Category Archives: Cosmos

When People Die

I’ve got an aunt who will likely be dying in the next couple of days. My mom’s sister. Death is an interesting thing because it’s the one fact that we all share, one of only a few certainties and yet, it is something so many resist. We create religions, in part, to help ourselves deal with our mortality. We create all sorts of elaborate beliefs to that end. My approach to death might be best summed up by one of my favorite songs, “Fact of Life” by Poi Dog Pondering:

“Relentlessly climbing and conquering and swallowing fresh pain
Melting reemerging and rising up clean in the pouring rain
Rise up clean in the pouring rain, only to drop down
and decay again
Muscle and sweat and blood and bones
feel good, feel strong!
Don’t ask why, it’s a fact you die”

We die and our bodies decay. The matter of our body,  our molecules, are decomposed and released into the environment. Or, we may be cremated, the matter of our bodies released through a different process but still a process of transformation. Whatever the process, the atoms of our body are recycled. Frankly, I think it’s a fucking beautiful process and in fact, it’s happening during the course of life, every moment of every day. We shed our skin and other bodily cells all the time. We breathe in, absorbing the oxygen molecules released into the air by plants. We breathe out, releasing carbon dioxide which will be used by plants. A constant exchange, constant interaction We are of the Universe.

And it’s not just our bodies that we shed. In a very real way our minds, our identities are also in flux. The Denny that writes these words is not the same Denny of 10 years ago or the Denny of 20 years ago. Each day brings now opportunity to grow and to change if we’re open to it. Even if we’re not, it’s going to happen. There’s nothing static about the Universe. It’s all movement, all the time. From the subatomic scale where the elementary particles of atoms of are in constant motion and interaction,  to the atoms that make up molecules, to the tiny microbial life living on our skin to the planet and solar system. We can zoom out and out and out and still we find change, birth, decay.

Another Poi Dog song, Bury Me Deep:

“A lifetime of accomplishments of which the dirt knows none,
Only in death can one truly return
Return the carrots, the apples and potatoes,
The chickens, the cows, the fish and tomatoes.

In one glorious swoop, let the deed be done
And bury me deep so that I can be one…
And all around my muscle and all around my bone,
Don’t incinerate me or seal me from
The dirt which bore me, the bed that which from
The rain falls upon and the fruit comes from
For the dirt is a blanket, no fiery tomb,
No punishment, reward, or pearly white room
And you who say that in death we will pay,
The dead they can’t hear a word that you say
Your words are not kind, sober or giving,
They only put fear in the hearts of the living
So put away your tongues and roll up your sleeves,
And pick up your shovel and bury me deep.”

Again, fucking fantastic. Yes. Yes.

And so, I think about my aunt and the other family members that have died in recent years, my grandfather, my granny, my other grandfather – and I smile. They all had long lives. Interesting lives. I’ve not shed a tear for any of them. Why would I? I think about my aunt who’s body is shutting down as I write. She will take her last breath very soon. Her body will grow cool. She will be gone. The consciousness that was hers will fade. Her family will remember her until they too die and fade away. I didn’t know it at the time but when I last saw her a month or so ago, that conversation was the last I will have had with her.

What can we do? We can go on. We can remember and we can do our best to live. I suppose, perhaps the best we can do for our dead is to relish and celebrate life with them before they die. And after they die go on celebrating life with the people they knew or with people they didn’t know. We all co-create this life together, we weave a rich tapestry that becomes vibrant and then weathers and fades and eventually disappears. These are our individual stories and fates just as one day all of humanity will fade. Even the stars transition from one state to another. Nothing in the Universe lasts for ever. Not planets or stars, not galaxies and the Universe itself may have some sort of end. We are in good company.

I think what I will do is celebrate. I will recognize that this pattern of energy known as Denny will not exist forever. I will try to use each day, to live each day in a way that recognizes that lifespan. I’m not sure where I heard it but there’s a quote that goes something like: “Live each day as if it were your first and each night as if it were your last.” Yeah. That.

A Sentient Being

Oliver Sacks on learning he has cancer

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Well said.

Cosmic Dance

A few weeks back I wrote about viewing the supernova in M82. It was first observed around the same time that an article was circulating about the continuing and drastic decline of Monarch butterfly populations. I had both the supernova and the threat to the Monarch on my mind when I sat down to write about my observation of M82 but I couldn’t quite make the connection I wanted to make. A few days ago the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, in describing the earlier generations of star birth and death, comes close to articulating what it was I was pondering:

This happened in the Milky Way billions of years ago, and those elements from some long-dead star made their way into you. Your bones, your teeth, your blood, your very DNA have elements in them forged in the heart of a mighty star that violently tore itself to bits so that eventually you may live. It is a transformation on a literally cosmic scale.

I should hope the metaphorical metamorphosis is obvious enough. The only constant in the Universe is change, and much of it is a cycle. Birth, life, death, restructuring, and rebirth. That is also the theme of much of human art, from paintings and movies to myths and great novels.

Some say science is cold, dealing unemotionally with hard data. But that’s far from the reality. Humanity and life are reflected in the stars, and the Universe itself is poetry.

The thoughts I’d had were specific to the harsh reality of extinction on Earth. The Monarch is not there yet but it’s numbers have declined drastically. Other species are also in decline and extinctions happen every day. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity we are now experiencing the 6th mass exctinction event of the planet, loosing dozens of species a day:

It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century .

Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species’ extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel.

For most of my adult life I’ve gone through a cycle of depression connected to or caused by my awareness of what we are doing to the planet and our fellow species. I will never accept what our species has done, is doing, to our planet but I have found a certain peace in the understanding that the Universe will go on regardless. Our fragile planet and the life on it has an end date. In 600 million years our sun will have have increased in luminosity significantly and the carbon cycle plants depend on will shift causing mass die-off of plant life and animal life. By the time the sun transitions from a main sequence star (4.5 bililon years from now) life on the planet will have long since disappeared. Such is the case for all life supporting planetary systems in the Universe. All stars have a limited lifespan.

The Monarchs will end. Humanity will end. Our planet, our solar system and our Sun will all have an end. So it goes. The cosmic dance will continue… for awhile anyway. What can we do but live our lives in the best possible way? I for one will try to live with a respect for the fragility of life on this Pale Blue Dot and with an understanding that the star stuff that makes up my body and this planet will one day be pushed forth into the Cosmos.

Weeping to the Heavens

Moon photographed with iPhone and Z12
February 5, 2013

We had a fantastic night last night in our group observation for the Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society. It was the usual crew plus a couple of newbies. Of course Russ and Karen were there. Kaleesha made it back for her third time at the scope and with her Blueberry and Seth. It was Seth’s first time and he took to the scope very naturally. Our new Farmington astronomer friend Mark made it for the second night in a row and though we were clouded out first night, last night we had perfect skies from sunset till sunrise. It’s always nice having new folks in attendance. We discussed open clusters, the use of the word nebula in the initial naming of galaxies which, at the time, were not known to be galaxies! We also went over star hopping with the 8″ dobsonian with a red dot finder and folks got a chance to find a few Messier objects. Lots of fun! We also saw a very nice green fireball!

After most folks left Russ and I had an excellent conversation about the scientific method and the importance of skepticism. After that I took a brief dinner break and then set back out for some solo galaxy observations from my Herschel 400 list.

After about six galaxies I took a break to just look up with my eyes and the beauty of it was just too much. I suppose all there is to say about it is that I cried and I kept on crying. I thought I’d finished and then I cried more. No doubt, a part of what was going on was that I’d set a particular song on repeat, The Cinematic Orchestra’s song To Build a Home and I’m fairly certain that it was the song, combined with what I was seeing, that sent me over the edge. To be honest there have been several such moments  during my nights at the scope over the past few months. I’m usually able to control it but sometimes it is good to just let go and accept it.

Saturn photographed with iPhone and Z12
February 5, 2013

It’s not the first time I’ve had the sensation, a sort of heightened alertness and emotional intensity that just comes in like a slow motion wave. Usually it’s just the result of really being in the moment, be it under the night sky looking at stars or standing in the cold watching my breath seemingly frozen midair or any number of other similar moments. It is as if time slows down and in those moments I am not just seeing what’s around me,  but being in what is around me. To put it simply, it seems like a convergence of emotion and intellect that results in something not quite our normal day-to-day experience, something overwhelming.

I’m guessing most people have these moments at various times in their lives… I certainly hope so. I’ve mentioned to a few folks recently that I feel like, more often than not, I exist in this sort of low level bliss. In part I think it comes with this kind of simple life. I own so little and live in such a small space that my life is not about owning but about being, about experiencing… searching and exploring. Our lives are short and so it makes sense to me to live it as my life but to do so in constant connection and ever deepening relation. I made a choice to never have children so being connected means something different for me. It’s frogs and stars, geese and planets, friends and family, it is belonging to life and to the earth and to this cosmos. When you belong you are free.