Out of This World

The stars are out, and it is a good thing. Sixty people, adults and children, have gathered on the lawn to consider things that are out of this world. Telescopes stand sentinel in the parking lot. In the twilight the group sits on blankets and tarps to listen to Ralph Libby, YSI’s astronomer extraordinaire, speak of space, of stars, of stories and time beyond imagining.

Four telescopes, as well as a pair of gigantic binoculars on a tripod, each a little different from the next, point skyward. There are the refractors, the long skinny tubes that most of us think of when we hear the word “telescope”. And there are short stout reflectors gathering and reflecting light with large parabolic mirrors. One has a built in computer that can be set to track points of light as they–or more accurately we–move across the night sky.

How extraordinary these scientific gadgets are that let us see back into time. They are fascinating to fool with, to understand, to look through. They transform the heavens.

We eat watermelon and wait for the stars.

Daylight fades. Points of light pierce the gathering darkness. First one, then five, then many, until the eastern sky is covered. A few bats fly erratically in the space between the fading light and us. We begin to fall silent, even the kids. The stars are working their magic.

A line forms at each scope. There is talk of constellations, of planets, of comets and asteroids. On this moonless night the Milky Way washes across the sky in a broad fuzzy band. A satellite moves quickly through the stars. What seemed like an incomprehensible sky full of stars begins to take form and shape. Patterns are discovered, colors discerned. The heavens have come alive.

Stars are as individual as the members of this group watching them.

There is the cluster. At some point in space thousands of stars, or maybe more, are grouped together. So dim any one would never be noticed, as a group they glow like an misty ball.

There is Alberio, the double star. Two stars rotate around each other in a spatial embrace–an elegant and precise ballet. One is truly red and the other blue.

Even stars are not forever. The Ring Nebula is sighted. This star exploded many light years ago leaving a dying core to live on. The explosion sent gasses far out into space. The layer of expanding gas was illuminated from within by the dying core and glows with eerie beauty forming a green halo around its fading source. Has this star burned out yet? Who will see its end, years hence, when the last light reaches Earth?

A few have not moved from their blankets. They lie on their backs looking up, lost in a realm beyond science. All of the stars belong to each of us–on this planet. They are part of our music, our dance, our architecture, our history, our stories, our science, our lives on this Earth. Do they belong to others on other planets as well?

The stars are out, and it is a good thing.

It’s About Time

The band-tailed pigeons have returned. Not that they’ve been gone; they’ve just been eating acorns in the woods.

Elderberry bushes and band-tailed pigeons have both been here far longer than most of our ancestors. The elusive band-tails come out of the woods as soon as the elderberries start to ripen on sunny slopes in summer. And the elderberries start to ripen as soon as it’s warm enough. Where I live this can mean any time from the Fourth of July to mid-August.

The band-tailed pigeon is not your ordinary pigeon. This large light-colored bird with dark bands across its tail endears itself by perching on the highest tiniest twig or wire it can find where it teeters back and forth alarmingly trying to get its balance. I usually start seeing them low on the mountain where the elderberries ripen in late spring. Week by week they work their way uphill as the elderberries ripen at higher and higher altitudes. When the elderberries are gone, the band-tails disappear until the next year when, somehow, they know precisely when and where to find a new crop.

Imagine yourself living without a watch, without a calendar. The adjustment might be jarring at first after having lived your life with time regimented by the precise increments these tools provide. How would you know when to get up, when to go to work, when to eat? You would know. You would know in the same way the band-tailed pigeons know it is time to climb the mountain following a trail of ripening elderberries.

Is there a way to capture some of this same freedom of opportunity in a world that now familiarly deals not just with minutes, but with nanoseconds? Can the tyranny of time somehow be kept at least partially at bay?

The first time I became consciously aware of the dramatic role my surroundings could play in orienting me in time and space was during an all night car trip with friends when I was in college. I was next to a window in the back seat on one of those dark, but bright, moonless nights—the kind where each star stands out brilliantly against a deep navy sky.

We were traveling east to west on a course that went unswervingly across a broad expanse of the Midwest. I slept and woke periodically and suddenly realized that the heavens were shifting above me. In that one night I learned how far the heavens travel in ten hours and got a sense of the passing of time that transcended the tick of a clock—a lesson that had eluded me during all the sunrises and sunsets of the two decades before.

I have a friend who had high blood pressure whose doctor prescribed that he quit wearing a watch. Although he works for a high-tech company, has three children and many commitments to his family and community, he took his doctor’s advice. He does not ignore time; he asks others what time it is when he senses he needs to. He finally got over looking at his wrist every few minutes. He is much more relaxed and seems not to always be in a rush. His blood pressure is now normal.

I am not advocating a life without calendars and clocks. But maybe having a few touchstones in the world to help locate us in time and space without worrying about the hour, the week, or the year can give us a chance to savor more elderberries when they are ripe.