Bridges in the dark

Salt Lake City | Torrey, February 2017

Last August I received a call from my 83 year old mother. “Your father wants to speak with you,” she told me. It is like that with Dad and me, not a lot of direct communication.  I told Mom I would come over the next day after dinner. When the time came I was surprised to see my wife, Kirsten, grab her purse and head for the door with me. My father has a reputation for being difficult and there are rarely volunteers to join me in seeing him. Dad is in his mid-eighties and as his oldest offspring I am to be the executor of his will. I thought he might want to talk about some details or arrangements, but when we all sat down around the table together, including Kirsten and Mom, he asked me if I wanted his observatory. I thought he was asking if I coveted his belongings, which I surely do not. But in my own advancing years I may have gained adequate wisdom so that when Kirsten kicked me under the table I ceased my objections and turned to see her silently mouth, eyebrows raised, “This is an honor.”

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Dad at his Alpenglow Observatory in Salt Lake City, August 2016

Kirsten is right, of course it is an honor. For some 35 years now my father has been creating a private astronomical observatory to what seems to me to be university research quality. It is his magnum opus. Today, however, he feels that using it has become too demanding, that his aging memory isn’t up to it any longer. Dad asked me to move it to our property in Torrey, Utah, high on the Colorado Plateau in increasingly rare dark sky country.

It has been rewarding to see the warm and enthusiastic reception from friends and family to our giving the observatory a new home. There is something about an observatory that universally invokes a natural response of wonder and curiosity. People want to see it. Perhaps they want to be inspired, perhaps to get that feeling of awe a starry night will inevitably conjure.  Dad named the observatory Alpenglow but that did not seem like the right name for an observatory on the Plateau. Still, I wanted to keep Dad in any new name. Friends helped me come up with Torrey House—Alpenglow Observatory and I hope to have it up and ready for “first light” soon.

I share my father’s attraction to the night sky. In Torrey, on a moonless summer night, the Milky Way blasts up overhead arcing across the sky from Boulder Mountain on the southern horizon to Thousand Lake Mountain on the northern. The mountains are seen only as black space devoid of all light. But the Milky way is so pronounced, so prominent, that once your eyes adjust to the inky dark it is possible to see your star lit shadow on the ground. There is usually a cool breeze, the air smells of evening pinyon and juniper, occasionally a coyote yelps from out of the dark but otherwise there is a deep silence.

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Light pollution map of Utah. Salt Lake City is the yellow and orange section at top. The green and yellow arc to the lower left corner is the I-15 corridor to St. George. Torrey is located at the cross at center. Orange to light grey indicates where stars in the brightest constellations can barely be seen. Dark grey to black is where the sky is so dark the Milky Way casts a shadow. (cleardarksky.com)

The Milky Way is what we see when looking out through the spiral arms of our galaxy. While it appears like millions, even in the dark sky of Torrey one can only see at most a few thousand distinct stars. Yet science informs us there are over one hundred billion stars in our galaxy. Beyond the Milky Way there are another hundred billion galaxies. From the dark skies on the Plateau one of those galaxies, Andromeda, can be seen with the naked eye. By the time this gorgeous, obscure, precious light enters our eyes it has been on its way for two million years. Science has discovered that the Universe is 13.5 billion years old. It started as an infinitely small, infinitely hot point of energy with the Big Bang. As the Universe expanded and cooled the first element came into being, hydrogen. Hydrogen coalesced to form the first stars where helium was created. Stars matured and blasted into novas and super-novas, the exploded gases emitted reforming into  new stars all of which eventually created the 118 elements of the periodic table you learned about in chemistry class. You and I are made up of these elements. It sounds purely romantic, but it is true, we are stardust. When I look up and think of this stardust coming together in me to somehow become conscious and that now I am the Universe become self-aware and gazing back out on itself, it makes me sit down awash in awe and wonder.

It is this feeling of awe and wonder and empathy for nature that motivated me to launch Torrey House Press (THP). Like the dark sky, our natural landscape is a diminishing resource. Kirsten, now the executive director and publisher at THP, and I started Torrey House as a way to engender love of the land. In 2010 we worked as volunteers for a week in the fall with Mary O’Brien, a field scientist with the Grand Canyon Trust and the Jane Goodall of the southern Utah National Forests, in assessing damage to cottonwoods, willows and aspen caused by overgrazing. Mary had us out in the field all day on our hands and knees doing transects and counting browsed shoots. At night, with PCs hooked to car batteries, we gathered around the campfire and entered the data. The overgrazing is bad news, anyone could see it at a glance, but how could we get other people who weren’t there with us to see that our public lands are being mismanaged? How to get them to care? Was this data alone going to do it? We felt Mary needed help. We thought we would take a crack at bringing the power of pen and story to bear, to try to create some cultural empathy via good literature. We launched Torrey House Press that same fall.

Kirsten’s endeavors as THP’s publisher have brought her in close proximity with the movement to promote the designation and preservation of the new Bears Ears National Monument. She and Steve Trimble took advanced copies of Red Rock Testimony to Washington D.C. and she is working with Jackie Keeler on an the all Native voices anthology, Edge of Morning, about the Bears Ears, both titles soon to be released. She was gratified and delighted when, on December 28th, the Monument proclamation was announced. And what a beautiful thing it is. The writers of the proclamation, no slouches themselves with a pen, clearly spent some time up between the Ears. Just one short exerpt:

From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.

However, as you know, Utah’s ultra conservative politicians are united in their efforts to undo the protections provided to the Bears Ears by Monument status. There is much work to be done to conserve our common heritage and Torrey House authors are lining up to pitch in.

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Torrey House – Alpenglow Observatory in progress at its new home in Torrey, Utah. February 2017

My goal for the observatory, once it is put back together and working in its new home, is to sit down with my dad in his basement office in Salt Lake City and run it together remotely from there. We will be able to take images of objects he previously captured from the light polluted hills of the Wasatch front and compare what clear, dark, pollution free skies have to offer. I don’t know what Dad really thinks of it all, what his attraction to the heavens amounts to. Above his desk in his home is Salt Lake are some of his beautiful astro-photos. There is also an idealized image of icons from his religion. I am reluctant to ask. I expect my dad, were he following the situation, would be on the side of Utah’s radically conservative politicians about not protecting the Bears Ears, for instance. And his sense of the starry night is likely to be more about proving his faith than of my amazement with nature and science. But out there in the dark and star sprinkled firmament there is this bridge between Dad and me. With it communication can be had, empathy found, gaps can be spanned, and for that I am grateful.

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