As an outreach astronomer, and as a writer, the issue of communicating the sublime is near and dear. I can, if pressed, think of some famous movie scenes that are sublime in their own right. But sublime encounters with the natural world, instances when I felt privileged and connected to the earth and the cosmos, those moments are indelible, unforgettable, and they pop into mind almost daily. When I start to die, and my neurons start firing wildly, perhaps these memories will among those that flash before my eyes. (As long as I’m not vaporized instantly by the Vogons.) If so, and if some other, far less sublime experiences are left out, I shall die pleased. For the moment, I feel lucky to have been alive to witness them.
1. The Owl
It was winter, and I was in the sixth grade. My friends and I went sledding at a wonderful–and crazy–spot called the Pump House, a water pumping shed in the middle of Kinn’s Woods, a county park of pine forest planted during the Depression by the CCC. The sled run began as a twisty offshoot of the main loop trail, getting wider and deeper until, in the last steep third, it was veritable bobsled run, with high walls. We sledded for several hours, until it got so dark that there was a good chance we wouldn’t be able to swerve between the trees without braining ourselves. There were different ways to get to the Pump House, depending on where in the development you lived, and my next-door-neighbor Karl and I broke off down our own trail home. The sky was still twilight blue, but the stars were coming out. As we crossed a glade of thinner trees, something caught our eye overhead…the unmistakable silhouette of an owl in flight, and right over our heads. Like, a few feet above us. The owl glided almost completely silently, all we heard was a subtle swoosh of air, though in my memory I almost feel like we felt it rather than heard it. It was big! Maybe a barred or great horned owl. We froze in our steps. It was a little startling, awe-inspiring, and unforgettable.
2. The Hermit Crabs
In August of 1997, I travelled to Cohasset, Massachusetts, for the wedding of my cousins Jason and Wendy. Cohaset is a little colonial harbor town, impossibly cute, and a great place to walk along the rocky coast. We stumbled upon a little inlet that I returned to several times, recording these encounters in my journal:
I’m back at the little inlet. The tide was rushing out to sea fast. Michelle [my sister] and I waded into the warm water and chatted. A few minutes later, I actually stopped to look at the rocks we were standing on and realized that everything was in motion! There were thousands, and thousands of hermit crabs. And fiddler crabs (or something like that) and starfish. The most diversity I’ve seen on the shore, one doesn’t see such things on sand beaches.
I recorded more of this experience a few days later, from a less diverse sandy beach on Nantucket:
At the Cohasset inlet, I observed very closely how hermit crabs examine their candidates for new homes. I dropped an empty shell near one, and it would scurry, grasp it with both claws to gauge its size. If the shell passed this test, it would examine the opening. I realized there was a deadly housing shortage in the inlet–there were no unoccupied shells that didn’t have holes in them, something the crabs would quickly discover in their examinations. I even saw a hermit crab that was unshelled get caught by a fiddler crab. It’s a tough market, and the hermit crabs are eager to look at any possibilities.
What I remember from that experience is something more. I remember the joy at our initial discovery of the hermit crabs. I remember what it felt like when they would scurry across our feet. The way I remember it, that’s what got us interested in scrutinizing the “rocks” in the first place. I remember the excitement of watching the crabs examine the empty shells, I was the Dianne Fossey of itinerant decapod crustaceans! I also remember that larger, stronger hermit crabs would get the first chance to examine a shell, something that people more serious about hermit crabs than I call vacancy chains. I think about that experience all the time, and feel so lucky to have experienced it. It was
like a window to a different world.
3. The Meteorite*
From my fourth blog post on Bicycle Astronomy, in March, 2009, titled Origin Story:
Astronomy has been part of my life for longer than it hasn’t. During high school, I’d host parties for my friends on the tennis court across the street, usually for the Perseids meteor shower in August. I’d show them Jupiter and it’s four largest moons through a terrible old 60mm telescope. One night, while walking my dog Maggie, I saw a meteor streak across the sky, something I’d seen many time before. But instead of fading out, it abruptly changed, went from white streak of light to a blue pinpoint, and changed course. Through the upper atmosphere, and probably very tiny and very hot, it drifted now, more slowly, in a straight line to the ground, disappearing over the horizon of trees. I was stunned and excited. I ran home to tell my father and step-mother, who were watching TV. “That’s nice, dear,” they said.
The common element in each experience was awe, wonder and something approaching glee. These were dopamine moments where I was simply thrilled to be alive and present, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that most such moments in my life have revolved around an encounter with a part of our natural world. I think it’s because, at those moments, we feel a part of the web of life on earth, or, in the case of astronomical events, part of what Carl Sagan called “the cosmic fugue”.
* Since it passed through the atmosphere and landed on the ground, it was a meteorite. The streak of light in the sky that ends with the vaporization of the rock is a meteor.