A blog by Paul Wallace

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    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.

    -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

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    The big one is coming

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    Total solar eclipse of November 2012, photographed from Queensland, Australia. Click image to enlarge

    THE INTERNETS OVERHYPE everything, and everything includes astronomical events. Take, for example, last month’s full moon-eclipse-comet incident. Online media had a whale of a time with that one, with headlines national and otherwise trumpeting it as a Triple Treat, a Stargazer’s Delight, a Cosmic Triple Feature, a Trifecta, and even a Snow Moon Lunar Eclipse Comet Spectacular!, among other super-exciting boosterisms. But in truth it was a very subtle affair, exciting only to those who spend a disproportionate number of hours examining the far-off twinkly lights. Not only that, but a full moon is required for a lunar eclipse, so that reduces the trifecta to a difecta, and that’s not even a word.

    Yes, it’s neat that an eclipse of any kind happened on the same night a comet was visible. But. The eclipse was of the penumbral variety, which means the Moon drifted through the outermost edge of the Earth’s shadow and dimmed just a fuzz. If you were not an avid Moon-watcher you’d not know it was happening at all. And the comet (it’s green! they said) was invisible to the unaided eye. If you had had a good pair of binoculars, had known which blank space in the sky to point them toward, and had been willing to stay up until 3 AM or so—five hours after the end of the eclipse—on a February night, you would’ve been able to make out comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. But seeing its faint green hue required high contrast with the background sky, and the Moon’s full and no-longer-eclipsed face brightened the sky so much that simply seeing the comet—with binoculars—would have been an achievement, especially for anyone unaccustomed to such work. Color would have eluded you unless you had a large telescope.

    So again: there is hype.

    But we’re on the leading edge of a vast incoming swell of fresh astro-bluster, and, though the media will certainly find new ways to overdo things, the total solar eclipse of Monday 21 August is something you’ll remember as long as you live. You should start making plans now.

    In a total solar eclipse the Sun gets entirely covered by the Moon. The Sun, you will have noticed, is brighter than the Moon, so when it goes out you’ll not be able to miss it. But it will only go all the way out out along a 70-mile-wide swath running from Oregon to South Carolina. The Moon’s circular shadow will make landfall near Salem at 10:15 AM (local), race eastward across the continent at about 1100 mph, and pass into the Atlantic north of Charleston at 2:49 PM (local).

    Created with GIMP

    Click on image for high-resolution version

    You will need to be within the shadowy band on the map to experience totality, which is the complete coverage of the Sun by the Moon. Along that path the sky will go dark, the overhead stars will appear, the air will cool, and the birds will fall silent. The Sun will appear as a ghostly ring among the stars and for once in your life you’ll be free to stare directly at it. All of this will happen in the middle of the day and will last about two minutes.

    Outside the path viewers will experience varying depths of twilight. In Atlanta, for example, 97.3% of the solar disc will be obscured so the Sun will show itself as the slightest of crescents. The world will grow strangely dim but it will not be enough to cool the air or quiet the birds. And the Sun will not appear weird and wraithlike among the stars. You’ll not be able to look at it. Down in Mexico the Moon will eat a bite out of the Sun and sensitive observers will notice a slight decrease in daylight but it will not be dramatic.

    But for those who experience totality, this will be an event to talk about all the way to old age. This will be the real thing.

    So: pray for clear skies, dear reader. Plan a long weekend and a road trip with family and friends. Take some kids if you can. But if you can’t that’s okay. Go with one grownup or three, go alone, whatever. Whether or not actual children are present is not so important—this eclipse will have the power to draw out the child in all of us.


    P.S. Here’s a detail map for my Atlanta peeps. Click on it to enlarge

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    Brown snakes, gastropods, and the very present darkness

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    WE MOVED INTO our present house in mid-2015. Whoever landscaped the place really had a thing for rocks. There may be excellent reasons to have rocks everywhere but sometimes they get in the way, especially during the annual mowing of the monkey grass. We have one bed that contains about a dozen rocks, each the size of a small shoebox. At the time of mowing they’re completely hidden by the grass so I need to raise my mower blade and progress super carefully.

    The weekend before last I was performing this task and, with no particular purpose in mind, looked under a rock near the edge of the bed. And lo! There rested a pair of North American brown snakes, each no more than six inches long, and a fine little land snail. The creatures were hibernating. I picked up one of the snakes. It was rigid and sluggish and stupefied. It never did the normal snakey crawley thing. It just sat in my hand and occasionally smelled the air with its tiny black forked tongue.

    For days now I have taken great pleasure in this photo. It has been an antidote to the deadly flow of news, fake news, and juiced-up opinion on the Internet, which, these days, I navigate with trepidation. I have tried to trim my sources of information while maintaining a range of perspectives, but even the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic and the Washington Post give me plenty to worry about, even as I call my senators and donate to environmental organizations for the first time in my life. And I am looking for new ways to engage with the world, to do my part in righting this listing ship called America.

    In my view the Christian life is a balance of contemplation and action (as Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works”). To be effective, action must be principled, focused, deliberate, persistent, and hopeful. I myself cannot maintain this attitude without a strong dose of contemplation. So I am thankful for the snakes and the snails for helping to settle my frenzied soul over the last couple of weeks.

    It is a strange world where such beauty and complexity and organization can be found under rocks. “There is no accounting for a single second of it,” wrote Annie Dillard.

    It’s a world worth fighting for. May we all find new ways to do that today.

    Pilgrim at Peachtree Creek

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    The South Fork of Peachtree Creek at the crossing near the Old Decatur Water Works

    Some books wait for you to be ready for them, then they call.

    Elizabeth and I were married in the summer of 1991. When she moved into my apartment in Durham she brought a paperback of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with her. The volume commenced to mark time on our shelves, waiting patiently through twenty-five holiday seasons, seven moves, five job changes, three childhoods, two reluctant arrivals at middle age, the ripening of a marriage, the loss of a beloved one, and all the discussions, arguments, misunderstandings, joyful celebrations, TV shows, jokes, board games, and silences these events imply.

    Then, late one night in December, I wandered into the living room, walked over to the bookshelf, and picked it up. Like the One Ring, its time had come. And like the One Ring, it has taken possession of its bearer. I read it in a few days, turned from page 279 back to page 1, and read it again, slowly this time, taking care to stop when fatigued, building pictures in my mind, looking up words, researching creatures.

    I’ve always loved nature, but for most of my years that love has been directed toward its remote and alien features: atomic nuclei, distant galaxies, abstractions—the more abstract the better. That ended in May when Dad died. My field of view contracted overnight. Suddenly I had a distaste for abstractions and generalities, and an appetite for all things concrete and specific. I became interested in what was happening in my backyard, and by this I mean my actual backyard, out behind my house: this bird, that tree. The other stuff could go hang.

    My field of view has undergone an expansion since then, a kind of rebound, but, given the scale of the universe, not much of one. Several months after Dad died and long before picking up Pilgrim, I began visiting Ira B. Melton Park as often as possible. This is a wood very near my house. The South Fork of Peachtree Creek runs through it, and several smaller creeks contribute to the landscape, as does the CSX Railroad and the Old Decatur Water Works. I’ve not yet finished my initial exploration of all Ira B.’s trails, which show themselves clearly in winter, but I think I’m close (I’m not in a hurry).

    My affection for the creek was growing when I picked up Dillard’s book; this is surely what led me to choose it after so many years. But I was not prepared for what it has given me.

    And what is that? It’s not Dillard’s prose, which hurts my feelings because it’s so good, so unreachable, transcendent. Nor is it her descriptions of rotifers and moth larvae and muskrats and green herons, which evince a great and infectious love. Nor is it her conclusion, that beauty is real and a sign of holiness, which is true. These are all gifts, but none come close to what Pilgrim, above all books, has granted me: permission.

    A thing has been growing in me, a sense that our theological language is dead. It might (or might not) be sufficient in churches and official theological circles, but nearly all Christian God-talk resists translation to those who live and move outside these worlds. This is to some degree unavoidable and even proper: every community has its own words and these words are surely important, linked as they are to the community’s life and practices. But sometimes a language dies, even as it remains in use.

    As it has for me. Large parts of the Christian lexicon no longer have any meaning for me, if they ever did. So much of it seems abstract, unconnected, loveless. But I believe in God as much as I ever have, probably even more. Also, I’m convinced (and this is a whole other post, or book) that the God I believe in is the very one to which Christianity points. So you might see my problem.

    What I’ve needed, without being conscious of it until I read Pilgrim, is permission to love the woods and the creek and the sky without apology, and therefore to use the language of these things when I talk about God. The language has always been there, ready to be picked up. I have known some of it for years and am learning more every day. Pilgrim has allowed me to start using this language theologically and without hesitation. 

    Dillard bristles at the label nature writer. “Pilgrim is a book of theology,” she told her editor in 1974, and this is the exact point. God is mentioned in the book, yes, but not often. On its surface it’s more about snakes, seasons, mantises, and horsehair worms than anything else, but the infinite swells and crashes one thin layer beneath these finitudes.

    Whether God created the heavens and the earth is not Dillard’s question, nor is it mine. It is, instead, the one given, the statement of faith, the creed that drove her to write Pilgrim in the first place and drives me to Peachtree Creek as often as I can make the walk.

    The question Dillard asks, and I’m asking too, is: What kind of God would make a world like ours?

    How to forget your insignificance

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    There’s a terrible lot of out there out there — SBU, p 137

    I WRITE A regular column for Nurturing Faith. It’s an ask-the-scientist-a-question thing. In the current issue a reader asks: “Taking into account scientific calculations for the size and expansion and age of the cosmos, what is your view of the spiritual significance of humans in the universe?”

    I read this: If we’re so small, how can we be significant?

    Looking back over my answer I realize it’s an outline for a chapter that would’ve fit perfectly in Stars Beneath Us, a summary of the Chapter That Wasn’t. Here’s the idea, starting with Job, a major figure in the book:

    Job, “the greatest man among the people of the east,” spends his whole life being significant. Then, all of a sudden, he’s not. For years he’s the Big Kahuna, the Stuff, the Wizard of Uz, respected by everyone, heralded by princes, beloved by widows and orphans, rich as hell and just as generous. Then POOF he’s outside the city walls, squatting on the ash heap, forgotten and despised. The only people who pay attention to Job — besides his hostile and insecure “friends” who think he’s getting what he deserves — are the poorest of the poor and the meanest of the mean, who make sport of him by spitting on him and calling him names.

    Our hero has lost his family, his wealth, and his health, but one of the things he misses most is his significance. “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy. They waited for me as for the rain, they opened their mouths as for the spring rain,” Job says about his former generosity to the powerless. “But now they mock me in song; they abhor me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.”

    Job is a former judge and knows injustice when he sees it. A devout man, he calls on God to set things straight. After a lot of silence, God responds by taking Job on a hair-raising cosmic tour which seems designed to make his problems even worse: it underlines Job’s insignificance and marginalizes human civilization itself. The social universe Job once ruled is revealed to be but one of countless communities beloved by God: the deer, the wild ox, the ostrich, the vulture, the mountain goat, the wild ass, and other animals form societies not so different from Job’s. These animals seem mild and tame to us — they can be found in any zoo — but in Job’s day they occupied the remotest cosmic margins; they may as well have lived on the moon. The tour is undomesticated and shirks neither folly nor death.

    The effect on Job is simple: he is downsized to an afterthought. Not only is he stuck at the bottom of human society; that society is now revealed to be one of many. It is lost in a near-infinity of worlds, and so is he.

    But, amazingly, Job doesn’t care; in fact, the tour leaves him content. After it’s over he picks himself up off the ash heap, brushes himself off, and moves ahead with his life.

    Why does this ego-reducing ride through the cosmos so satisfy him?

    Maybe the answer is found in the phrase: beloved by God.

    Job found himself and human society, like every other creature and community, the objects of a cosmic and divine love he had never known until that moment. What if you knew, at the still axis of your soul, that you are at home in the cosmos, that you are known and loved by a comprehensive, crazy-ass, I-would-go-to-my-grave-for-you love? If you knew this truly, would you spend even a single minute worrying about your significance?

    No, you wouldn’t, any more than a five-year-old, loved by her family and making mudpies in her front yard, worries about her significance. The question of significance doesn’t even come up — can’t come up — because it resides in a dimension unreachable from her world of love.

    I know: you’re not a five-year-old and it’s been a dark year in a hard world. It’s difficult to trust anything. I’m not saying it’s easy to believe in love. It’s ridiculous.

    But what if our craving for significance — okay I’ll say it, MY craving for significance, which is persistent — is a mark of alienation? Here at age 48 I’m beginning to feel like I’m straining for something I already have but can’t see or embrace because I’m fixed on ideas that have nothing to do with love. Like Job, perhaps I need to jump the rails I’m stuck on, the ones that run between the towns called Significance and Insignificance, and enter the wilderness.

    Out there, who knows? Along with the big wide world, maybe I’ll find love too. Or, more to the point, maybe love will find me. And if that happens I might forget, once and for all time, my own insignificance.

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