Even in winter,
Seattle’s five o’clock shadow is moss,
Its ferns hold fast to the hillsides,
And its evergreens keep their eponymous promises.
When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher gave us an assignment: to record the phases of the moon every night for a month. So, fairly faithfully, I would head outside after nightfall into the cul-de-sac of my suburban Cincinnati home and painstakingly draw the moon’s fluid shape on a series of 3×5 index cards.
The idea was that we were creating miniature astronomy flipbooks that would show the time lapse of the moon waxing toward full and waning toward new. I called my little book, “Flipping the Moon,” complete with a cartoon Man-in-the-Moon doing gymnastics on the cover.
In addition to my lunar sketches, I was supposed to write down any additional observations of the night sky, but between the light pollution and my limited knowledge, I think my most common comments were about seeing the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, and Cassiopeia. Clearly, I was discovering the edges of the universe!
Another memorable moment in my early fascination with the worlds beyond my own was when I was on an overnight trip of some kind as a teenager and first discovered my own galaxy. The Milky Way was breathtaking. And I actually was at the edge of it. It felt so empowering to be able to recognize that creamy band of stars and planets stretching across the sky. Like when you learn a new word and suddenly you start hearing it everywhere–and understanding in a way you hadn’t before.
It’s something I carried with me as a college student spending a summer in the northwoods of Wisconsin, sitting in a small boat with two other students, taking samples of tiny drifting zooplankton at 2:30 a.m., staring at the perfect mirror the lake made of the stars and my galaxy when I looked up and when I looked down. All I could do was contemplate the universe and my place in it as we dropped the sampling equipment off the side of the boat into the dark waters below.
Since my early starry-eyed ruminations, however, my occasional forays into space as a “grown up” have taken a different turn. Ever since I read Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, when I now think about space, I almost can’t help but think about the bizarre things weightlessness does to the human body.
Here are a few of my favorite facts I learned about life that is out of this world:
For more details about how outer space affects the few humans who make it there, check out an interactive web feature from NASA.
And every once in a while, don’t forget to look up.
by Billy Collins
“You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.”
On a related note, I’m confident that my brilliant 3 year-old niece Emma is also capable of reciting poetry like this little boy:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound,
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come to the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
~ Wendell Berry
I’m going to the woods this weekend.