Another reflection on the stars by a writer who loves the wild places where dark skies are more likely, the stars more visible. Robert Macfarlane is moved, almost physically, by gazing up - or is it down? into the night sky.
The unconverted and limitless nature of the night sky ... is given a depth by the stars that far exceeds the depth given to the diurnal sky by clouds. On a cloudless night, looking upwards, you experience a sudden flipped vertigo, the feeling that your feet might latch off from the earth and you might plummet upwards into space... Our estrangement from the dark [due to street lighting] was a great and serious loss.
Robert Macfarlane, THE WILD PLACES, London, Granta, 2007.
A similar emotion struck David, who must have spent many a night under the stars:
For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded.
What is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him?
Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour:
And hast set him over the works of thy hands.
Before we get carried away in gratification, let Macfarlane remind us that the loss of the night sky to urban dwellers is serious and stunting.
About the photograph: Image of the night sky above Paranal, Chile on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the galaxy to which we belong. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. Three of the four 8.2-m telescopes forming ESO’s VLT are seen, with a laser beaming out from Yepun, Unit Telescope number 4. The laser points directly at the Galactic Centre. Also visible are three of the 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes used for interferometry. They show small light beams which are diodes located on the domes. The exposure time is 5 minutes and because the tracking was made on the stars, the telescopes are slightly blurred.
He in the evening, when on high
The stars shine in the silent sky,
Beholds th' eternal flames with mirth,
And globes of light more large than Earth;
Then weeps for joy, and through his tears
Looks on the fire-enamell'd spheres,
Where with his Saviour he would be
Lifted above mortality.
Meanwhile the golden stars do set,
And the slow pilgrim leave all wet
With his own tears, which flow so fast
They make his sleeps light, and soon past.
from Poems of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Volume II via Kindle
Eddie was writing about the stars yesterday, so an opportunity presents to complement his reflection with a poem. I was talking to a friend who had been moved to tears by a television drama, and remarked that certain saints had written of 'the gift of tears'. My friend was grateful that the fountain had welled up within her.
Here we have a 17th Century poet, writing in English though living in Wales. He was twenty years old when Galileo died. Science did not erode his faith but enhanced it, intellectually and emotionally, the sight of the 'fire-enamell'd spheres' moving him to tears of awe at creation.
In the mid 18th Century M Allanson was already urging a considerable abatement in the perception that Europeans held of Africans.
It was of these parts of Guinea that Monsieur Allanson, correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, from 1749 to 1753, gives the following account, both as to the country and people: — “Which way soever I turned my eyes, I beheld a perfect image of pure nature: An agreeable solitude, bounded on every side by a charming landscape; the rural situation of cottages in the midst of trees; the ease and quietness of the Negroes, reclined under the shade of the spreading foliage, with the simplicity of their dress and manners: The whole revived in my mind the idea of our first parents, and I seemed to contemplate the world in its primitive state. They are, generally speaking, very good-natured, sociable, and obliging. I was not a little pleased with my very first reception; and it fully convinced me, that there ought to be a considerable abatement made in the accounts we have of the savage character of the Africans.” He adds: “It is amazing that an illiterate people should reason so pertinently concerning the heavenly bodies. There is no doubt, but that, with proper instruments, they would become excellent astronomers.”
The inhabitants of the Grain and Ivory Coast are represented by those that deal with them, as sensible, courteous, and the fairest traders on the coasts of Guinea. They rarely drink to excess; if any do, they are severely punished by the King’s order. They are seldom troubled with war: If a difference happen between two nations, they commonly end the dispute amicably.
I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not spread her volumes or utter her voice in vain. Samuel Johnson, in Boswell.
Dr Samuel Johnson had finally seen his Dictionary through the presses, and was about to go back to Lichfield to see his elderly mother. He would then have time for a holiday: this is part of his reply to an invitation to visit friends in Lincolnshire. At the time of posting we did not know if our August holiday would happen, but we can always reach the coast in a few minutes from home.Enjoy August, home or away, and thank God for friends and family.
(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)
A fine night so over to the park to seek out Comet Neowise, There was no chance of seeing it so clearly as in this photograph – which is a time exposure and did not have Canterbury’s light pollution to contend with. I also witnessed two shooting stars and heard a large group of teenagers enjoying a peaceful reunion under the stars – and the comet and the meteors.
Just looking at this photograph, I can feel the cold; the crisp, clear cold of the Alpine winter I enjoyed in my youth. We may well not see a flake this winter down in Kent, but we ca expect some cold, wet, ‘let’s stay indoors’ days.
Time to sit in the warm and be grateful for it, not taking it for granted. The sentence I quoted above invites us to such reflection, for it reads in full:
Autumn can be a powerful time of reflection about life, transition, change, death, and what comes after the winter snows of our Earthly journey’s end.
Well, when I read Fr James Kurzynski’s article back in October I had already slotted posts for every day that could count as officially autumnal, but it seemed just as appropriate to Advent, so I’m sharing it now. Follow the link to Fr James’s back yard. He was stargazing, not looking for the Star of Bethlehem, but still found wonder, light and burning beauty in the skies and in his soul.
A bit cold in the Northern hemisphere for lying out on the grass, but telescope or no telescope, even five minutes stargazing in a city garden brings a reminder of the wonders of ‘our galactic home’.
Saint Francis did not have a telescope but he did have a family; we read about his renunciation of their privileged way of life tomorrow. That decision enabled him to lie down on Sister Earth anf admire the heavens!
AS we in the northern hemisphere enter Advent and the darker days of winter, here is a thought-provoking article from ‘Sacred Space’ the Vatican Observatory site.
It shows just how light pollution affects us, and what we miss through our obsessive use of street lighting. This is not just a matter for astronomers. Take away dark skies and we have less to see and wonder at. Dark skies would help us to be more human and humble creatures: no wonder we are scared of them.
Read and ponder. Would the wise men have seen the Christmas star today?
O Lord, open our eyes, And our mouth shall declare your praise.
Truth can be hidden in many ways. We can so easily convince ourselves that we are more important than we are. One example of this is street and even alleyway lighting: there is more of it than we need, and because LED lamps are so economical, councils are loth to risk the ire of people who want the lights on all night. But we don’t need all those lights!
We are none of us so important that we need lights on in our street all through the night, just in case we come home late. And the lights also get in the way of a humbling fact of life: we might realise that we are small, unimportant in the universe, if only we could see the stars!
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. Psalm 8.
I’ve been saving these paragraphs on Astronomy to share with you, from the Vatican Observatory blog, Sacred Space. The writer is Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Observatory.
“Why does the Vatican have an Observatory?” That common question begs the bigger one, why anyone does astronomy. Contrary to what our culture preaches, astronomy doesn’t make you rich, powerful, or sexy. (Maybe that’s why my Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience felt so natural.) What astronomy does do, however, is give you the space to contemplate questions bigger than “what’s for lunch?”
Doing science is a way of becoming intimate with creation, and thus with the Creator. The urge to know the truth above all else is common to all scientists, even those who don’t recognize that their devotion to truth is a devotion to God. To me it is an act of prayer.
A very short question and answer that I could not resist sharing with you all. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is the Director of the Vatican Observatory. This is taken from an interview he gave a couple of years ago, which you can find here.Go on, click!
Why are you doing astronomy when there are people starving in the world?
I learned the answer to that when I served in the US Peace Corps. When my African students learned I was an astronomer, they wanted to look through my little telescope and have the same joy in discovering the universe that I had. They, too, had an insatiable hunger to know about the universe. They reminded me: it’s not enough to feed the body; we also have to feed the soul.
Psalm 146(147) 2-5 links care for physical and emotional needs with astronomical endeavour.
The Lord buildeth up Jerusalem: he will gather together the dispersed of Israel. Who healeth the broken of heart, and bindeth up their bruises. Who telleth the number of the stars: and calleth them all by their names. Great is our Lord, and great is his power: and of his wisdom there is no number.
Brother Guy and his colleagues are still doing one part of the Lord’s temporal work while others are healing broken hearts and bodies, all in his grace. Let us pray for the wisdom to respond to his call, day by day.