The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Dark Sky, A Portal into Mind and Meaning.
The observatory is fifty feet to the south of the two story house. An eight-foot round dome sits on top of a square ten feet by ten feet building. The walls are stuccoed the same color as the house. The roof is sealed with a color the same as the house roof. The door and trim is near the trim colors of the house although a bit more grey. To the west of the dome twenty feet away is a prow shaped wind barrier made of cement seven feet high protecting a fourteen inch diameter cement telescope pier. All the cement is the same color as the cement foundation of the house which is satisfyingly close to the color of the red rocks and dirt it rests upon. They are simple constructions but somehow at the same time they are complexly attractive icons presenting a standing invitation.
I have called the observatory a “portal to the heavens” and that description is often enthusiastically accepted. From friends to the public, people express eagerness to see it. A couple of times I have been photographed and interviewed by Utah’s newspapers and was featured in a short film.
I wonder what exactly that attraction is. What do people expect to see? What do they want from it? Why do they ask me to come and see it? The location has to be part of it. Just outside of Capitol Reef National Park the area was originally considered to be part of the Park. In almost any other place it would be a monument or a park. Surrounded by red rock cliffs and high alpine plateaus in a rural area where dark skies at night still rule, a lot of people want to come here anyway. Getting away from the city and into the country with a chance to see the stars and Milky Way is a natural attraction, something I think that is similar to an instinct. It is, after all, what we were presented for the vast majority of our human history. Until just a hundred years ago there were no electric lights anywhere to light up the night sky and hide the stars.
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Gessner has come West again and this time with the intent to be an inspiring and effective conservationist. His was a brilliant idea to focus on Teddy Roosevelt as an example of getting things done in conservation. Somehow Gessner, a guy from the east coast, has a handle on our issues in Utah as well or better than anyone here. It is vaguely frustrating. Gessner’s acknowledgment of people I know who were involved in the work, like Kristen Johanna Allen, the publisher at Torrey House Press, THP author Steven Trimble, and THP board member Regina Whiteskunk Lopez, makes me think I am at least associated with getting things done via my board work with Torrey House Press and Western Watersheds Project.
THP is going to publish Gessner’s upcoming work, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crises. It is my privilege to read the galley next.
The observatory threw every thing wrong that could go wrong at me and I have not been able to get an image since early November. The first sets of color captures combined in such a horrible way that it made me wonder if I new which filter was which in the filter wheel. That is a tricky thing to figure out remotely. Turns out I had it right and the inability to make a workable RGB image remains unexplained. I even had a long online chat with the software developer of CCDStack. He had some usual good ideas that were subtle and subtler but no basic explanation of where things went off the rails. So, as is always a good idea, I just started over. I used 360 second 2X2 RGB frames with new calibration subs and masters. The LUM frames were not great but were workable with 10 minute unbinned subs, all unguided. The usable frames came to a total of 13.3 hours of exposure. I also re-ran, a couple of times, the mount tracking protocols including a 100 star T-Point calibration and a new PEC correction. Even if you don’t understand what all this means you get the point that running this thing is technical and demanding for the mere layman such as me.
Jonathan P. Thompson is a son of the Four Corners. He is a journalist and writer, recently penning the book River of Lost Souls (non-fiction Torrey House 2018) and Behind the Slickrock Curtain (fiction Lost Souls Press Sept. 2020). I am co-founder of Torrey House Press and while I previously followed him as an extra savvy writer of the West, I got to know him personally when he published with us. In August of this year he and Torrey House are bringing out his next book, SAGEBRUSH EMPIRE: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. I have had a look at a first draft and am thrilled that more of his writing and perspective will soon hit the stores.
On a clear, moonless night, 7,000 feet high on the Colorado Plateau, I stand in my backyard in Torrey, Utah looking at the heavens. When I shift my gaze to the ground, I realize I can see my shadow. I move my arm about to see if a shadow is really what I was seeing. The shadow moves. The night seems inky dark. There is no artificial light anywhere. I laugh under my breath. How could there be a shadow? The only light is coming from the summer Milky Way arcing overhead.
I don’t believe there are many people who have seen their shadow by starlight and that is a shame. In most of the country and much of the world people live in places where the skyglow caused by errant urban light makes it impossible to see the Milky Way. When I was born there were slightly fewer than 3 billion people on the planet. Now there are almost 8 billion and it shows in the sky. Satellite photos of the earth at night taken over the past decades show the expansion of light creeping like a fungus growing in a petri dish. As Joni Mitchell sang in my youth, Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. That dark sky over my head in Torrey is becoming a lost resource. Another vanishing piece of wildness.
My father has been an avid amateur astronomer and astro-photographer since the early 1980’s. The technology of telescopes was improving fast in those days, prices were starting to come down, and Dad was an early adapter of the new technologies. In 1986 when Halley’s comet was making its once every 75 year rounds past Earth, Dad invited a buddy and me to join him in the dark skies of southern Utah to take a look through his telescope. We went to Canyonlands, south of Moab. Standing outside his motorhome the night was thick with dark, the Milky Way swept overhead, and Halley’s hung in the middle of the south sky with its tail pointing up and away to the northwest. The view through the telescope did not disappoint and my buddy and I laughed as we tried and failed to keep the comet in the telescope’s crosshairs. I could see the attraction to Dad’s hobby but I was busy with a budding family and career and did not see the telescope again until 20 years later. By then Dad had reconverted in a fundamental way to religion and there was a growing distance between us. “I still have that old telescope, the orange tube C8,” he told me. “You can take it if you want to.” That was all the instruction I got, but I took him up on the offer.
Kirsten and I are in the banjo (a pop-up camper) heading to the Simpson Springs campground on the Pony Express road in the desert west of Salt Lake City. We need to get out and are eager to celebrate Solstice. As a double bonus, Saturn and Jupiter are going to be as visually close tonight as they have been for 400 years and will be again for another 400. Simpson Springs is remote and is typically empty. But the last time we went out this recent early summer, as this pandemic got going, the place was jammed. The whole west desert was crowded and covered in accumulating dust plumes from multitudes of RV’s and swarms of off road vehicles. As we settle in on the good dirt road heading west today we can’t see any other traffic and are hopeful the manic crowd does not have the same idea as us this time.
McConnell is not the top of the senate, Kamala Harris will be. As vice president she will be the Senate president. And as president she can break McConnell’s gridlock by recognizing any senator to bring any House-passed bill to the floor. She can do that without altering any Senate rule. No procedural vote is required. The Biden administration’s success depends on it. If Harris exercises this power, Republicans will never win again. If she does not, Biden will be one term.
To be successful, the Biden administration must come out punching.
I’m sitting here in my suburban living room on Melony Drive in Salt Lake City thinking I could do a better job communicating effectively than my Democratic representatives in Washington. The Democratic leadership is terrible at framing. Framing is the ability to phrase something in a nutshell that has immediate and emphatic meaning to the body politic. We just don’t seem to be able frame although the opportunities are myriad.
Ask yourself, for instance, how many times you have heard the phrase, “Imagine the Republican response if Obama did this . . .” Well, why don’t we level the same vehement response? Our lack of ability to effectively respond is why the Never Trumpers and the Lincoln Project are necessary. These groups are made up of ex-Republican operatives that know how to play hardball. They know how to frame. Democrats sputter in outrage at an effective Republican frame, with no response other that to repeat the frame by denying it. Democrats play puffball. Gently, with hand-wringing and apology (Democrats are decent people, after all).
After four years of Trump, the worst, most indecent person alive, Republicans are zealously throwing democracy under the bus rather than accepting his clear loss of the election. I could come up with a more vivid metaphor, like the Rs are throwing democracy in the ditch, pissing on it, then kicking dirt on the remains, but this is a family website.
Cepheus is looking bad in the depiction Stellarium uses in their Western constellation art. The picture shows an old man sitting around in his bathrobe. It could be me in this pandemic if I had more hair. I would be offended if I were him. That depiction is way too close to the truth, too exposing, not nearly romantic enough. It is the women in his life making the big splash. He is just a geezer hanging out in lazy togs for everyone to see, reminding people innocently passing by, if they will listen, that he prefers to be called King. There you are old dad, taking up space in the sky, trying to think somehow you might be important. An old man’s lament.
America is back. It was not the landslide victory for democracy that polls misled us once again to expect. (Just shoot me if I ever again read a poll.) But we have a decent, experienced, sane President-elect Biden, and thrillingly, we finally have a very exciting and gifted woman and a minority in Vice President-elect Harris. After having a sociopath as president for these four excruciating years, just returning to normal will be such a tremendous relief and improvement.