A solstice eclipse

Last week, on the night of winter solstice, there was a lunar eclipse. Such an occurrence is rare enough. If I were not perpetually weary from my present responsibilities, I would have cheerfully ventured out into the cold to witness it, for I will never see this sight again. The last time a lunar eclipse fell on a winter solstice, Charles I clung to a tottering throne. The newborn in its cradle will be nearing the grave before this happens again.

So I was sorry to miss this sight, but happy for my best friend, living on the Oregon coast, where the eclipse started before midnight. She called that night to ask about eclipses and the meaning of the solstice.

Now, I am no astronomer, but in my boyhood, I aspired to be. My father, an Air Corps navigator, taught me the summer constellations on warm Nags Head nights. A family friend welcomed me to his backyard to peer through a telescope at the craters of the moon and the rings of Saturn. Perhaps most important, I grew up idolizing the seven

Mercury astronauts and dreaming of joining their ranks in time for the first manned spaceflight to Mars.

Hard to believe I will not live to see that day.

Most of what I learned as a boy is now old lore, much of it superseded by newer discoveries – some of it explicable only in a mathematical language I never mastered. But I’ve never lost the sense of awe and wonder I first felt as a boy, gazing up at the night sky.

Like the herders of ancient times, I found in the night sky the awe and wonder most modern people find in organized worship. The stars did not answer all my questions, which was quite all right with me. I have little faith in answers, and none at all in people who claim to have them. I prefer questions, and exploration, and the restlessness of spirit that always seeks to discover more.

That was the creed of this country when I was a kid, and in those long ago Enlightenment days when America was founded. It seems to me we are a timid people now, fearful of everything and addicted to the false drug of security. For the wonders of nature and the universe, we have substituted bold new worlds of our own imagination, created by computers for our movie screens and gaming devices. We have turned inward, seeking only affirmations of our own limited knowledge, our own small conceptions, our own foolish importance.

The morning after the eclipse, I came across a quotation from Carl Sagan. Speaking at Cornell in 1994, he referred to the “pale blue dot” – a tiny detail in a photograph taken by Voyager I as it passed beyond the limits of our solar system.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena...

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“...There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

That dot, of course, is Earth.

Carl Sagan spoke from a perspective we greatly need today. He spoke for the archaeologist on her dig, the historian in his archive, the astronomer searching the skies and the naturalist plunging into an unexplored rain forest. They are still at work, but we pay to scant attention to their discoveries and the new questions they raise.
Happily, I still remembered enough to explain eclipses and solstices to my friend. Though it would have been easier in person, aided by a grapefruit, an egg shell, a toothpick and a grape.

Still, as the new year dawns, I feel again the longing to gaze into the sky – and wonder.


Dec. 29 2010 commentary

Hey Rick,
I read your column so I can remember my youth in Chester, I remember you from TDHS and your family as well. I was curious about your best friend on the Oregon Coast since that is where I live. I get back to chesterfield about once a year but don't have much time to visit High school friends, so I guess I am out of touch with Chester and your column brings a little back. I wonder sometimes if there are people that live nearby that I know or once knew. Thanks to the internet we can often re-connect.

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