Dark Sky

My father passed away last week at age 88. This essay I finished early last year is largely about him.

Dark Sky

I

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.

I have since taken up the nocturnal hobby. Among my array of supporting equipment and software I still have and use Dad’s first telescope. In the small circle in which I travel I have started to become known as a dark sky, astronomy guy. My wife, Kirsten Johanna Allen, is the publisher at a small literary nonprofit press. Between the press and the conservation nonprofits I am involved with, I get to hold mini star parties. People come because they don’t otherwise get to see the night sky without light pollution and thus with the heaven’s lid off.

Torrey is still a good place to see it very dark. At nearly 7,000 feet it is high. That means less atmosphere to see through and therefore less distortion and light scatter. The light can make it all the way straight to our eyes, binoculars, telescopes, and cameras. There are no big cities nearby. That is even more important than the elevation. Excess lights in a city shine up and reflect into the sky creating glare, light trespass, and skyglow. Glare is light directly in your eyes. It can temporarily blind you, particularly if you are getting old like me, and it closes down your pupils so that you can’t take in as much light. Such excess light while well intended makes seeing at night less safe, not more. Light trespass is your neighbors’ lighting, or maybe street lights, or both, shining into your yard and space where you don’t want it. And skyglow is the worst. The man-made wasted light that goes up into the sky from the city lights up dust and gas molecules in the atmosphere for miles around, producing a glowing background and a light dome making a lid over the city. You can’t see through the lid to view the stars,

In the spring of 2016, down the road a half mile from the house in Torrey, one of my nearest neighbors, Mary Bedingfieldsmith, was bothered by a nearby streetlight pouring trespass light in through her kitchen window. Mary is a fellow baby boomer with short cropped white-grey hair, twinkling blue eyes and an energetic, petite frame. She is pulled in by the night sky. Mary talked about traveling to remote places like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and learning about the ancients’ connection to the night sky, all while seeing dark and unpolluted at the same time. She took written star guides on her camping trips and travels and started figuring out the constellations. She was a grade school teacher and began teaching her kids about what she had seen. She says they loved it. No doubt they did love it, but what really comes through is her own love and enthusiasm. To have a dark sky right where she was building a home in Torrey was more than precious. Mary says that now, sitting at night out on the porch of the straw bale home she and her husband built by hand, the stars seem so close it feels like she can reach out and touch time. The glaring streetlights had to go.

Mary is gets her way with persistence and a ready smile. She started a crowd funding campaign and raised money to replace the offending streetlight and a dozen others in the small town. The town council was won over by the smile and created dark sky friendly lighting ordnances.  Even the electric energy company offered enthusiastic support. While the lights were being replaced she contacted the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and started the process of making Torrey Town one of the country’s few official dark sky communities. She generously asked me to work with her to nominate Torrey and to cosign the application. When Trump was elected I vowed to do my part to resist his narcissistic quest to become an autocrat by being sure my wife’s enlightened press was fully funded, by supporting smart women in positions of authority, and by promoting Torrey as a progressive blue oasis in a red, red sea.  Mary’s request hit two out of three and I happily pitched in.

People need to see their shadow by the Milky Way. It is in our genes. We evolved under the stars and our nature requires connection to the Cosmos. Time spent in the artificial light of a computer screen or smart phone depletes a piece of a person’s natural self. It is like drinking a diuretic, artificial soda. The night sky is like a cool glass of water.  I am not the only one to say such a thing. The IDA’s research shows that interrupting Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark plays havoc. Humans evolved to these diurnal rhythms. Artificial light at night effects our health, increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer. Light pollution disrupts ecosystems, causing a serious a threat to nocturnal wildlife, and has a negative impact on plants and animals. It can confuse the migratory patterns of animals, alter their competitive interactions, change predator-prey relations, and cause bodily harm. The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the natural pattern of light and dark. Take it away and the system goes out of balance. My orchestra plays badly when I am stuck in the noise and light of the city. I feel the need for the peace of a clear, dark night. I feel out of sorts. Anxious. Ready to try and reconnect.

William Herschel was a giant in early astronomy, discovering Uranus and pioneering astronomical spectral analysis all with a massive telescope he built with a substantial sum of his own funds.  In the summer of 1792 he received a visit from the German composer Joseph Haydn, who was enjoying a few weeks’ sightseeing after the 1792 London concert season.  It is said that while looking through Herschel’s telescope that Haydn received his inspiration for the Creation Oratorio. Haydn’s biographer, H. E. Jacobs writes that a brief look through the telescope eyepiece left the composer dumbstruck for 20 minutes. Haydn’s eventual comment was: “So high . . . so far . . .” 

On a Torrey night with a group of writers, I followed astronomer and author Chet Raymo’s advice from his book, “An Intimate Look at the Night Sky.” Raymo suggests that when you have a small gathering of stargazers that you put on Joseph Haydn’s The Creation oratorio in the background. I tried it out. Per Raymo’s instruction, while the lights were still on I told the writer folks to get comfortably situated and to close their eyes. Most of them had never been in a place this dark. Before science discerned that our current universe evolved from a singular point of infinite mass that sprang from a place before time and space, Haydn wrote the oratorio that seems to describe it. The Prelude is called “Die Vorstellung des Chaos” (The Representation of Chaos). I turned off all the lights. As the chaotic music unfolds for several minutes there is time for eyes to start adjusting to the night. There is a choral whisper followed by a fortissimo C-major chord announcing, “And there was light!”  I told the gathering to open their eyes, and as promised by Raymo they saw, “Stars. Planets. The luminous river of the Milky Way . . . [and] feel they have been witness to the Big Bang.”

I was just playing around, providing a little entertainment. I thought. But when people opened their eyes a couple of them gasped and started to cry. The Milky Way that summer night was in rare form pouring straight overhead, swirling and swimming, stark, remote, and present. What my guests’ minds were attempting to take in was primal, irreverent, raw, shocking. Their reaction woke up mine, made me less casual. I had to sit down with them. We were silent, the music moving us on. I felt lonely and connected at the same time, taken in by the beauty, disturbed by the mystery and the chaos and the warmth of the guests’strong feelings around me.

II

Around summer solstice I was inspired by insomnia to embark on a cosmic adventure involving time and light. The insomnia was not mine. A sleepless friend had corresponded with an email time stamped before four o’clock in the morning. When I noted the early hour she told me she too often wakes at three and can’t go back to sleep. She lamented something about there not being more early in the morning astronomy types. She described how her rural, remote place had a perfect window facing east down a people-free river canyon. She said that sometimes she just gets up and sits there to start her day. At that late hour she had watched a spectacular crescent Moon chasing Venus while the morning’s gathering sunglow embraced them both into dawn.

My friend is right, I thought. There are not very many early in the morning astronomy types, including me. If I have been up and conscious more than a dozen times at three A.M. in my sixty odd years I would be surprised. It is a beautiful strange and alien hour, almost hostile. Whenever I am up at that time, particularly if I have been asleep beforehand, I feel butterflies in my stomach and more than vaguely apprehensive about the world. “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure,” sings the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the Duino Elegies. I thought I should gird up my courage and venture there. A few days had passed since my friend’s post and the moon was now waxing gibbous and not setting until almost three A.M. It was late June and at that hour the Milky Way would be overhead in a way that would not happen at a more civilized hour until late October or early November. Summer Solstice passed a week or so ago and the summer night was going to be short. The online weather site I follow said astronomical twilight would start at 4:08 A.M. where I was. I resolved to increase the number of the missing early A.M. types by one and set my alarm for three A.M.

When the alarm went off it took a moment to separate it from my dream. Then a while longer to remember why it was set. Foggy headed, I debated the wisdom of abandoning my slumber for any reason whatsoever. I dozed in and out and thought dreamlike rationalizations to stay between the sheets. Somewhere I found some resolution and did not allow myself to go completely back under. Tomorrow would be too late. The moon would be up an hour later and the sky would start to get light with dawn before the moon set, never getting completely dark. I reached for the red headlamp I had placed on my nightstand and swung out of bed. If I left the house lights off the red light would allow me to keep my night vision. I used it to brush my teeth by, find my insulated felt lined pants and light jacket and, dragging a wake of sleep, groped my way outside with a star chart.

I sat down and leaned back in an Adirondack chair. My teeth still felt numbed with sleep. I gathered myself, put on my reading glasses low on my nose and oriented the star chart on my lap in the dim red light from my headlamp. Looking up I began to take in the kind of clear dark sky I got out of bed for. The horizon was visible by a lack of stars in a black silhouette. Boulder Mountain to south is a plateau 11,000 feet high and 50 miles across. Thousand Lakes is a smaller plateau but equally high to the north. The sandstone skyline of Capitol Reef  National Park framed the sky to the east and high sloped ground of Parker Mountain and beyond it the Tushar Mountains. Hovering over Boulder was Sagittarius the teapot with the Milky Way steaming straight up and overhead out of its spout. It took me a minute to figure out that Scorpius had already dipped below the Boulder Mountain horizon and the bright star I couldn’t place was Saturn. The trouble with a truly dark sky is that there are way too many stars to readily pick out the constellations. I opened my phone to record some thoughts on what I was seeing but the light from the screen was shockingly, painfully bright and obscenely out of place in this natural panorama. I put it back in my pocket and leaned back to let the constellation patterns sort themselves out. There was the Corona Borealis reigning over a blizzard of lights. Looking down the horizon was marked only by the clean absence of stars. The ground below me was vaguely visible but exact distance was impossible to discern. My chair began to feel untethered between a void and the heavens and I reveled in the passing sense of vertigo and headlong motion.

The light breeze out of the west was cool and bracing. I was facing south and looking toward the center of the galaxy, somewhere out there behind the teapot. Starting to feel more awake now, I began to feel the sense of wonder and exhilaration I always feel when under a fully dark sky.  Over my left shoulder I could make out the smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy. Recorded history shows that humans have always stared up at the heavens in wonder. But it was less than a short 100 years ago that we figured out that Andromeda was another galaxy. In my sixties, I am not as impressed as I once was by how long 100 years is. In these 100 years we have been coming up with new knowledge about our place in the Cosmos hand over fist.  As we realized Andromeda was a separate galaxy and that our galaxy was not the whole universe, we looked harder and found there are as many galaxies out there as there are stars in our own.  Imagine being some of the first folks to try and take that it. Try and take it in now. Astronomers puzzled over the color of the light coming from these galaxies before they realized they were all red shifted, meaning the galaxies were moving away from us at such a high speed their color changes in the same way a train whistle fades to a lower tone as it passes in the dark. No matter which way the astronomers turned they found everything rushing away from everything else. This meant that they must have started closer together and extrapolating backwards they discovered the Big Bang. About the same time the work of Marie Curie with radium and her discovery of radioactivity lead physicists to understand the source of light and heat in our sun and the other stars to be that of a nuclear furnace. The Bang had gone off. The Universe cooled enough for elements to form. Gravity pulled the elements together until their mass became so great in places that a nuclear fuse was lit and the first stars formed. Out of the furnace of the first stars, followed by their endings in the great blast of supernovas, more than the first two simple elements of hydrogen and helium were formed, onward in almost endless iterations until all the elements of our periodic table were created. Which all came together in me, sitting in this chair, on this night, in such a way that I had become aware that I was made of stardust and that I had attained a mysterious consciousness itself, enough to know that I was a speck of the Cosmos staring into the night back at itself. The Universe, self-aware.

Here is the thing about conscious awareness. In spite of all our understanding of the Big Bang and the journey of the Universe from before time and space to the point where the earth had spawned life and consciousness, we still have no idea what consciousness is. In spite of all our understanding of the grey matter that is our brain, and our increasingly complex understanding of the neurons, neural circuits, and electrochemistry that takes place in the billions of related cells between our ears, there is nothing in our understanding that would suggest consciousness. We understand that all the elements in our selves were forged in the nuclear furnace of the stars. We know that we are alive, and breathing, and capable of reproduction. We understand much of the chemistry and biology and physics of it all. And we experience free will, and the ability to perceive, and have self-awareness, and can look out at the heavens and begin to comprehend them, and we have no idea how that is possible.

Around 120 years ago the British physicist Lord Kelvin gave a speech suggesting science had made all the important discoveries it was going to. He did suggest, however, that there were two minor clouds on the horizon. Nailing down the speed of light in the assumed “ether” was proving tricky, and there was an issue known as the ultraviolet catastrophe. The latter questioned why, among other predicted outcomes, a person did not get a sunburn from a fire. Both clouds proved to lead to the greatest discoveries yet in science: Einstein’s theory of relativity regarding light, time and space, and quantum mechanics. I humbly, meekly, and mildly suggest a third cloud. That being the question of what consciousness is. But quantum mechanics has a property that would seem to offer a huge clue. This property is known to physicists variously as “the quantum enigma,”  “the measurement problem,”  or simply physics’ “skeleton in the closet.” There is an unavoidable role of consciousness in the interpretation of quantum physics. And that role is that at the atomic level, according to the quantum, a material particle does not come to exist until it is observed. I suggest that if you contemplate this notion while star gazing on a clear, dark night, that you will experience a rare thrill.

I have a bookshelf dedicated to the subject of consciousness and physics. The material has given me some confidence in saying our awareness has a critical part to play in existence. We evolved in a unique way to see and identify beauty. Beauty, then, is a likely source of truth and an indication to the observer that you are on the right path to something. Great mystery remains, but a hypothesis that the more beauty we take in the better it is for the Cosmos remains valid and compelling. The hypothesis suggests it is existentially worth the risk of exposing oneself to the dark in the wee, solitary hours of a dark, pre-dawn morning.

At 4:15 A.M. I checked for my shadow again. It was ever so slightly more distinct. The beginning of sun glow could now be seen mounting to the northwest. Venus was up high enough that it was adding more light to make shadows. Stars began to fade, finally leaving only the more easily identifiable constellations. The bright stars of the summer triangle, Altair, Deneb, and Vega, and their constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra were sinking and fading into the western sky. By 5:20 color was appearing in the east. A deep blue of the high sky faded toward the horizon into a light blue, then a tinge of tan turning to a light, burnt orange with wisps stratus clouds stroked across the scene.  Nights are short in the summer.  But they were long enough for my Adirondack to take me on a trip. In a dark time, the eye begins to see, says Theodore Roethke in a poem. Isiah said it too, The people who walked the darkness have seen the light. The poets and sages know something and science reluctantly agrees. Both are thrilling. There is a loop and it is beautiful. Stardust has become conscious in us and our consciousness somehow is involved in bringing the world into being. Look into the dark long enough and light appears. Night is our window on the infinite. Through it we experience beauty and a thrill tinged with terror. There is an art to seeing in the dark. Look deeper and it becomes more beautiful. Here in this time, for a solitary hour, the dark provokes a deep awareness that I sense is me playing a mysterious role.

I hope to bring my as yet unborn packages of stardust grandchildren to this dark place. I imagine the child in my lap, bundled in blankets, leaning back in the chair,  warm in my arms, enveloped in the night. I point to a star, Deneb say in Cygnus the swan, flying overhead. “Can you see the swan? “ I ask. I will point out the beak, the wings and tail and show how the swan is flying down the Milky Way. “Do you know what the swan is made of?” I’ll ask. “Stardust,” I will say. “Do you know what you are made of? You are made of stardust too, just like the swan. And you are the most special stardust there is, my sweet child. Because you are here to see this.”

III

In August 2016 my mother called to say my father wished to speak with me. It is like that with Dad and me. He was in his mid-80’s, his health beginning to deteriorate, and our our relationship appears destined to not change. I am the oldest of my parent’s offspring and will be the executor of their estate. I guessed that Dad wanted to talk about arrangements and I told my mother I would come over the next evening after dinner. The next day as I was heading out the door I was surprised to see my wife, Kirsten, grab her purse to join me. I was married for 25 years previous to Kirsten and I could count on one hand the number of times my ex volunteered to join me in a visit to my folks. Early on, when we were first married she called my father by his first name. He corrected her and told her to call him Father Bailey. Other than call him what came to mind after that my ex never called him anything. The night before our wedding my father was making toasts that we would not last a year. He bet houses with my father-in-law to be. I should remind Dad of that. (We lasted 25 years.) He would say he has no recollection. Kirsten is brave and does not carry the old baggage. She accepts her role as kin-keeper and hopped in the car with me.

At Mom and Dad’s we all four sat down around a small table. Dad started asking me, as I recall, if I coveted his belongings. I am impatient and was getting ready to get up and leave when I got a little kick under the table. I looked at Kirsten and she mouthed, “This is an honor.” Eh? Perhaps in sixty years I had matured just enough and I stopped getting up. I sat back down slowly and told Dad that no, I did not want his stuff. I asked him what he was getting at. He said he was too old to run his observatory and he thought maybe I would move it from Salt Lake City where he had it up behind his house on the foothills on the east side of the valley, to the high, clear, dark skies of my place in Torrey. “But,” he said, “I see you probably don’t want it.”

Some 35 years prior to our conversation Dad started putting his observatory together. It is a masterpiece, his magnum opus. There is an eight foot diameter revolving dome with automatic shutters, a telescope mounted on a cement pier that goes down through the deck into bedrock. A high end telescope is attached to a mount that can precisely track the stars as they move through the heavens. It is all attached to a dedicated PC that steers the system to find a deep sky object, align the dome, focus the camera, select appropriate filters, and take pictures all night long. It is entirely automated and can be run from his basement without his having to step foot into the night or into the observatory. If it clouds up the system knows and shuts everything down. Dad was a businessman who got his start in Silicon Valley but he might have been a lot happier as an engineer.

I mentioned I am the oldest of my siblings. I have a sister who is fourteen years younger. She was twelve when she helped Dad first put up the dome in 1982. We had a brother who was two years younger than me, but Mike took his own life in June of 2011, on Kirsten’s and my first anniversary. I knew Mike was tormented but I had refused to see how deeply. I was always chagrined that he could never get over my father’s basic rejection of him as a worthy human being. It was strange Dad was that way. Mike got straight A’s in school, all the time. He was summa cum laude with an engineering degree. Twice, at Intel Corp, he was recognized with their highest achievement award. That is like winning an Oscar twice at a company with over 50,000 employees. I had been to the same engineering school but bailed and finished in finance. Engineering was too hard. I had been the first to work at Intel where I had been involved in hiring my brilliant college roommate who later was extra smart to hire Mike. Mike didn’t just work hard. He played like no other. He was the first I knew to put a sail on a surfboard, to buy and then build mountain bikes, to get into white water kayaking before the boomers arrived, to buy exotic water ski boats and the fastest production cars available. I bragged about my brother all the time to everyone I talked to.

My kids have dreamed several times that Mike came back from the dead somehow and found them. They were agape and asked if he had seen me yet. He had not. They said I was going to be so mad. And man, would I ever. He said, while he was actually alive, how he had been through so much, that I couldn’t begin to understand. Well, what he didn’t ever know was what it was like to lose a brother. It left a gaping hole and emotional vertigo.  

On and on I bragged about him. Maybe, probably, I didn’t brag to his face. Maybe ever. I see that looking back. Dad didn’t want to even hear about any of his successes and Mike suffered.

Going back to when Mike and I were in college when he got too down he would often call me. We started going on week long back packing trips together. After his first marriage we were working our way up to King’s peak from the south in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness Area of the Ashley National Forest. The sky was clear, the air cool, and we had the area completely to ourselves. It was late in the summer and the bugs had already frozen out in the first frosts. The trail was chewed up by trail horses and the going was slow. Mike was in front, his pack and equipment reaching up nearly to the top of his head. After a trudging in silence for some time I ventured out loud that perhaps it was better to have loved and lost. I knew my brother and I could see right through his pack that he was cringing. But I was quoting a comedian I had heard and I finished that it was better to have loved and lost than to have to live with that bitch for the rest of his life. Then his shoulders started to shake. He rarely laughed out loud. He had nothing to say, but his shoulders would start to shake again and as we hiked a pall lifted. By the way, his wife was perfectly lovely. I had my part in their divorce. He never looked back as far as I know, but I did. I do.

The backpack trips and time together doing his hard play always seemed to help but it never lasted. He went through three marriages and ended up a bachelor, alone, with no children. Toward the end of his life he and I had a conversation in my garage. I was working on a sports car my father bought new in 1962 that 30 years later I had restored to show condition. As I tinkered Mike told me how he knew he could not live with family and knew that he could not live without it. He said he meant me in particular.

Mike asked my Dad several times to go to counseling with him. Mike needed Dad to acknowledge that he had been a constantly critical, emotionally abusive father. Dad refused. He told Mike that if Mike felt he had some sort of need to hear something from him, just tell him what it was and he would say the words, no counselor required.

My memories don’t go back to a time before I had a brother. When Mike and I were boys in the 60’s and early ‘70s, Dad was not so difficult, at least not to me. We spent a lot of time outside together as a young family. Rather than team sports we tended toward things like snow skiing and waterskiing, dirt bikes in the mountains in summer, snowmobiles in winter. Dad was not a church goer but Mom would take us if ever there was a Sunday when we stayed in town. That did not change for Dad until much later, after his own stern, estranged father died in 1986. My brother and I both easily left the church after our high school days.

 In the summer of ’87 Mom and Dad’s house burned down. The day before the fire Dad had been putting linseed oil on his decks. He knew oily rags could be dangerous and spread them out on his workbench in his garage to get rid of them the next day. My sister, college age then, brought  a warm car back into the garage after an evening out. In the wee hours of morning my sister was roused from a deep sleep by some sort of racket. She went out toward the door to the garage but fortunately figured out not to open it even though there was a lot of strange noise coming from the other side. She went out the front door to see what she could see and found the roof of the house ablaze. The linseed oil rags had spontaneously combusted, started the garage on fire which broke out through a side garage window, up onto the deck surrounding the house, and into the eves and attic. My sister started screaming. Dad woke up and went out to see what in the world. He ran back in to the house, roused my still oblivious mother and they hurried out of the house to join my sister.

While they were anxiously waiting 20 minutes for the fire trucks to arrive my Mormon mother says she heard my Dad’s deceased Mormon father shout from behind her, “Alta, Kristen is in there!” The supernatural happens to Mormons. My parents forgot they were babysitting my two and half year old daughter. Kristen was indeed still in the house all this time. A house with twenty foot flames leaping from its roof. My mother started screaming Kristen’s name. My father, who until then may not have been aware or cared that my mother was babysitting, then sprinted up the front steps and since the front door was now pouring smoke, dove in through the guest room window where Kristen was just then standing up, coughing in her crib, calling for Grandma.

My Mom called from the hospital before four A.M. I don’t remember anything about the drive over other than being electrified awake with chaotic thoughts. My little girl. One does know what it is like to love such a thing until they have one. I lived to keep her safe but now she was in the hospital. Mom said Kristen was all right but what in the world? Time was finger nails on the blackboard. What I do remember clearly was finally being in the hospital holding my little bug. I cry now as I think about it. How it might have been. Kristen was smoky but otherwise uninjured. She had two lines of soot under her nostrils and smelled like a camp fire, and she was excited to see her dad. I held her tight, looked at her, and held her tight again while waves of fear and gratitude took turns shaking through me. Dad was there getting his cut hands bandaged.

Later that morning, a Sunday, the local Mormon ward cancelled its meetings, the lay bishop telling the members to go help as they could with the effects from the fire. When I next saw Dad he was watching a line of 100 people move what they could salvage out of the still smoking, wet house, the roof now collapsed over the guest room my daughter had been in. Someone had pinned a hero badge on him. After that Dad reconverted, in his all or nothing Taliban-fundamentalist style, to the Mormon Church. It was a long time before we let them watch my kids again.

In 2008 my brother moved back to Salt Lake City, where Kirsten I lived, to be closer to family. His three failed marriages were behind him, he had left his stellar career at Intel, and he was determined to remain a bachelor. He bought a small business but in spite of his skills it was struggling. I had my own issues and I did not see him much. By the fall of 2010 he had shut his business down and was feeling low. He came over to the house and we spent a Saturday together, talking. I wanted to tell him more about my growing sense about consciousness and some studies I had done about it, about a hypothesis I had. I told Mike it is becoming a defensible theory that consciousness is perhaps an element in the Cosmos, something like space and time. I told him how it appeared we may have evolved with a role to play in perception and awareness. It was a notion I was beginning to feel had important meaning and significance. Mike listened, but we weren’t getting anywhere. He seemed to me to be determined to be miserable. He asked me some questions I misunderstood. We were getting tired and I reacted. He got up to leave and on his way to his car told me that if I had been through what he had been through I wouldn’t be able to get out from under my bed. I told him to fuck off.

Late that same fall Mike moved back to Portland, Oregon without telling me he was going. By April I was expecting that things would be blowing over between us, like they always did. I sent him a CD of music I thought he would like but I did not hear from him. I sent him an email and then another. No word. I was self-absorbed in my own thoughts and issues and mostly felt annoyed that he was being a princess and not getting back to me. What I should have felt was fear.

In late June of 2011, a day after Kirsten and my first wedding anniversary, my phone rang in Torrey. It was after ten P.M. “Mark, this is your father.” My memory may not fully serve, but I believe that may be the only time in my adult life that he ever called me. He told me Mike had been found dead in his Portland home. He gasped a sob and the line went silent. I told him we would be back in Salt Lake by early morning.

Oh, my brother.

Mike put his will together a week before his death. Inexplicably my brother made our father the executor of his estate. After the funeral, my parents went up to his Portland home to arrange his final affairs. After two weeks my dad wrote that Mike had left his household belongings to me and that I needed to tell him what to do with everything.

My parents returned to Salt Lake and Kirsten and I went up to Mike’s place in Portland. Contrary to his living arrangements in Salt Lake, Mike had been treating himself well. His home was cantilevered out into the forests of the hills above Portland in a way the Frank Lloyd Wright might have done. That kind of gorgeous, smart, and designed house was more like it, more like who he was. As we entered the vaulted front space I saw a large framed photo I had given Mike of a particularly gnarly couloir he had skied at Snowbird, Utah when he was in college. The picture looked out of place, leaning prominently on top of is refrigerator where it could be readily seen. I felt like I was the better skier in those days but skiing this couloir was something I was afraid to do. He and my roommate knew I wouldn’t go and made the precarious climb up and skied down together unannounced on a bluebird spring day. I marvel in pride still. In the middle of his otherwise clear desk was the CD I sent him, unopened. On his PC were my emails and another highly concerned one from our uncle, also unopened. On the second day in Portland I was driving back to the house with a moving van and trailer to tow a car when my phone rang. It was a realtor. She said my father had hired her to sell the house. I didn’t know it was for sale yet. She had people coming by in an hour and wanted to give me a heads up. She also said my father asked her to tell me that there was a shed full of Mike’s yard tools that I might not have noticed. I had been wondering where his yard stuff was.

Mike’s house was three stories high in the back where it opened onto a forested downslope. On the ground floor I found a door to the house I had somehow not noticed before. In the two days I had been at the house I sometimes smelled Match Light charcoal. I had heard from my parents that the police said he asphyxiated himself. Another time my mother said he was trying to do the same years ago in some sort of oven. I took it then as too much drama. When I smelled the charcoal I was forced to think about where exactly he had killed himself. I had not been able to figure it out and I didn’t really want to. Did I need to know? I stood in front of that door, I tried to take a deep breath but my breath slowed, maybe stopped and the air closed around me in a kind of dimming glimmer, like when the oxygen gets too low. I knew that this, in spite of how much I did not want to, needed to be dealt with now. I leaned forward against an unseen evil feeling force to open the door.

Inside was a separate, closed off room with the yard equipment. There was a white, plastic lawn chair in the middle of it with an empty fifth of whiskey next to it. In front of the chair was a brand new charcoal barbeque with a half burned pile of Match Light charcoal in it. Mike had put a sign on the outside warning of carbon monoxide, closed the door, lit the charcoal, drank the whisky, and finished himself. I was looking at his self-execution chamber, exactly as he left it. Exactly as my father left it.

On the way back to Salt Lake I got a call from Mike’s employer, someone I knew, who asked if I had found an iPad among Mike’s things. It was the company’s and had sensitive material on it and if possible they would like to have it back. I had not seen an iPad but said I would check with my folks and get back to her. Kirsten and I were driving a 28 foot U-Haul truck and towing a car trailer with my brother’s late model Nissan crossover on it. It his will he had instructed the car to go to my mother and she wanted it. I was still processing whether I wanted any of my brother’s things at all but for now was putting the decision off.

In Salt Lake both of my kids were in town and joined me to unload the truck and then to take the car over to my mother. I stood at the top of the stairs in the home that had been rebuilt after the fire from the foundation up 24 years previously. My father came upstairs from the ground level and told my kids he wanted to show them something. They followed him back down the stairs. After a few moments more of talking to my mother I started to wonder what might be up with my dad and went down the stairs to see.

Dad has a separate office where he spent most of his time. On the walls were some of his astrophotos. His computer and fixed disk files were here and it was where he did most of his astrophoto image processing. It was where he ran the observatory from. But mixed in with these scientifically excellent photos were drawings of Mormon pioneers being helped by supernatural, translucent angels to push their handcarts through a deadly early snowstorm. Our Bailey ancestors had been in the infamous Mormon handcart company in 1856 where a third of the members died in a misguided trek. Parents had to bury their children on the frozen plains. Brothers left their dead brothers behind and tried to live. The Mormon pioneers’ work and travails in traveling through the open country of the West in the mid-19th century is undeniable. Their reason is inscrutable if not outrageous. The pictures on Dad’s wall are a juxtaposition of myth and reality that I can’t get a grip on. Or don’t care to. My father was standing there with my kids and an iPad in his hand.

Even though my parent’s had been in my brother’s home for ten days they had fastidiously left everything as they found it. Right down to the food in the refrigerator and the full recycling cans. I cannot explain why my father took it upon himself to only take what he presumed was my brother’s iPad. Dad was standing there holding the iPad and criticizing my dead brother. He criticized my brother to my kids about how he had not managed to keep the iPad up to what Dad perceived as properly maintained but that he had successfully recharged it and downloaded the complete set of Mormon scripture. In an rush I grabbed the iPad from Dad’s hand, took him by the front of his shirt and pushed him up against a wall. I looked into his frightened face and told him he put my brother in the ground with his fucking criticism. I told him to stay away from my kids. Trembling, I took my adult kids and the iPad out of that room and out of that house.

* * *

Tonight I’m sitting next to the observatory and its again very dark. It is too much hassle to try to balance reading glasses for my aging eyes along with the binoculars, head lamp, and sky chart and I am just leaning back looking. Mary Bedingfieldsmith says that on a dark, moonless night she can reach out and touch time. It’s darker now than when she started working on making Torrey a dark sky community. I’m grateful because, as I sit here on just such a night, I want to tell her that both time and the stars touch back. Below me the observatory is anchored to the ripple rock sandstone I am sitting on. 250 million years ago this rock was being formed in a shallow inland sea down by the equator. It has taken that long to bring Utah on the planet to where it is now. Above me the light I am gathering in the observatory for an astrophoto came from galaxies 250 million light years away. That is how long the light has been traveling to reach the telescope and camera. Sit, be aware, think about the immensity of  time and space and of land moving under you while the light moves to you from above, how one came from the other, how it is all still happening, and try not to feel touched.

One night a few years after Mike died and after I had moved the observatory to Torrey, I got a call from a mutual friend, a person who had been my brother’s best friend, also named Mike. I happened to be out at the observatory looking at some nebula through the outside telescope. I parked the scope and sat down for a minute to talk to Mike, to see how he was doing, to tell him where I was. Mike was one of my brother’s primary inheritors and had a hard time benefiting from anything that came from my brother’s death. He knew how tormented my brother was by my father’s rejection. He asked me how I rationalized accepting the observatory from my dad. I shook my head and could only laugh. I told him not only that but that my father’s restored 1962 sports car was in my garage here and that, if my wife didn’t object, I would still smoke a pipe just like my dad did when he was young. I told him I had Mike’s two overstuffed leather chairs and his elegant end table and lamp in the study here in my place in Torrey. How next to my desk is my brother’s expensive tube driven audiophile stereo. Mike had it set up in an otherwise empty basement room with ten foot high ceilings facing an old lazy boy chair. He said it was his sanctuary. Mike’s friend knew. His question wasn’t funny. Laughing was the only reaction I could come up with. I thanked him for calling.    

Why do I have my father’s things? What I want to try and tell both Mikes is that it helps me think. It sounds corny, but I have thought a lot about it and that is what I come up with. I can tell the live Mike directly. I need to buck up and take some time for that. But I can’t talk to my brother anymore. He was like no one else to talk to. But I can think to him and I do. I have my bookshelf full of books about quantum physics and consciousness. Many of the books are about how the two are related. There is nothing like an observatory to keep a person asking questions about what is going on. Why do I want my brother’s stuff after all? To think about him and to him. I think to my brother how I feel like I am finding a middle way. Something between what my father thinks with his angels pushing handcarts and the cold science that discovered how my digital camera can capture photons from 250 million light years away. My middle way, I hope, is what one of the book’s authors calls a scientifically plausible paradigm but one with a religious distinctiveness. Cosmic Consciousness is at its center. Mike, physically gone might be still connected, mixed up in it all somehow. Something to think to.

Like my kids, I had a dream just days after Mike died. I was in something like my backyard in Salt Lake City. A couple of my dearest friends were there along with my brother. A big ocean wave materialized behind the fence in the place of the houses that had been there. Mike and I had surfed together in college, something he introduced me to and was much better at than me. In the dream he turned grinning toward the garage, saw a flexible flyer snow sled hanging on the wall, grabbed it, hopped up on the fence, threw the flyer masterfully out onto the wave and jumped on it, cutting some big surf turns. As the wave turned to soup he turned to me as he started to sink in, looked me in the eye, and said, “I am still standing.”

For a time while my brother was still alive I was exploring some ideas by a theologian who thought people like Mohamed, Jesus and Buddha had what he called a thin rind. They were more in touch than most with this sparkle I have begun referring universally to as Cosmic Consciousness because their rind was thin. My brother was dismayed I had not told him about it. He was always, always seeking for a meaning, something that gave him a feeling of significance. I don’t know why I had not told him. Only now do I fully I realize he was one of those super sensitive ones who also had a thin rind. He could have been in touch, like I only wish to be. I don’t know many like him. One other writer is, I suspect. What I do know is the last thing I finally did say to my brother was to fuck off.

Now, as I sit in the starlight and reflect, I reluctantly have what is safe to guess was my father’s most prized possessions and also what were my brother’s. I much admire their taste. I don’t know what to make of myself.

8 thoughts on “Dark Sky

  1. Dr Dave

    My condolences on your dad’s passing. Tremendous essay and I really enjoyed reading it! The dark sky is certainly endangered. Even here in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico, ranchers and other folks are moving in, building homes and installing “security lights” etc. etc. Certainly very disheartening but I guess we just have to enjoy every clear dark night while we can.
    Regards,
    Dave

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    1. Mark Bailey Post author

      Thank you very much, Dave. I have been enjoying reading about your observatory adventures. Those ranch lights are showing up ever more around Torrey, too. Let’s keep spreading the good words of dark skies. I wish us both luck!

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  2. Alexander S. Kunz

    A wonderful essay and memoir, Mark. I appreciate the openness with which you shared all this. I am sorry for your father’s passing, and the difficult relationship you had with him. The complexity of us humans and how stuck we are with ourselves and in our ways is always astonishing, and also very understandable and relatable.

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  3. Ggreybeard

    An engrossing article, so very well written, entwining the profound topics which interest you most with the history of your difficult family relationships. I wish I could write like that.

    I’m sorry about your brother, we never really read the danger signs until it’s too late. I lost a nephew to suicide a couple of years ago and we we will never know why he did it. His name, also, was Mike.

    I hope you make good use of your observatory.

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