Category Archives: Sky
the sky opens wide at night
the solar dance: the three-dimensional solar and galactic bodies we move within
A thin layer of week-old snow glistens with sparkles, each tiny pinprick an icy mirror angling out toward the sun blazing low over the southern horizon. Way down across the long arc of the deeply-tilted Earth our local star, the Solar Heart, is flashing bright and fractured through the dark, silhouetted upper boughs of piney woods while two tender nostrils tingle deliciously with each pulse of winter-chilled in-breath, fueling the fleshy heart that beats inside my chest.
Right now, these woods are rolling across the top side of our planetary ball, which is leaning back from the sun as fully as it ever does. The coastal plain here alongside the Gulf of Maine is spinning its way eastward toward that midday moment when it faces the sun, slipping along there among the branches, as high as it will get on this winter solstice day, this sacred day when the long waning of daylight turns and begins waxing toward summer’s fullness.
The winter solstice is prime time for being able to see and feel the eternally tipped earth beneath us. For one day, its 23½ degree tilt (more than a quarter of the way to lying on its side!) is perfectly aligned with the sun—the Antarctic bathed in 24-hour sunshine and the Arctic never glimpsing its light. Those of us living between these polar extremes also experience the full extent of earth’s tilt, revealed here in New England by the sun’s low arc through the sky. Today’s solstice sun is less than half as high as where it stood a three months ago on the equinox noon; the fact that the earth is leaning far back from the Solar Heart is inescapable—obvious to eyes and geometry as well as in the cold air and the soft light brushing across the landscape.
This shortest-day, lowest-sun, backward-tipped moment is not only a touchstone of the seasonal cycle. It’s also—amazingly and coincidentally—the turning point of our Galactic Year, for the winter solstice portion of Earth’s orbit around the sun happens to take us through the place in space that lies on the far side of the sun from the center of the galaxy. So today—and for the week or so before and after solstice—the Galactic Heart sits nearly directly behind the sun in our winter sky; the Milky Way’s glorious splash of diffuse light, that starry trail that on summer nights draws our spirits out into the largest of our visible bodies—the galactic body—is today shining invisibly alongside the sun, and for a brief moment at midday this Galactic Heart and the Solar Heart meet our hearts as each local landscape in turn spins at twelve miles a minute across the sunward edge of the earth to face them.
It may feel startling or unfamiliar, but don’t let this rapid expansion of the horizon disorient you: all this attunement to the planetary, solar, and galactic bodies is simply a broader view of our familiar ways of connecting with—and being a part of—the place where we live. When we really notice the shapes and forms of the land and life around us, and the natural cycles and enduring relationships that tie it all together, we begin to appreciate the larger rhythms within which life springs forth, and so also come to feel the mystery of our lives as a barely perceptible—and cherished!—glimmer within a larger majesty.
As always, it is our lived experience in the world that connects us to the spiritual heart of the matter. My neural-laced body—tender skin stretched around juicy meat and articulated bone—wakes each day as part of a blooming, buzzing collusion of soil, water, and embracing air wrapped close around its earthly ground, a just-right goldilocks world where creation flares forth with all of its inherent intelligence and symbiotic design, opening into pine needles and tumbling streams, root hairs and auroral ripples, hooting gibbons and seabottom vents, ant colonies and sky-shaking storms, moon-tugged tides and all the shapes and sounds of human societies.
We humans have long recognized our embeddedness within the natural world; this unity comes alive in a new and radically expansive way as I begin to see and feel my place on the earth spinning along in its eternal circle dance with the sun, each of my days enlivened by that generous, infinite source that has forever called the human spirit forth.
Just as my spiritual connection with the woods emerges from attention to the physicality of trees and leaves and seasons and weather and light . . . or my love for the American West grows out of the bodily experience of traversing the fantastic forms of its sprawling mountains and vast rangelands . . . or the patterns newly woven across the sand by each day’s receding waves shape the way my soul is soothed by the shoreline . . . and just as the solace of caring human touch can nourish a lifelong blending of hearts . . . so too do I attend to the dance of this lovely planet around our life-giving star and feel my way into the rhythms within which our whirling solar system revels us with its seasonal cycle of vistas into the embracing arms of our galactic home.
Each of these glimpses of direct perceptual experience and bodily presence (of embracing woods, the expanse of a continent, the shifting edge of the sea, loving touch, earth and sky) opens doors through which my sense of self—my very identity—expands and joins in communion with the same mighty and generative force that knits together the cosmos, pours through the sun, and forever blossoms so subtly and wildly within this biospheric blanket of our precious planet.
And so today one receptive, attentive body looks skyward through the pines and honors the moment when these woods of home turn to face the solstice sun and the galactic heart beyond. Yet another fleeting instant among the days and seasons of a piece of land spinning once a day around the steadily-tilting axis of this planet traveling the great circle of the year around our mighty star within the vast expanse of its galactic home—all seen and felt through the limited senses and mind and the boundless heart and spirit arising within one fragile, resonant human being. Here on the edge of the world, all my hearts meet as one.
Over the past few weeks, as the Earth moved through the time of spring equinox, I found myself once again slipping into a three-dimensional “sense of place in space” —the physical experience of being on the surface of the spherical earth, and of earth’s body being in motion around the sun. It’s all there in the classic textbook illustration that shows our planet’s seasonal path around the sun:
Surely you remember the basics: our northern hemisphere tilted toward the sun in summer, away from the sun in winter, and momentarily sideways to the sun at the spring and fall equinoxes (the tilt remaining constant in space, the north pole always pointing at distant Polaris). But how do these moments in the life of the planet look and feel from the vantage point of a human body in the noontime sun or under the slowly-turning panorama of a starry night?
The perspective from our local landscape out toward the sun, an awareness of the earth’s tilt, and our view from here out into the galaxy, can all come alive within an expanded version of this image, stretched to the size of the “real world” around us and fleshed out by our own physical experiences here on Earth, alongside the sun and within the vast halo of stars that surround us in our galactic home.
Finally, a video of aurora that isn’t speeded up by today’s craze for time-lapse. For two nights in the early 80’s aurora swept far enough south to be overhead in central Maine (very rare; usually they’re on the northern horizon at best), and we were entranced by their visual Majavishnu dance. Slower than water in a stream and faster than clouds overhead, the rippling motion of aurora hit a real sweet spot for lifting viewers into an extended state of wonder. While of course video in a 500-pixel-wide portion of a screen can’t replicate this wonder, you can get a faint taste of it from this show in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
And check this out: the same footage with comparisons in real-time and time-lapse. As he explains, while real-time captures the actual feeling of the motion, that 30fps shutter speed dims the colors, while time-lapse sequences come closer to presenting the color as seen by the eye, at least for bright aurora.
Note, though, that many time-lapse videos of the night sky, using a series of still shots at wide aperture, clearly exaggerate the brightness, as compared to human vision; virtually all of the gorgeous milky way time-lapses do this to a fairly dramatic degree, as do some videos of fainter aurora. Real time video, by contrast, will, if anything, under-represent the brightness of the night sky.
We may “know” the universe of galaxies is out there, and we do indeed gaze with wonder at our galactic body shining across the summer sky. But the largest of the bodies we are really able to experience is the Solar Body. We see this body from different angles, as earth circles the sun. We watch it change over time, our cycle but one figure in the eternal dance of our sister planets. And we feel it with our animal bodies: the sun warming our tender skin, human beings reveling in the seasonal breath of life within the skin of the earth.
Check it—that’s how high the sun gets on my birthday! Tip the ol’ head back, to its natural easy limit (just shy of craning) and I’m looking right at that great ball of plasma at the center of it all. Seems pretty far up there; it really does take a leap in February, after the two chilly months straddling Solstice; for so long, we’re looking way down across the winter planet’s deep backwards tilt, while the southern horizon swings eastward not much more than hands-breadth below our precious local star.
Ah, Bodhi. Another year gone by and again the anniversary of my birth is being spent within your warm embrace. Morning on the back porch, catching some eastern rays as the orange and white cliffs spin down and away from the brilliant beacon in the sky. Midday finds me on a bench under bare cottonwoods, continuing my day of reading and integration. And now, as the afternoon fades to evening, the pools call and the books are set aside. Ah, Bodhi; earth-warmed waters, take me in. How I love the touch of your cobblestones under fingers and palms that slowly pull this floating body across the pool, sun rippling on stones below, chin slipping through the subtle, pliant surface tension of your waters.
Body temp rising, head now resting in a grassy nook between a couple of rocks along your edge, high clouds streaming through the deep blue sky. Ah, Bodhi, here in this mighty canyon, where ancient waters scoured away towering layers of limestone and volcanic ash all the way down to where today’s small, lively stream dances ceaselessly a few feet away. . . and draws my awareness out, and up, beyond the cliffs shining upstream in soft afternoon sun.
Curve-billed Thrasher reappeared in the yard today, orange-eyed, alert, dashing away jays that deigned to also seek out some of the seed scattered there on the path. The entire yard is aflutter with winged ones, steadily stoking their inner fires at the feeders, here in the midst of what will likely be a full week of below-freezing days and several sub-zero nights. The valley is blanketed by six inches of snow—settled from the fluffy foot that fell two days ago—and the hillsides all around are a speckling of pine-green branches mottled with snowy white mounds.
This activity outside my door is but the local embodiment of a hemispherical pulse as our planet slides its way toward the point in its annual ring-around-the-sun in which we in the north find ourselves leaning far back, away from the Solar Heart, now skimming low and briefly over the southern horizon, unable to fully warm the air above and around us. And the nights, ever longer, so deeply chilled: stepping outside, we are—instantly, intently—aware of our skin, the insides of our nostrils, our eyes, these tender edges of our bodies through which we meet the world around us, now in a palpable, vulnerable relationship with the very air. No longer a benign emptiness, the air takes on a physical presence, a sharpness, a density, actively reaching into us through these permeable boundaries, the very heat of our bodies seeping out into the dark night. Ah, the vividness of deep cold!
And that’s not all. These long nights are aglitter again with the glorious starscape that we revisit at this time each year. As the deeply tilted Earth spins us into and through the sunset band of color, our one most sacred star is shadowed by the rocky water-world beneath our feet, and the sky opens wide into the larger local surroundings that spread away from Sol on the winter side of our orbit. . . Orion bright and wide around his belt and sword. . . the V of the bull’s face (red eye aglow). . . seven Pleiades sisters splattered high in the sky. . . while Sirius gleams low over the hills, sparkling magenta-now-teal-now-golden-now-white, following not far behind our sun as both are swept along in the great currents of the Milky Way’s slow turning. Joining the wintry delight this year is mighty Jupiter, king of our planetary brethren, outshining everything: so big, so close.
All this—pecking juncoes, snowy junipers, sun low over the shoulder of the valley, nights frigid and fragile and brilliant and vast, our own eyes and hearts taking it all in—is this not God made manifest? What more might we worship than the dance of life (co-evolution of a planet), within the miracle of the seasons (solar pulses spurring that dance into Earth), embedded in a galactic home that dazzles us with its expansive spiral embrace, itself a remote condensation of matter within a vastness of energy surging forth from a source beyond understanding? To see, and feel, and honor this dynamic and incomprehensible power and beauty—and intelligence, and yes, design—that pulses across these nested scales of creation’s embodiment; to walk a path through this world that acknowledges this grandeur while seeking simply to be a vessel by which it may live within our hearts and actions; what else does anyone’s God ask of us than this?
We are living beings within a living world in a living cosmos, a cosmos whose dynamism and beauty reveals patterns we recognize also in wave-lapped shorelines, wind rippling through woods, the slow surging forth of dawn across drifting clouds, and our own churning feelings, questing souls, and deepest longings. As has ever been the way, to see our small lives—giving and receiving, breath by breath and touch by touch—as expressions of a design and creativity so much larger than us is to bow before that mystery, our purpose becoming one of service, and care, and reverence.
Around thirty years ago, a new story began to be told, a story that continues to unfold and become richer, deeper, truer with each passing year and each added voice. It weaves together sciences and religions, history and today, our human bodies and the starry depths. In books by many different authors, several films, and conversations in churches, wilderness retreats, and living rooms, this new story is still coming into form, and has built quite an audience among leading environmental and religious thinkers.
It’s a Creation Story, the first such story to emerge from diverse voices from around the planet, rather than within a particular local or regional culture. For millenia, primal peoples the world over told tales of mythic beings and forces taking shape as sky, earth, humans, animals: Creation Story 1.0. Later, organized religions emerged and spread, with Asians honoring a pantheon of Gods while the three cultures of the Middle East each revered a single God: Creation Stories 2.0. Today, both animism and deism remain potent belief systems, while science stands apart, examining the matter and energy that gave rise to our world. It’s time for a story that can embrace each of these mighty threads of human inquiry: Creation Story 3.0.
Thomas Berry is a lodestar for this new story of the sacred universe, as is Joanna Macy. Many others have informed its heart and its tendriled edges: Gary Snyder and bioregionalism; E.O. Wilson, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, and other integrative scientists; poets of intimate and expansive embodiment like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, and Jim Harrison; the list goes on, with multiple strands back in time to Whitman, Emerson, Goethe, Rilke, and so many more. Each of us has our own litany of others upon whose shoulders we dance, and reach, and dream.
The new creation story draws on what we’ve learned in recent decades about the common themes seen in the formation of the cosmos and our solar system, the evolution of biological life, and the emergence of human society and consciousness, yet it retains an allegiance to the sacred—the fathomless power and intention within the very essence of all creation. This new story doesn’t aim to replace anyone’s God or faith; it’s a place to gather together humanity’s diverse ways of seeking to understand this world. . . and so know one’s God more intimately and fully. Still, the story leaves room for all ways of seeing, feeling, knowing, and understanding the deeper source of the the beauty we see around us: a creator-being, complexity driving emergent properties, the spark of love, “dark” energy, blind chance (though this last one tends to be frowned upon in these circles!). All that the story asks is that we see ourselves as part of this world, rather than somehow separate from it, and that we acknowledge that there is something more than what we can see: a set of connective and creative principles and energies that underly and flow through all we know. The more spiritually inclined among us look beyond the principles, yearning toward their source: an unfathomable mystery and intelligence. Many know this as God; others simply acknowledge the presence of a life force or spirit of some sort.
So: this new creation story is rooted in profound personal experience of—and relationship with—the world around us, and an equally profound openness to the divine, the core driver of our reality, however we may each see it. The story, while enlivened by this direct, lived experience, is expanded and informed by an ever-richer understanding of the synergies that drive growth and change within physics, biology, and culture—recognizing especially the ways in which science’s understandings are yet still laced with unreachable Mystery. The sacredness of all life grounds the story, while the eternal desire to know the world and our place in it is the breath that gives it voice.
The new creation story need not replace our many local and cultural stories, with their established foundations of purpose and meaning. But it would serve us well—in this time when modern communications and global challenges are both pulling us closer together as a planetary culture—to also weave a larger story that can hold all of humanity’s rich histories and cherished beliefs within its embrace.
These musings—today’s reflections you just read, and all the glimpses shared throughout this site’s witness to the years—are bits of my own ways of hearing and telling this new global creation story (my particular fascination has to do with becoming more concretely attuned to the nested physical scales within which we live, and to the relationships, the giving and receiving, found within and between scales). These few paragraphs, more specifically, bubbled forth after listening this afternoon to a recent hour-long talk by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, which is one of the best and most concise distillations I’ve heard of this thirty-year collaborative global endeavor; this little essay borrows part of its title from one Michael’s themes. Michael and Connie have been weaving their versions of this great story for over a decade, and Michael in particular is especially interested in bringing it into churches (he’s a former evangelical minister); this talk frames some of the key themes of the new global creation story in ways that aim to bridge the scientific and the religious ways of looking at both creation and the choices we make in our individual lives. He, and many others, see this new story as one that can be embraced by followers of many religious traditions, while also adding an appealing depth to the modern secular worldview. I highly recommend this talk both to those looking for an introduction to these ideas, and to those who’ve been following these themes for years. The first 25 minutes will give you the nut of Michael’s recent new framing of what this may be all about (try to listen at least until the Thomas Berry quote about honoring the earth); the second half explores many of these fascinating ideas in more depth. Again, here’s the link.
Photo: Jim Cummings
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:
Images: Damien Peach
Astronomers entered 2013 with an unusual level of excitement about several comets that will be visible to the naked eye this year. The first two are currently shining in southern hemisphere skies, one of which, Comet PanSTARRS, should remain visible as it moves into northern skies later this month. Check in with AstroBob for updates as it continues to rise higher in our skies through March; as he notes, “On the 12th, a thin lunar crescent will shine just to the right of the comet (which) will it make finding this fuzzy visitor easy-peasy.”
These two are the opening acts for the year’s Main Event, which will unfold toward the end of the year. Comet ISON may be spectacular, one of the brightest objects in the night sky, perhaps even visible in daylight; or, it may disintegrate as it makes its close passage by the sun. Only time will tell!
UPDATE, 7/31/13: Comet ISON’s prospects are looking quite a bit more downbeat as it continues to make its way toward the inner solar system. Ever since the beginning of the year, its brightness has remained constant, indicating that it may not have much material to melt off as it nears the sun. It still has a nice tail out there, but its lack of growth leads many astronomers to doubt a truly historic outburst is in store, even if it does survive its close encounter with the sun. Others suggest that we’ll know more by a month or so from now, after the comet crosses the “frost line” and ice begins sublimating off its body, which should trigger new brightening if the comet has it in it. Stay tuned….
Image: Yuri Beletsky (ESO), from the Atacama desert in South America.
NASA just keeps coming up with new wonders! This week, they’ve released the first recordings from twin spacecraft that are settling into their 2-year mission to learn more about the Van Allen Radiation Belts, concentrations of high-energy particles held in place by Earth’s magnetic fields. The audio released this week is just a taste of what’s to come; the Radiation Storm Belt Probes are just in their initial 60-day testing phase. Researchers are excited at the audio quality they’re getting, and hope to use the two spacecraft to generate stereo recordings in the months to come.
The current recording is brief, and researchers stress that they are not recording audio in space; these are radio waves, with oscillations at acoustic frequencies of up to 10kHz (humans can hear from about 20Hz to 20kHz). The Van Allen Radiation Belts are often energized by solar storms, spurring dangerous concentrations of high-energy radiation, including “killer electrons,” which can disrupt satellites; the radio waves being studies here are thought to be one of the key energy sources that create these perilous zones. Meanwhile, though, the sounds offer a tantalizing audio glimpse of the dynamic, energetic sheath of electromagnetism that forever pulses around our seemingly-solid planetary home.
Taking Neil’s exhortation to “walk like a giant on the land” to heart, here’s the latest entry in astro-dazzle sweepstakes: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has turned their early data into a three-dimensional map, and further proceeded to create a video fly-through for our mind-blowing pleasure.
The SDSS has so far covered just a third of the sky, and this is just the first batch of 3D data to be released from that. And oh, they’re not looking at stars. That’s so yesterday. This here is but a fragment of the physical structure of the universe, as revealed in these clusters and filaments of galaxies upon galaxies upon (repeat ad infinitum…):
The cosmologists and astrophysicists say that this new 3D data about these large-scale structures will help unravel the mysteries of dark matter (which seems to account for about 25% of the universe’s mass) and dark energy (which exerts enough influence on matter that scientists say it accounts for 70% of the universe). So, yup, all those bright shiny galaxies in the video: less than 5% of the universe.
At the risk of blowing my scientific front here: I can’t help but think that such framing (especially of “dark energy”) is simply a fancy way of saying “we have no idea” what underlies the structure of the universe and the wonder of creation. Is it so hard to posit that this mysterious integrative energy – the fundamental driver and shaper of the formation of all galaxies, stars, planets, forests, and diatoms – is something more like “spirit” or “life force” than what we normally think of as “matter” and “energy”?
Perhaps the equations and theories that are brewing around all this will turn out to be valuable, though if so, I’d bet it’d be in revealing totally unexpected and even more mysterious causal complexities (ala the ways that “sequencing the genetic code” has revealed a dynamic ecosystem of interactions that’s more like a mysterious dance than the workings of a causal machine); or maybe this inquiry is taking place in a deep lost corner of the mechanistic rabbit hole, trying to fit the ineffable into a nice square hole.
I say go for it, academicians, see what sense you can make of this, our biggest picture of life. But meanwhile, I’ll content myself to marvel at the beauty of it all and rest in the ease of simpler explanations, ones that are content to flow from an omnipresent ground of mystery.