Alive, Awake, and Aware
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night. 1889. Museum of Modern Art, NYC
In Chapter 3 of the Book of Baruch in the Apocrypha, a collection of ancient texts that failed to make the cut for inclusion in at least some Christian Bibles, the following exchange between God and the stars is recorded: “The stars shone in their watches, and were glad; He called them, and they said, ‘Here we are!’ They shone with gladness for him who made them.”
To the modern ear, fluent in the language of science and cybernetics, the passage sounds quaint, perhaps slightly charming–an echo of an amusing and slightly embarrassing time when trees spoke wisdom and truth, clouds predicted the future, and primitive peoples prayed to the ocean to prevent floods and mayhem. Here in our wisdom, in A.D. 2017, we understand the universe and its operations, a simple matter of recording and analyzing data, then announcing our results. A few long rows of 0’s and 1’s: presto, trees and clouds!
In his visionary text The Spell of the Sensuous, the ecologist and philosopher David Abram resurrects the ancient tongue. He finds himself in Bali, in “a lush, emerald valley, lined by cliffs on either side.” He ascends a rock wall for a short distance and enters a small cave on his hands and knees.
“I began to explore the rich resonance of the enclosure, first just humming, then intoning a simple chant taught to me by a balian some days before.” So absorbed does he become that he fails to notice darkening shadows and a change in the wind, as a great storm, the first of the monsoon, breaks across the valley.
Caught out unexpectedly and unprepared, gazing into a curtain of water cascading across the entrance to the cave, Abram resigns himself to spending the night in his uncomfortable quarters. So begins his conversion to a new way of understanding the world—not through the agency of a terrifying peal of thunder or a streak of lightning, but rather that of an insect, a very small one: a spider. First one, then a second, then a multitude, all around him, tiny creatures spinning miraculous webs from the floor of the cave to the ceiling, all “undaunted by the tumult of waters.”
“I sat stunned and mesmerized before this ever-complexifying expanse of living patterns upon patterns, my gaze drawn like a breath into one converging group of lines, then breathed out into open space, then drawn down into another convergence. The curtain of water had become utterly silent—I tried at one point to hear it, but could not. My senses were entranced... I had the distinct impression that I was watching the universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy.
“I have never, since that time, been able to encounter a spider without feeling a great strangeness and awe... It was from spiders that I first learned of the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, the ability that an alien form of sentience has to echo one’s own, to instill a reverberation in oneself that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.” [i]
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At the age of 14 or 15, I fell in love with the night sky. I learned the Moon, the stars, the planets, nebulae, and constellations. I read every astronomy book in the library of the small town in Pennsylvania where I lived. My greatest attachment to the heavens, it turned out, came not through scientific study, which I could have done on a small scale, but rather through the workings of wonder and beauty. I didn’t have a telescope so I did my observing with my bare eyes. Yet I could see the Andromeda Galaxy, faintly, and nearly be struck dumb from the knowledge that the small pencil of light that fell upon my eyes had been on the road for more than 2 million years, traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Proto-humans had scarcely climbed down from the trees when my light departed Andromeda! I could see that there were colors in the night sky, not just the silvery glow I had always imagined but yellow stars and orange ones, the Orion Nebula a misty glow of red and blue, the Pleiades, a 100-million-year-old cluster of 1,000 stars, mostly blue, known since antiquity. Like David Abram observing his spiders, I had the impression—more than an impression, an aisle seat on the spectacle of a universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy. Like him, I learned of the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature, leaving me open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.
The Orion Nebula. Hubble Telescope, 2006
At nineteen I went off to college and immediately declared myself an astronomy major. Almost at once I discovered my mistake. Given access to a telescope for the first time, I was charged with a freshman-kind-of-project, calculating the mass of Jupiter. I would do this not by staring at the planet in wonder with my naked eyes, but by taking photographs of Jupiter’s moons, analyzing their movements with trigonometry, and using them to calculate the planet’s mass mathematically. I would use a telescope, a camera, photo plates, and what at the time passed for a computer.
I don't doubt that real astronomers begin their careers as enchanted by the night sky as I was, and continue through their careers to be so enchanted. They’re driven to go beyond that barrier, however--driven to explain how the whole clockwork operates. I was not. I was like the kindly old astronomer in a contemporaneous New Yorker cartoon, a fellow who’s shown standing beside the eyepiece of a great telescope in a grand observatory, surrounded by computers and spectrographs and all kinds of machinery. He turns to his friend and says: “What I like is the way they twinkle.”
That was me. It’s true that for my project I determined the mass of Jupiter, though, in all likelihood, to a very high degree of possible error. But I missed the twinkle.
I changed majors as soon as possible. Years later I discovered a poem by Walt Whitman that captured my feelings exactly.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. [ii]
In this blog, I intend to explore both science and mystical moist night-air; both facts and speculations; both the elements of music and the inscrutability of Native American drumming; both stars as rotating spheres of gas and stars shouting “Here we are!” Which is to say, I intend to explore the duality of nature. As I explain in my book Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West:
I do not argue for a rejection of reason in favor of transcendence, rather for an incorporation of both in any effort to understand the world. Surely, scientists should strive to answer every question that presents itself to them. They would be well-advised, too, to read self-help manuals on how to handle disappointment and failure, to prepare themselves for the day when they complete their grand explication of the universe and discover that half of its pages are still blank. [iii]
My subject will be the American West in all its glory, its feuds, its follies, and its catastrophes, and how I believe that respect for both the visible and the invisible can help us take on and perhaps even solve problems that might otherwise seem insolvable. I’m not a native-born Westerner but I’ve been here more than forty years—twelve in California, eight in New Mexico, twenty in what will be my last stop, Carson City, Nevada. During that time I’ve traveled widely and written extensively about my adopted home. My goal in this blog will be to celebrate the history and promise of the West, and through considerations both numinous and experiential to look precisely and critically at barriers that may stand in the way of our achieving that promise, and to move beyond them through mutual respect to common ground.
If you’ve made it this far in my inaugural posting, I hope you’ll consider returning. Equally, I hope you’ll mention this site to friends who might find something worthwhile here.
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[i] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage Books, 1997), pp. 17-19
[ii] Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
[iii] Robert Leonard Reid, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West (Counterpoint, 2017), p. 41