Spring is galaxy season. The Milky Way winds low around the horizon leaving the thin part of the galaxy overhead making the best time to look up and out through our galaxy to other galaxies millions of light years away. The larger galaxies in this image range from 15 million to 40 million light years away. Our galaxy is estimated to be between 150,000 to 200,000 light-years in diameter making these galaxies well beyond the stars and objects inside the neighborhood of our Milky Way.
The two brightest, fuzzy objects in the right center of the screen are the elliptical galaxies M86 and M84. The two galaxies in the upper left are known as “The Eyes.”
Speaking of eyes, in 1823 Wilhelm Olbers used his to look up at night and wondered why it is dark at all.
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.
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.
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.
Most Republicans, particularly in Utah, have locked themselves inseparably to Trump. I can remember as far back as the 90’s that as a businessman I was disgusted by Trump. He made business people look bad by calling himself one. I have long been a fan of political scientist Fareed Zakaria and completely agreed with him that Trump’s sole qualification for president was that he was a bullshit artist. Now, after suffering as a patriot and American with that conman mobster as president, I believe Trump is the most despicable, immoral person, public or otherwise, that I know of. And Utah Republicans can’t get enough of him. It is costing them.
In the Salt Lake Tribune today there is a long article about how many Republicans, particularly in Utah County, refuse to be tested for COVID-19 or to wear a mask. Mike Lee, who inexplicably has finagled his way to the eminent job of U.S. Senator, tested positive to COVID-19 just over a week ago and now is at the rushed hearing to pack the Supreme Court, in person, without a mask. Lee is from Utah County. I don’t know how or why not wearing a mask is allowed by the Republican Senate, particularly for an infected person, but I expect negative consequences for their gross neglect – for Republicans.
It is obvious that one butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the planet is not going to change the weather. Such a thing is the proverbial gnat fart in a hurricane. That is how I feel when it comes to boycotting the big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google. What is my tiny effort going to do against their immense wealth and power?
But their immense wealth and power is the problem. Amazon is choking out America’s bookstores, publishers and retailers. Yes, they make lower prices for consumers but thinkers like writer, attorney and professor at Columbia Law School Tim Wu and Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, know that there is more to the dangers of monopoly power than price. This old investment professional is worried that there are only about half as many public small-cap companies as there were twenty years ago. I am worried that Google and Facebook are almost completely choking out journalism and the democratically critical Fourth Estate. Economy like ecology like democracy requires diversity to thrive and survive. We are starting to recognize that all this free and cheap internet service like Google, Facebook and Amazon offer is actually very expensive and diminishing. Continue reading →
We are sick and Nature is in charge. Is her wildness also our preservation?
It is not quite five in the morning and a rose colored light is starting to fill the room. I’m in Cooke City, Montana in early June 2013 with Torrey House Press publisher Kirsten Johanna Allen in bed beside me and THP author Susan Imhoff Bird asleep in the other room. The cabin is ancient and in poor repair, the bed is lumpy. We are in Yellowstone to start research on Susan’s book Howl, of Woman and Wolf and I am wide awake. I have a question on my mind. What the hell did Thoreau mean, exactly, when he said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world?”
Cooke City in a June dawn.
Next door to the cabin is a coffee shop that makes its own baked goods. The proprietor opens the door at 5:00 because she is there with her ovens preparing for the day and I know they have internet. I get dressed, grab coat, hat and iPad and head over. There is still snow in the crevices of the craggy peaks surrounding the town, just visible in first light. Wispy clouds are pink and orange. The warm smells of hot coffee and bear claws great me along with the proprietor at the cafe. She’s my age with blonde hair pulled up loosely on top of her head, busy with her baking trays. A steaming cup next to the iPad and I log on, type in my question to the oracle that is Google Search. To connect to that question, in this place, with such comfort and beauty around me and a day of wolf watching ahead is vaguely thrilling. Continue reading →
I used to downhill ski frequently. Not like a season pass holder, but 20 times a season or so. I’m in my 60’s now and have not skied for a year. But some of my long time ski buddies came to town, guys I first started skiing with in college, and I told them I would join them on the mountain today. They suggested we meet in the parking lot at Park City resort’s plaza at 7:15 AM and find a place for breakfast. They also needed to rent skis. When I asked why so early they said they were concerned about traffic. I thought, well, they are from California and don’t realize it is not as crowded here in Utah. I suggested I would meet them in the ticket line at 8:45, 15 minutes before the lifts open. Plans made.