Aroostook Skies: The night light of 1812

12 years ago

To steal moments out of a busy day to gaze and reflect upon the sky seems, to me at least, a vital and necessary element of good, civilized living as any other. I personally would prefer to transact my emotions with the atmospheric elements than indulge them within the silly games of local traffic and the consumer zone. After all, our range and breadth and depth of emotions distinguish us as humans from the balance of Earth’s living population.
Speaking of the living population. Did any of you recently notice the roadways populated by this black, hairy caterpillar slinking across the pavement while you and I are careening down the highway at cosmic velocity? Those small hairy insects are going about their instinctual business. I try to avoid squishing them. Sometimes I don’t know if I’ve avoided them. A backward glance in the rear-view hopefully spares me the pain of insecticide. And yet from their point of view, what must these cataclysmic carscapades (us) impose upon their collective blood pressure (do bugs blood even register a pressure?). Like some Aroostook-style Horton hearing a Who, I wonder what we may be missing crawling at our own feet? Furthermore, how then do we, as members of the “third rock from the Sun” fit into the traffic of the solar system, let along the Universe? What’s it all about?
The bugs and the sky, the leaves and the chill, tell me to rewire my mind and heart to the rhythms of the Fall. My telescope points nightly toward the constellation of Andromeda in the early hours. There, I see this ghostly assemblage of three nebulous cocoons in stasis. This Great Andromeda Galaxy challenges my reality. Its unique companions do the same. One is a tiny ball of fluff; the other companion is the thinnest gossamer of visibility. They frighten me. Somehow, I am absorbing the energy of 300 billion suns, uncountable planets and a zone of some cosmic otherness.
If the morning bell tolls, commanding me out of my own blanketed cocoon, I am also telescoping before dawn. Target: Jupiter. It offers a never-ending display of satellite circling, drawn by the creamy, yellow orange King ball itself. Target: the Great Orion Nebula. Some call it M42. I call it “gas town.” Long forgotten commutes into downtown Chicago along the congestion and fury of Edens Highway stir within me. All around me, a little passenger boy sees smoke and colored lights and billboards racing about. Those days are gone; but the sensation rebirths in the sky when I point to this stellar birthing bay of wreathed gas and clustered star stuff.
And there are sky mysteries. Last night, through a faint haze of typical constellations, I saw emerging a strange illuminated cord rising through the sky with a bubble-like object attached. Within moments, I realized I was observing a weather balloon launch from Caribou in unaccustomed darkness. It was a strange sight, indeed. And I felt left with a strange uneasiness that we truly live in a technological age whose impact we may all too easily take for granted. Would a time traveler from the 16th or 17th century even begin to comprehend such a world as ours. And fast forward ourselves to the 26th century and tackle our own incredulity to digest the sky routines of that yet undisclosed era.
It’s darker isn’t it. We broached the autumnal equinox and saw our summer exit stage left. And I saw almost peripherally at the work place a symbol of the new season. It was a night light, one of those reminders of childhood’s rainbow. That little plug-in of plastic and glass betokens our childhood security. Our parents faithfully purchased the appliance to artificially help us kids to banish the dark and the fearsome apparitions it may or may not brandish. I challenge each of us to consider whether we still view the night in need of a night-light. When do we enjoy that subtle emancipation when we embrace our own understanding to the mature adult, the night and the day are both the same expressions of a exquisitely tender planet dancing about an orbital platter 24/7, 365.4 days a year? Perhaps given the horrifying encroachment of a light polluted landscape, we should hearken under a more sophisticated concept of the night, banish the night-light, and finally learn to see in the dark, unafraid.
I close, with the fragrances of fall and the inexorable chill in mind, to a far different time and place where an army of hundreds of thousands of our forbearers marched across the autumn grounds of Europe to engage in battle. Napoleon Bonaparte led the greatest assemblage of armed power than known onto the Russian roadmap to bring the former unto subjection. The two mighty armies clashed at the Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812, leaving the victorious French army with an uncontested road to the capital of Moscow and apparent triumph. Entering the city, Napoleon found the great capital essentially deserted; the French emperor could not entreat the Russian, Czar Alexander, to negotiate. As disorder spread, the city burned, provisions declined and winter breezed into sober reality, Napoleon chose to abandon his famous foothold. Fatefully, he slowly and ponderously retreated back to familiar France in October, 1812. Decimated by hunger and local hostility from Russian forces, the Great Army returned to friendlier frontiers in December depleted by almost 4/5ths of its original strength. Throughout this tragic and terrible event, a great comet brushed through the night sky, an unforgettable sight to a violated world.
Two hundred years after this reeling rout, I think my point is to remind all of us that the wonders of seeing in the dark offer us a canvass for assessing our own experiences as civilized inhabitants of this living planet. For good or for ill, we are engaged in a fantastic voyage through space and time. The antecedents and the possibilities now lay before us. In the words of statesman Adlai Stevenson: “We’ve travelled together. Passengers on a little space ship. Dependent upon its vulnerable reserve of air and soil, all committed for our safety to its security and peace. We cannot maintain half-fortunate, half miserable-half, confident, half despairing, half slave to the ancient enemies of man-half free, in a liberation of resources. No craft no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. Upon that resolution, therefore, depends the survival of us all.”
I can only encourage each of us to spend special and precious time outdoors at night in Fall, 2012. May we each find a tender target up there for our examination and attention. And no matter to what extent any of us may find our lives under conflict or conflagration, may we see the sky and its astronomical wonders as a benchmark for better understanding ourselves and our own unique time on this good Earth.
Larry Berz of Caribou is director of Easton’s Francis Malcolm Planetarium and astronomy instructor at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.