Category Archives: Jimwords

These posts are written by Jim Cummings, creator/editor of Bright Blue Ball. They are fragments of his simple witness to the years.

Comet ISON: we hardly knew ye

ISON grows600

Late last year, hopes began to rise that a Great Comet might be drawing near.  Comet ISON (formally addressed as Comet C/2012 S1) looked large, and it was headed for a very close encounter with the sun, which could trigger a fantastic outburst of gas and dust, creating a potentially huge tail for a few weeks after that, perhaps even bright enough to be seen in daylight.

While astronomers were quick to stress the uncertainties inherent in any comet’s outbursts, especially one that had never entered the inner solar system before, and was going to skim so close to the gravitational dynamo at the heart of our solar system, it was easy to also feel their excitement.  Guy Ottewell added a “stop the presses” section to his annual Astronomical Calendar to fully illustrate ISON’s potential, and as its sun-grazing moment grew closer, multiple solar observatory satellites were sending near real-time images down to the eager eyes of pros and amateurs alike.

Well, as you likely know by now, the traveler did not survive its close encounter with our local star, the immense ball of plasma that fuels all life on this goldilocks planet of ours.  That distant speck of light drew ISON ever closer, growing bright as the comet moved into the inner solar system (realm of the solar body’s rocky fragments: Mars, Earth, Venus, Mercury).  A few days before its big moment, our hero began to shudder, showing some signs of partial crumbling; then, in the final hours of its approach, ISON’s dusty nucleus—a half mile or so in diameter, careening into the sun’s magnetic streamers and the pressures of a gravitational force beyond imagination—found it all to be too much, and simply puffed apart.  

The last images before it moved too close to the sun to be seen showed it fading fast, and when it didn’t come out the other side as expected, astronomers and skywatchers the world over sighed in collective disappointment.  Yet once more, the intrepid dustball surprised, faintly glowing again a few hours later.  Yet this was the ghost of ISON, a diffuse patch of dust, continuing along the orbital destiny of its former self, far too faint to be seen by the eyes of earthlings.

These three links honor the memory of ISON in various ways that may be worth your time:

  • AstroBob summarizes what we now know of the physical stages of its destruction and shares a time-lapse movie of its approach and retreat from the sun
  • A post-mortum Reddit Ask Me Anything session with comet scientists
  • Karl Battams of the ISON Observing Campaign offers a short and stirring In Memoriam

And, a few weeks later, this column looks at 10 Lessons from ISON.

Karl’s final words are a fitting conclusion here, as well.  This is how Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) wishes to be remembered:

Ison obit600

Images: Damien Peach

Natural fireworks at Mt. Etna

Mount Etna recently surged back to life, as it tends to do every few months or years.  A local volcanologist, Dr. Boris Behncke, has posted videos from Saturday night, and they are spectacular!  This 8-minute sequence may stretch your online attention span, but there’s a wealth of riches to be had herein.  After thirty seconds of scene-setting, the fireworks ramp up, with a series of stunning lava-bursts from about ninety second to three minutes or so: huge spheres of glowing lava expanding outwards, then settling ever-further down the mountain’s flanks.  From about six to seven minutes, there’s a wonderful sequence with the near-full moon setting behind the smoke plume and peak.  As an added treat, the video gives at least a sense of the thunderous booms that follow a few seconds behind the visuals, the locally-familiar call of the mountain rolling across the landscape, day and night, into the streets and homes—and the hearts and bones—of all its neighbors.

For more on this eruption, including several links to more images of Etna, see this article at  And check out these two posts from the good Dr. Behncke, on an especially interesting burst of activity in late October, and on the last surviving remnant of an old hut, built in a burst of foolishness in the 1960’s: an antenna, now poking its lonely head from ash and lava flows.

Here you are

With no warning and no surprise, three sturdy wingbeats slide suddenly from on high.  Settling, now still.  Here you are.  Strong breast, speckled; eyes vigilant, crown aglow from low sun behind—avian apex of the valley.

A peripheral suggestion casually slips up the bank, into piñon shade.  Settling, now still.  Here you are.  Gorgeous coat in mottled sun; relaxed, feet front, head high—strong, sure morning sentinel of the valley.

Hawk perched alert in the center of the yard, until lifting surely back to its aerie.  Coyote lounging amidst the trees, now strolling languidly through shining gramma, poking into low boughs, and dropping back into the arroyo from whence it appeared.  In this way, into the quiet space at the heart of the solitude that I’ve chosen and cultivated, which has broadened and deepened with time, with attention, with care, here you are.  Spirit tangible. Palpable. Embodied. 

Gentle, rich presence: cool clear water soothing a valley’s parched heart. . . soft insistent breeze stirring each sun-seeking tendril. . . winter’s dazzling stars piercing the soul’s cold night.  The wind and water, sun and stars—ever arriving, never lingering.  Always touching, stirring, warming, lifting.

Annular eclipse 2012

And so I walk on, here in the outskirts of the heart of this all-living world. Carrying questions.  Keeping faith.  Reaching deep.  In the layers of wind whispering across the land, and this noontime moon-slice in soft blue sky, here you are.  As the search discovers its path, here you are.  Alongside flowing waters, here you are.  In the sharing of kindred souls, here you are.  In each breath and every touch, here you are.

Image: Colleen Pinski, Smithsonian Magazine

The voice used here addresses specific beings and/or or a divine realm
as a separate, though at times extended, “other.”
It occurs to me: perhaps it would be interesting
to revise it by changing “you are” to “I am,”
reflecting an expanded self-identity with the other,
and/or a fuller embodiment as or identification with
what’s being experienced.
Ah, such a coarse reversal doesn’t fully work
with the presence being explored here.
But the gesture is still worthwhile!

See the next post (above) for Merton’s musings on this theme.


We turn around and say good morning to the night

It’s another restless night. . . as the hour eases past 3AM, I’m tossed gradually ashore on softly breaking waves of wakefulness, the dark night laced by lightning, the deep hours’ stillness shaken with thunder. By four, I sit in the quiet of the dark living room, tucked into the comfy chair next to the big front windows, cobwebs of late-night torpor stretched across the ceiling corners of my not-quite-awake mind, contemplating the churning sky, this living world, God.

lightningWEBThe valley and the trees around my yard are quick-lit for a second of each minute with the electric splash of brilliant directional light from bolts a mile or so away—and a handful of times, half that far, just beyond the nearby hills. The storm moves slowly past, and I become ever more present, eagerly attending to each moment’s turn on stage. After forty minutes, a couple of final blinding flickering bolts, out just beyond Thor’s—eyes widen to take in their fleeting hypnotic pulses, strange and sacred tendrils lingering, shimmering, sky and earth joined in ecstatic connection and release. . . retinal after-images shining for seconds more, slowly fading phantoms dancing across the dimly lit-world outside.

The sky flickers continue in the distance as the storm moves away east, its thunder lost across the miles; another far-off hot spot in the southwest flares now and then as well, while the almost-exactly-full-moon (5:18am) peeks out low in the west, and billowing clouds on the tattered rear edges of the storm are rimmed with its peaceful light.

As dawn approaches—the cloud-draped eastern horizon falling forward toward our ever-present, ever-giving home star—the greys begin to hint at green: contours of the hills around, piñons ringing the yard, gramma and purslaine blanketing the ground, all gaining in detail and color from one moment to the next. A gap appears overhead, opening to allow a bit of infinity to tumble down, four brilliant remnants of the vast night. The only denizens of the deep strong enough to shine through the gathering dawn: distant brilliant huge Rigel, and ancient swollen red Betelgeuse (a knee and shoulder of winter’s soaring hunter, Orion); Aldebaron, the fainter-red eye of the bull of Taurus; and shining brightest of all, the big brother of our solar family, Jupiter, shaper of the verdant destiny of our third rock, via its gravitational grace—holding a space for the inner-planet realm of solid worlds, protecting us from countless cosmic pinballs while letting enough through to seed this would-be Eden with the raw materials for life’s grand experiment. Thank you.

Sunrise terminator from space

And, after another half hour of earth-spin, this little valley—etched into the foothills of the southern Rockies, these regal ripples rising from the Great Plains—finds its way again to the prow of our spaceship earth. Always and everywhere, these last moments of morning twilight occur at the forward edge of the planet as it arcs patiently ’round the sun, seeking the season yet to come. . . and so here, now, this place once more bids adieu to the shadowed side of our turning ball, and encounters the gentle fresh dawning of a new day. Overhead, cloud puffs float by, a graceful broken quilt of many textures cast in shades of white-to-grey, suspended not far above these warming hills in a sky that has become a soft-blue miracle.

Images: Lightning, WTKR, Hampton Roads, VA; Earth, International Space Station Expedition 27, 2011

Flying Ant Day 2012

Here we go again!  Another early fall rainy day is followed by a bright sunny morning on which the front yard comes magically to life: tiny, shining wings fluttering skyward from the moist soil, carrying flights of ants – mostly queens, a few males as mobile mating partners – heading off en masse to find new homes.

Last year, I was caught totally by surprise, flabbergasted and enraptured, when I looked out the window and saw the yard full of tiny tinkerbells; see this earlier post for that initial befuddlement, along with the research I did to discover the details of the annual ritual flight.

This year, I could step past confusion (and its flip side, “trying to figure it out”)  and right into reverie at the fleeting wonder of it all, along with some close observation.  I sacrificed a couple minutes of pure experience in order to get a few pictures to share.  The story they tell is well worth the trade-off!

The earth here is always teeming with the tiny black ants that today spawned some new colonies; literally any square foot that you lean down to take a look at will be laced with diligent workers traveling this way and that, intent on their place in this instant of the colony’s extended embodiment here in Lower Cañoncito.  This morning, the ground was scattered with patches of the newly-winged messengers:

Ants on rockWEB

Some rose right from the ground, though most seemed to seek at least a pebble to climb to the lip of, and a few scrambled up tufts of grass:

Ants ready to goWEB

All this was exciting enough, but then I looked closer and discovered a bit of extra delight, mystery, and drama….

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My ears will never be the same


An essay I wrote about sound and listening – as reflected in art, and science, and experience for the online journal Field Notes, has just been published. The piece begins and ends with personal reflections much like what is often shared here on BrightBlueBall, with extended sections in the middle on sound art (ala EarthEar) and sound considerations in science and policy, such as I work on with the Acoustic Ecology Institute.

Downloaded the issue by clicking here.

My essay begins on page 25. The other pieces are very good, too!

1. Tom Lawrence: The Waterbeetles of Pollardstown Fen

2. Scott Sherk: Phonography: Art or Documentation?

3. Jim Cummings: My Ears will Never be the Same

4. Marcus Kürten et al.: ‘Something Which Lasts Passes By’ — A Collection of Hearing Memories

5. Hein Schoer: The Sounding Museum — Between Art and Science: Cultural Soundscapes in Museum Pedagogy

6. Budhaditya Chattopadhyay: Soundhunting in a City — Chronicles of an Urban Field Recording Expedition

 Past issues of Field Notes can be downloaded at this link.

Evening again

And so again, here I am.  Gazing across the valley, shades of grey overhead inviting me up into the bulging bottom surfaces of clouds drifting slowly downwind. A steady sequence of thunder-rumbles sound from both a couple miles to the east and from the ever-present slope of the small ridge across the creek: the direct path and the echo just a split second apart as the sound spreads across the land, the rolling, tumbling echo revealing in its extended rhythms the shape of the land it touches along the way.

I am waiting.  Watching.  Listening.  Bearing witness to the Here and to the Now.  And hoping — yes, against my inner Buddhist aspirations — hoping for a downpour, for the relief of rain, for the exuberance of immersion.  For each shock of lightning-flash, every tumbling extended thunder-roll, all that wind-driven water angling from cloud above to earth below. 

Yet, wait I must.  Watch, I do.  Listen: to the eternal story, the original language.  Finches cheep, doves flutter, grosbeaks, jays, titmouse, chickadee all clamor for a snack before the storm.  Winds slip through piñons thirty feet in front of me, and in deeper surges, across the hill a hundred yards to my right.  A plane passes through, and the sky stills as if giving it space.  

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The Horse is loosed upon the land

Crazyhorse with logo

Four guys.  Full on.  With a tale to tell, in a language all their own. Well, I suppose the language isn’t unique – bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar in 4/4 time – and truth be told, it’s a pretty darn simple set of phonemes.  In the hands of Neil and Crazy Horse, though, the playful, propulsive thrash of garage band chaos opens into a mythic tunnel of glorious noise, a Primal Rock and Roll Orchestra.

On Friday night under a star-spangled sky laced with moon-glowing clouds, a few thousand New Mexicans were lucky enough to be at the unveiling of This Year’s Model—or call it This Decade’s Model, their first time on stage together since 2004.  The show commenced with several minutes of roiling, pounding, searing jam (jump on in, the water’s fine!), then Neil swung to the mic, his voice layered atop the instrumental waves, the story beginning to be told:

Long ago in the book of old
Before the chapter where dreams unfold
A battle raged on the open page
Love was the winner there, overcoming hate
Like a little girl who couldn’t wait
Love and only love will endure….

CrazyHorse 1  320ish pxYowsa! What an opener! And on higher:

Spirit come back to me
Give me strength and set me free
Let me hear the magic in my heart

Love and only love will endure
Hate is everything you think it is
Love and only love will break it down

After settling us down just a mite with his enigmatic Powderfinger, a classic for any of us who’ve ever found ourselves in a bit over our heads (it’s the tale of a younger brother left home while dad and big bro were out and about, whose fate it was to futilely face down some mysterious gunship on the river), Neil then proceeded to toss a slew of brand new songs at us, each one a gem:

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Tipping points

It’s late July, and the summer rains remain few and far between.  By now, we’d hope to see a five-day forecast fully populated with Thunderstorms Likely icons, and a few Severe Thunderstorms thrown in for good measure; instead, we’re having to hang our hopes on days when the prognosis tips to Scattered, rather than Isolated, storms.  

Out here in the southwest and Rockies, we count on these summer rains—all of us do: piñon, cougar, deer mouse, side-oats gramma, cooper’s hawk, swift fox, human, bobcat, and bunny. In a good summer, we’d get close to half our annual allotment of eleven or twelve inches of rain between the 4th of July and just after Labor Day.  But those good years are slowly becoming exceptional, no more than one year of five.  Much more common are feeble rainy seasons like this one, two or three of every five years.  In July here in Cañoncito, we had one half-inch storm and a couple of close-to-quarter-inch ones.  There’ve been years when that would have been a typical week!

IMG 9881This is what climate change has been predicted to look like in the southwest.  The future’s here.  (Oh, were that so….we’re just a few steps along that new road, in fact.)

Driving along the Front Range of the Rockies from Denver last weekend, I got a regional look at this summer moisture pattern, a three-hundred mile Big Picture within which my five-mile-wide dark cloud and lightning vigil takes place each day.  It was not a pretty picture.

Actually, it was too pretty a picture: nearly all the mountains along the way stood clear and tall from their jagged peaks down through folded forested ridges to the plains at their feet.  Beautiful!  And just not right for a midsummer late afternoon.  In only two fairly small (ten-mile wide) areas were the mountains socked in, the dark, dark bottoms of towering cloud masses 

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