February 20, 2012
by Kevin S. Baldwin
Sometime early in my grad school studies I went vacationing in Hawaii with some family. Their idea of fun was shopping. Mine was snorkeling and hiking. One of my hikes was down into the crater of Haleakala, the volcanic peak on Maui. After my ascent out of the crater, I noticed that there were a number of observatories near the summit. The high elevation and relative isolation of the mountain meant that atmospheric disturbance and light pollution would be low and visibility would be high. I vowed to return that night to see for myself why the observatories were there.
After dark I drove our rental car back up to the summit, parked, shut off the lights and waited inside the car in a sleeping bag (the air temperature was around freezing, the wind was pretty ferocious, and I had not packed winter clothes for a trip to Hawaii). As my eyes adjusted, the night sky unfurled before me. I had not spent all my life in the big city, where only the moon, a couple planets, and the brightest stars can be seen regularly. I had enjoyed a fair amount of time camping in the Mojave Desert, where the Milky Way stretches across the night sky, but I was not prepared for this. The number of stars I could see was two orders of magnitude higher than what I had ever seen in the desert. The Milky Way, instead of being a wash of white, was composed of many individual points of different colors. Clusters of stars took on a fractal quality with clusters embedded within clusters within clusters. I was awestruck. So many stars! How many had planetary systems? Which ones no longer existed? How insignificant was I in the grand scheme of things? It was profoundly humbling and simultaneously liberating. As awesome as the snorkeling on Maui was, that night of staring at the sky is likely one of the experiences that I will take to the grave.
On another occasion in the early 1990's I was camping on Pine Mountain in northern Ventura County, California. The sun had set, the stars were beginning to shine and it was exceptionally clear. Suddenly I noticed a satellite gliding across the sky in a polar orbit. I guessed it was a spy satellite based on the size of its reflection and its speed and direction. It was one of those bittersweet moments: Techno-triumphalism crossed with McKibben-esque "End of Nature" angst. It was hard not to take a certain amount of pride in our ability as a nation and species to launch a school bus sized object into orbit that could discriminate license plates from hundreds of miles away. On the other hand, having my view of the night sky altered by this rapidly moving point of light that commanded my attention was disturbing. Was there place no left that had not been altered by our hand? My ambivalence faded a bit when the technology used to build and launch spy satellites was turned away from the earth in the form of the Hubble Space Telescope and photos like the Pillars of Creation and the Hubble Deep Field and Ultra-Deep Field began to filter into our collective consciousness. Who could not be profoundly affected by contemplating these images?
In the late '90's I was "the biologist" on a couple of natural history boat tours in the Peruvian Amazon, which began in Iquitos, went downriver to the Brasilian border and circled back. The clients were educated and inquisitive. At night we would sit up on the top deck of the boat (which resembled the one in Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo"), ask the crew to turn off the light, stargaze and talk. More often than not the subject revolved around films people had seen. It seemed that movies were the universal currency that bound us together, and I began to think that Hollywood had more responsibility to its audience than I had previously suspected. Years later, as I reflected on this scene that unfolded in middle of the Amazon, the nascent field of Literary Darwinism suddenly seemed not only plausible but inevitable. Friendship, love, betrayal, death, infidelity, gossip, etc. This stuff does matter and we share stories for a reason. There we were, together under the stars, swapping stories and reflecting on their meaning, a pastime that connected us to all the generations that have proceeded us in an unbroken chain going back to the origin of our species.
Stargazing is one of those activities that seems to evoke contemplation and humility. I wonder what we will lose as our population becomes increasingly urbanized around the globe and the lights and pollution of megacities make access to the heavens less likely and limit our vision to just our own reflected light.
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