Monday, August 31, 2020

The Night Watchman

 To all of my nocturnal friends, and the slumbering ones, too.  

The Night Watchman

  I am the night watchman, although what I watch for, I do not know.  My contemporaries have a purpose as clearly cut as a pine board ripped by the table saw - make sure things stay in order, quiet hours lit by the glow of closed circuit television.  

  If only ET would bike himself across the moon that I gaze at in equally quiet hours, then I could point with a trembling finger and say “THAT…!”  But he never does, and if he did, I might not say.  Who would believe a lone astronomer, after all?  

  The best I can figure is it’s the Night itself that I watch, scooping up ancient photons with my telescope, wandering across the deep, swimming with Pisces the fish, peering at the drama of Perseus rescuing Andromeda as the sky wheels that story of antiquity into view.  Saturn dances a hula with her gigantic hoop, and a hurricane three times the size of our planet churns away on Jupiter. My chair is firmly rooted to Earth, the crickets hum in the humid air.  The moon looms in a clear sky, casting searching rays that find scattered diamonds of dewdrops in the thick grass.  A dog yips in the distance, while a street racer somewhere cues up his machine to dominate these terrestrial streets.  It would take him six months to drive to the moon, maybe five if he really built that motor right.  

  A cloud drifts across Luna, my eyes, glued to the telescope, drinking in a desolate surface, watching the early scene of Halloween, vapors of this planet scudding across the echoing plains of another.  Jagged mountains jut up at the edge of a forgotten flat of cooled lava, a crater that was once mighty, half-swallowed up by the event.   Leaning back in my chair, a fragment of a moon-bow - the nighttime rainbow - says hello.  The Katydids sing in the trees, impressing the lady bugs - “Katy did, katy didn’t.”  All of the heat and light of the day - the yes sirs and the problems to solve and the numbers to verify and weights to lift - all seem to drift away like the cloud that’s sailed east ,towards Aquarius.  “Katy did, katy didn’t.”  The Night seems alive, no boundary between me, the trees, the humid air, and the cosmos.  Alberio blazes down, a orange sun waltzing around a blue one, the eye of Cygnus the swan as he flies down the Milky way.  

  The Infinite echoes, reminding me that I’m a speck on a speck spinning ‘round a mote, as I stare up, stupefied in the best sort of way.  

  Yet on this speck on a speck spinning ‘round a mote - there’s a night watchman.  Watching the Night.  Sleep on, let the moon sail high above your pillow.  Katydid, Katy didn’t.  I’ll be keeping an eye on the Night.

  And, I suspect, it’ll be keeping an eye on me.  


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Greetings, Earthlings!

 Letters from Josh

Spaceships and Table Saws     8/17/20                                                        Letter 19

  Greetings, Earthlings!  Now, that’s got a good ring to it, doesn’t it?  However, unlike the similar salutation of “My fellow Americans”, it plants several seeds of doubt - doubt of sanity, doubt of planet of origin - doubts which can be leveraged to the benefit of the original bearer of the phrase.  After all, negotiation is often the art of throwing your opponent off balance, and what better way to do so than to have THEM wonder if YOU think you’re an alien.  But I digress…

  I hope you’ve been well!  I have - been out at the telescope a few nights this week, as you may have guessed.  ‘Tis the season for the summer Milky Way.  The Earth, in it’s journey of a year, orbits ‘round ol’ Mister Sol, and presents a slightly different section of the sky each evening.  As such, just as the seasons may be observed to change by watching the foliage and listening for the arrival of the August crickets (singing now, mingling their delightful notes with Bach’s English Suite in A minor), so too may the passage of time be marked in the Heavens.  The Summer sky is a joy to behold - a star-studded event, the Oscars of the celestial sphere, where the party starts late (it doesn’t get truly dark till about 9:30), the music pulses in the night, and a horde of paparazzi mosquitoes drone about the ears.  Our Earth’s orbit places the stargazer looking straight into the hub of our home galaxy, the glittering river of stars pooling into mysterious hazy patches, resolving into billowing clouds of dust, gas, and stars when viewed through a telescope.  And viewing is what I’ve been doing, marveling at these ancient stellar nurseries, the light traveling a “nearby” tens of thousands of years to appear to my wondering eye.   High overhead, the bright rays of Vega in evening-gown blue dance across the zenith of this splendor, and occasionally, an owl hoots deep in the forest.  I sit quietly at my telescope, occasionally referencing a star atlas, changing an eyepiece, in a quiet observation of the Universe.  Last night, I aimed near Vega, in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan, and came face to face with a familiar sight that makes me gasp every time.  A ghostly tendril of gas snaked for light years around an obliging star, as I held on to the telescope as if not to fall into Infinity.  It’s the Veil nebula, a supernova remnant .  In “down to Earth” terms, if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s the guts of a massive star that went BOOM in a violent explosion when the star ran out of fuel.  Interestingly, this type of catastrophic end is the source of life on Earth.  An oversimplified explanation is as follows: Stars fuse hydrogen into heavier and heavier elements - elements we are built from.  But, they don’t do anyone any good if they’re locked in the core of a star.  So, when it explodes, it scatters these seeds of possibility across space, which eventually form into new stars, solar systems, planets, people, cell phones, etc.  So, it’s quite moving to see this ghostly apparition floating in space, eventually to gift it’s elements into something new, far, far in the future.  

  It seems a telescope is almost like a spaceship, and so I moved it back home, stopping at Saturn and Jupiter on the return voyage, marveling at the cosmic hula hoop (Saturn), and cloud details several times the size of Earth on Jupiter.  Then, I gently “landed” back in my front yard, refreshed from my wander among the stars.  With a “click”, I powered down the finder scope, smiled, heard the katydids singing in the trees, and brought the spaceship back into the hangar...err, garage.  What a Universe we live in!

  In other news of an Earthly note - I got a new used table saw yesterday.  (It, too, started out from a supernova remnant a long time ago.)  My stepdad found a great deal online, so drove up with a trailer, and loaded the 400 pound piece of shop machinery on a slick wood ramp in a drizzling rain.  Now THAT was something to make one focus.  (Fortunately, nobody got hurt!)  Don’t you just love a new piece of gear?  I often think that if I put a pegboard in my kitchen and hung up the spatulas like screwdrivers, I might be more inclined to cook...  

  Have a great week over there, and until next time, Earthlings!

  • Josh

Monday, August 10, 2020

On the Subject of Time

 Letters from Josh

Advice Sought on the subject of Time     8/09/20                                                Letter 18          

  Howdy, folks!  How’s everyone doing over there today?  I’m...a whole mix.   I was sad this afternoon, and wrote a real doozy of a letter.  Then I had a nap, some greet tea, and an evening walk in the humidity, the forest quiet, the clouds towering fantastical pinks and purples in the summer sky. Now, after some much-needed edits to this volume, I’m pumped for a dive into the sea of Philosophy!  Ahoy, mateys!  Diver down!  

  So, I closed two books this weekend - ended out two eras, and it knocked me for a loop. 

Yesterday’s was saying goodbye to my first car, now a project Camaro, passed on to my younger brother, who will fix it up into a lean mean street machine.  Still, I waxed nostalgic as I drove it on a farewell spin to the river, complete with a noisy burnout and neighborhood annoyance on the way back.  All good things must come to an end, though, and as if on cue, the driver’s window almost didn’t roll up. 

Today’s was much harder.  I said goodbye to a place that I’ve grown up with.  It’s an art gallery that - well - it’s a long story best reserved for another time.  Suffice to say, this community had been a family for mine in our darkest hour.  It’s going on to something different, my family in another direction, and like the Camaro, there’s a time when one lumbers out of the driver’s seat one last time, pats the bumper affectionately, and goes inside, the closing of the door echoing much longer than it should.  One must, image comes into my mind, a ghost, really.  It’s of a much younger version of myself, complete with scary rockstar long hair, and my family, all of us crammed inside a tiny blue car that was a lifeline in a dire strait.  We’re all intently staring at the road stretching out in the valley - and the challenges in front of us - not knowing how we’ll prevail, but knowing we must.  It moves me to tears to realize that we did, but my God, how keenly I miss those days when we all wandered through a ferocious wilderness, daily confronting (metaphorical) single log bridges over yawning chasms...and we all made it.  We all made it. That cold sharpened us like nothing else could. These days are easier.  Us boys are grown and established.  Mom’s earned a well-deserved opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief.  The story has ended with almost a fairy-tale quality.  We are all better people.  Yet, I can still see that little blue car in my mind’s eye, but now I’m grown, standing on the road, watching it hurtle by, westward, into the mountains beyond, and the setting sun.  Maybe it’s the golden light that sparks a tear in my eye.  What do you do with closing books?

  Walking quietly this evening save for the buzzing of a persistent deerfly friend, I got to thinking about how Sunday is quite the day for pondering memories.  The twilight seemed misty with the ghosts of them - the cicadas singing of summer nights in childhood...The muggy August of leisurely strolls with old girlfriends, where our meandering steps could never slow the clock, no matter how hard we tried.  The Black Walnut tree waved from 1987, and I remembered watching water of the Greenbrier river flow under a bridge years ago in the town my parents met, wondering “where does it all go?”  Do we really understand Time?  I suddenly imagined all of these scenes crystallized into little baubles, Christmas ornaments strung across the Cosmos, just waiting for me to peer through my telescope and say “ah yes, I remember when…”  It seems to me the spirit of these times lives on, and we often know it when we move through these days, the feeling that we’re in something that we’ll recall one day on a quiet Sunday evening.  

  I bought a photo from the gallery today before I left.  It’s been there forever, and although unremarkable, I’ve been drawn to it since Day One, as if I knew.  It’s a set of empty railroad tracks at twilight, stretching into the distant mountains ablaze with autumn color, empty now, but perhaps waiting for the next train?  Seems fitting.  Shh, if I listen close, I can hear an echo.  Who knows what’s next?

 So, what do you do with books to close, ones to open, and memories to cherish?  I’d love to hear.  

  • Josh

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain

Letters from Josh
Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain - Letter 17                                                

  “Howdy, folks!”  Howdy - that’s an excellent greeting, as my brother pointed out yesterday on the trail.  I had returned to my Mountain Troll territory, this time with my mom and brother accompanying me down the side of Hawksbill Mountain, heading towards Rose River Canyon, when he made that observation.  “Yes, and best said with the snapping of suspenders” I concurred, snapping mine.  So, in the spirit of that conversation - Howdy, folks!

  I hope you’ve been doing well over there.  Today, I’d like to bring you some sights from a Sunday ramble, and an interesting thought experiment.  
Yesterday found me heading west again, in search of vistas and a reminder of perspective.  I don’t know about you, but I get so wrapped around the axle of my own focus that it’s hard to know what’s up and what’s down.  The News doesn’t help, providing endless moles to whack, a never ending show of Outrage and Offense, with “something for everyone!  Step right up, step right up, folks, you’llllll hate it!”  The good news is: I’m in charge of what I pay attention to (even the phrase pay attention is a clue for me), and one can find as much respite in the sunlit spiderweb in view right now, as sweeping vista of a meadow by Old Rag mountain. (So, exotic locales are not needed for a chill pill.)  But, speaking of the meadow by Old Rag mountain - there was some sort of alpine Bee Balm out in purple-y force yesterday in that clear mountain air, delighting our bumbly friends to no end as they worked the flowers as busy as a...err…Well, you know.  A multitude of other botanical gems celebrated the sunshine with all the quiet joy of young women in love, greeting the source of their amor with devoted, radiant faces.  I sat and pondered this mountain meadow, the 1.2 billion year old rocks looming in the distance.  A dark forest edge invited my eye to wander, and imagine untroubled bears snuffling along through their daily forage.  Later, arriving at the bottom of the Rose River Canyon, I again stuck my head under the clear waters by the little waterfall for a mountain baptism, letting the spring cool my brain, so overheated by the world.  I still have water trapped in my ears, but hey, that’s OK.  The climb back up to the top was arduous, but, fortunately, the scenery made up for the effort, and here and there through the wise trees, I’d spy quiet glades where the clear sunlight lit ancient rocks, with only a squirrel for a visitor.  Wouldn’t it be neat to spend a few years living in a cabin tucked away in the woods, being The Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain?  Well, actually, I’d guess I’d hate it, get lonely after three hours, aggravated when the cistern broke in a week, and end up trying to sell it on some real estate website, BUT, for the thought experiment, I’ll call it The Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain, where everything works well.  (I view myself as less traveled, but more honest, than John Muir. Ha!  Well, actually, I think he really liked being the original Mountain Troll.)  Oh, to sit out on the front porch in the late afternoon, noticing how the birds start to wrap up their daily routine, the glory of High Noon echoing in the wistful song of the Veery, fast becoming a memory.  And here come the shadows creeping, like softly folding fingers on the grateful hands of the mountain, saying Grace before supper, thankful for another day.  Hear the crackle of the woodstove inside the screen door, and smell the sweet smoke.  Ah, how that scent can bring me back to boyhood in an instant.  Glancing up, watch the first stars pierce the deep blue overhead, as an occasionally breeze dips the maples in a waltz, letting us spy the Distance stretched out below, fading into soft pinks and coppers and blues, the Day snuggling into a downy comforter, off to dream about lands faraway, and rest up for tomorrow.  I can hear an old friend say in a soft country drawl “this is God’s country, Josh”, and I’d have to agree.  As the Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain...I invite you to imagine your own little scene, especially if the troubles of the world kick you around today.  Although what I outline is fiction, the beauty exists.  I often forget, but Rose River doesn’t, and keeps on laughing over the rocks, while the bees work the flowers in the meadow up above.  

  • Josh