Deep Sky Observing

“We don’t live in a general-purpose universe.”

So you own a star chart. 
There is much more.

What’s wrong?
Not seeing anything.
Try averted vision.

What books? What size? 
How far? How much? 
When? 
How far?
Are we there?

How many inches?
Just wait. I have rid myself 
of rarely used accessories 
in my garage.

For example?
I found out 
that I did not want 
to be a mathematician.

What is the best way?
Look at your maps. Find 
a dark country road. In
hunting season, be careful!

Traveling alone?
You may have to walk. 
Worth the effort, 
for dark skies.

Cloud cover?
Pay attention. 
Conditions repeat 
over time.

How do I––?
Look. Use eyes and 
mind: a technique 
for seeing. Take a break. 
Nap. Wash the mirror 
until the solution 
drains away.

How about something 
–for general purposes?
No.

Why not?
We don’t live 
in a general-purpose universe.

Brand new equipment!
Try it out.

Going all the way!
The new bracket does not fit.
The drive gear needs more lubricant.

Wasting precious dark sky time?
Patience. Try out that new mount 
before you leave. 
Be prepared.

Inspiration (and found words/ phrases) from the opening three chapters of:
Coe, Steven R. Deep Sky Observing: The Astronomical Tourist. Springer, 2000.

Forms

Considering various mediums, and the interfaces between seen and unseen.

Every medium has its own personality. Paper is delicate so everything gets a dreamy fluid quality, light dissolving over the landscape. On paper you can see the smudge of erasure, the changes, the trial and error. Consider the difference between this and something like film, or film-less photos, those bodies of pixellated light in captivity.

With photographs everything looks like something that a crazed nostalgic is trying to freeze outside of time. Oil on canvas: longings laid bare, to hold what will not be held. The time spent anyway, squinting. 

A bedside book in childhood: Lives of the Saints, dog-eared at Joan of Arc, because of the way she didn’t flinch, that insistently, cross-dressing soul. I think her gift was less that she heard a voice all day long telling her what to do, but that she listened.

Now it’s art books, too heavy to lift with one hand, propped open across a chest and half-waking dreams of Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder, all the near-transparent souls climbing doggedly into blinding light, none looking as though they have any idea what it may be, but there it is waiting, anyway, pouring over and through their bodies and their steps in a luminous column and you get the sense that they’re climbing forever like a white-knuckled novena, World Without End.

Joan was burned at the stake for three reasons: one, she wore pants; two, she wore them into battle; three, what she said about the voice she heard, even after it was clear what would happen if she didn’t retract. There was a line between what you could see and may not see. She crossed.

Before he painted Jacob’s Ladder, William Blake was getting regularly arrested for bar fights, and after he painted his opus, he died, as the legend goes, amid visions of angels. What did he see in them, I wonder, and how was it different from the eternities he saw in hours, the heavens in his wildflowers, or the worlds he found in grains of sand?

A want to hold it all in an instant, the forever dream against countless suggestions that seeing something is almost always very different than seeing everything, and the end of the world something different than the end of every known part. 

“Jacob’s Ladder” by José María Pérez Nuñez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic License.

For Your Looking Glass

for Jill Tarter, and stargazers everywhere*

Considering how you beheld, before your teeth had grown in, the wide embrace of infinite above you every time you looked up, how you wondered about the possibility that someone on an invisible and hypothetical planet, orbiting a just-visible or hypothetical star, in a possibly habitable zone, might at this moment or in a parallel twin moment, light years away, looking back with its parent, asking, Are we alone?

––and, suspecting not, how you looked and kept looking, sought and kept seeking, ransacked the monochromatic track-lit waiting room where the tired skeptics sat in comfortable clothes–– arms crossed, smirking; reminding them how when you started looking, no one (not one!) had even found a planet ––yet!

–– around any of these other stars; considering the calm with which you pointed out the problem of certain assumptions that the over-confident doubters were always making about the impossibility of your life’s work; about its wasteful utter futility, how you pointed out their blindness to life beyond the water we are so familiar with because it is in us, and the fallacy of assuming that what is not in us may not exist as a viable life, pointing to the wild, raucous late-night parties of extremophiles bubbling over in other impossible places like the cooling liquid of nuclear reactors; how, speaking of stardust and star stuff, we are part of a billion year lineage of its nomadic essence;

how you wandered after and in it, recklessly grounded against the leering jealousy of the waiting-room skeptics waiting for your failure, waiting for your infinite motion to stop, for you to decide to finally let the limits of your present reach preclude your future reaching or to deny the fact that a stretching embrace of what you could not possibly begin to hold was always and still the essential orientation of your organism, and finally admit your discouragement; how, with both feet beneath you, you observed with the same calm how, in a billions-year legacy of wandering out, out, and into this human-ness, your arrival––our arrival–– had happened only a blink ago;

and because you saw fit to remind that if someone looking for proof of the existence of ocean fish were to come up fishless on a first attempt to harvest one, using a twelve-ounce glass, from any of the world’s seven oceans, one attempt per sea, only to decide that fish were nothing more than myths we invent to feel less alone against the ocean’s expanse, that this would be a premature decision––not to mention, a poor survival strategy;

for highlighting the tyranny of light speed regarding the length of time it takes for a signal emitted by one body to reach the perception of another, reminding us that, after all, some of us just read the Antigone of several millennia ago, and what about the aurochs on the caves of Lascaux; what about what we knew before assuming this always-assuming human form, this particular constellation of ancient dust,

assembled just so in this moment, right now; as if to imply that the way to balance your urgency is with equal parts empathy for the speed of the living, for the devastating wait, slow and deliberate as any melting ice cap, of living on a planet that spins a thousand miles an hour;

the vastness of your patience with what you call a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium that evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from and how you manage to understand that now is no time to stop looking, now is no time to stuff our have-beens into our ears, dulling our is-nows and forestalling the conception of our ever-shall-bes

––Thank you, because sometimes I need to be reminded backwards and forwards, and welcomed back again, into a space where I remember how to look, when I am meaning to see.

Jill Tarter is the co-founder of the SETI institute. Her life inspired the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. I was  inspired by a wonderful interview with her, in a recent episode of the On Being podcast Krista Tippett. ​