Carl’s Birthday

Dr Carl Sagan

Yesterday was Carl Sagan’s birthday. I really should have celebrated with a night of star gazing but I was exhausted from a full day and a full week so I stayed inside. It seems fitting though that sometime around 3 am I awoke with thoughts of Carl, the Universe and my place in it. As my mind often does at those early hours (If I’ve been asleep in bed but stir from slumber) I began mulling over a variety of thoughts. Perhaps that’s why long nights at the telescope with views of distant galaxies or Milky Way globular clusters and nebulae are often such an interesting exercise in quiet contemplation. In any case, I was awake and pondering some time outside under the stars. Laying next to Kaleesha I caressed her neck, her back and her hips enjoying the warm coziness of the moment and her sweet sighs as she stirred to my touch. After a little while I decided I would get an early start to the day with a view of the stars, planets and the sunrise.

I layered up with clothes and ventured outside with my iPad and quietly walked up the hill with Murphy at my side. There’s something entirely comfortable about walking up a woodland trail with the stars peeping through the breaks in the trees above and a big dog like Murphy keeping you company. The stars this morning were not a disappointment. They never are. The sky could not have been clearer and in this part of Missouri they are very dark. Orion took my breath away as it hovered in the southern sky. It is in moments such as this that I am overcome with a blissful mix of emotions and thoughts, feeling a joy of being connected to the Earth as I look up with an understanding that I am from the stars. That we, that all of this, is of a Universe which is bound together even as it is expanding further apart.

One of my thoughts this morning, in bed and now carried with me as I walked up the hill pertained to how it is that so much of our lives, in the America of 2013, are spent in pursuit of the next big thing and in particular, then next big shiny thing. Shiny things. It seems we modern humans, at least those of us who live in the “wealthy” nations, have become obsessed with trivial entertainments. From the Super Bowl to sitcoms to eating out to shopping, all the while dutifilly posting Facebook “Status” updates, we keep ourselves busy with our various forms of consumption and our “sharing” of it. How much of our mental and emotional energy is bound up in the aquisition of wealth and material objects. Bigger homes with nicer furnishings, name brand clothes covering overly cleaned and perfumed people driving new cars to jobs which may or may not be satisfying but which are required to maintain the lifestyle and the seeking of status that often comes with it. iPhones and iPads, texting while driving to the next afterschool sporting event, in the presence of others but rarely actually communicating with them.

This morning I think of Carl and his efforts to push humanity forward in its exploration of the Universe and it’s understanding of that Universe. I think of his warnings about our behaviour towards one another and towards the planet we share with not just other humans but with a great multitude of other species. I’ve spent most of my adult life concerned about problems such as climate change and have made a fairly consistent effort to communicate those concerns with others. I’ve made many of my life decisions based upon my understanding (limited though it is) of humanity’s effects on our planet and so this morning as I looked at our Milky Way neighbors I could not help but ponder Carl and what he sought to communicate.

If we humans are ever able to leave our planet for the purposes of living elsewhere it is a long way off. For the forseable future the Earth is our home and we are not doing a very good job of taking care of it. In this past year of looking up at the night sky I have, more than any other time of my life, come to appreciate the beatuy of the Universe. I have also developed a new-to-me understanding or perspective of our home planet in the context of the Universe. With each day the evidence grows that there are likely billions of planets in just our own Milky Way galaxy that might support life, planets that inhabit the “goldilocks” zone around their respective stars. There are billions of galaxies and, in light of these numbers, my doubt about life elsewhere in the Universe continues to shrink. And though we know that life on Earth has an expiration date based upon the life cycle of our sun I can’t help but wish that we humans might make the effort to live as though what we do matters. Perhaps our existence is meaningful because of this known expiration not in spite of it. Our species’ existence is likely to be ephemeral in the grand scheme of things but is that any reason to live without care?

Before the sun began to lighten the sky I pointed the telescope to the north, to Ursa Major and there I found the two galaxies, M81 and M82, collectively known as Bode’s Nebulae. The photons from these distant galaxies traveled for more than 12 million years before finding their way to my eyes. I spent a good long while looking at these two as they are fairly close and offer more detail than more distant galaxies. What life might exist there on the billions of planets that likely orbit billions of stars? Next I looked at Jupiter and then Mars, just a stone throw away by comparison. The sunlight reflected from these two planets traveled to us in just minutes. Current missions to Mars are looking for evidence of past life there. Jupiter’s moon Europa has an atmosphere which consists primarily of oxygen and a smooth icey surface which may well have liquid oceans beneath. Oceans that may support life. As the sun began to brighten the sky I aimed the telescope at the Orion Nebula for one last look.

After putting the scope away I stood for a few minutes on the soft layer of cedar mulch that covers the boulders that overlook the shut-ins of Tucker Creek. I spent a few minutes observing the rushing water and rich textures of the landscape. The trees of this south-facing hill are now nearly shed of all their leaves but are covered in thick layers of lichen. The rocks too are covered in patches of lichen and moss. Even in the chill of a fall morning life is abundant.

As I walked down the path, Murphy again at my side, I could not help but overflow with joy at the crunching of leaves underfoot and the gold light of our sun filtering through the mostly bare branches. There is something very enjoyable about acknowledging and being mindful of the sun not just as the sun but as OUR STAR. At the bottom of the hill our little homestead was stiring with the morning. Chickens, ducks and a goose were all awake and begining their business as were the goats. Soon I would sit in the warmth of the house and write at the kitchen table to the sounds of children pitterpattering above.