to work on your cousins. Whether your excitement is a function of mine, whether it is the sheer opalescent beauty, the radiance of that floating disk, or the fact that its ascent can be tracked and counted upon, I am not sure. I am sure only that when you most need inspiration, when you need to be soothed, when you feel the desire to be connected or seek time to sift through your inner most fears or dreams, it will be there.
I thought of you when I joined our Winter Star Search program last Friday night. I was reminded how important it is to step out of our routines and brave the open air. It was 15 degrees out and yet no one complained of being cold. Doug and Charles had determined to give us the tools necessary to navigate the various constellations based on the position of the North Star, but honestly I was distracted from the beginning. Once I tilted my head back and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and then the brightness of the moon, one star after another began to reveal itself to me until I felt a certain lightness of being.
I aspire to that feeling, which is not to be confused with light-headedness or flights of fancy, or even transcendence. It’s more a sense of openness and possibility, of being fully grounded in this life and the Universe at the same time. It’s a feeling of being whole and aware, touched by the unique gift that we humans have been granted, consciousness, however limited it may be. As alien and unforgiving, as deep and desolate the night sky which retreats infinitely into space, its beauty is mesmerizing.
Lest we go to the back woods of Maine or the outermost reaches of New Hampshire and Western Mass, we do not see the same sky as our ancestors. The ambient light from our cities and towns is too over-bearing. I have fond memories of taking students up to Maine for white-water raft trips, camping out under the starts, persuading some to lie on their backs and look up to the sky. They never failed to be amazed, swept up in a moment of unstated recognition, the wonder of being alive, the limitlessness of possibility and being.
Charles calls me over to the telescope to look at the moons of Jupiter, which on this night are perfectly aligned into a magical string of pearls on a tether. Suddenly the planets have substance, their reality something more than a spot of white light compelling me to strain my eyes. Doug has the moon’s craters in the scope and, no matter how inured we are to the photos in books and magazines, we are spell-bound. Charles ushers us down off the deck to get a clearer view of Venus, which on this night sits barely above the horizon. The Heavens are here for the taking as we jump from one lens to another and then just open our eyes.
Like our ancestors we assign names to the stars and find order and comfort in identifying constellations whose movements through the night sky are familiar and predictable. We reflect upon the gods and their designs for us. We wonder how and why it all began. We are unable to comprehend billions of solar systems and planets, black holes, dark matter, space that expands infinitely, universes that multiply upon themselves with no end. In the face of such depths we feel small and insignificant, humbled and incapable of effecting any real change.
And yet I hear one participant in the Star Search program ask another “would you ever want to sign up for that trip to Mars?” and I think that whatever our limitations as a species, whatever our failures, we are nervy, undeterred by obstacles, driven to explore and to take on challenges, no matter how far-fetched or improbable. An idea, once given flesh, is transformative, surely as powerful as any mutant gene in terms of adaptation and evolution. Of course the idea of colonizing other planets begs the more important question of ensuring that first we find ways to sustain life here on Earth. In The Meaning of Existence, E.O. Wilson makes that argument perfectly clear. But when I tilt my head upward and allow my imagination to soar, I have no doubt that we will not rest until we head out for new territory. On a night like this, such is the lure of the stars.