Friday, January 07, 2011

Seeing the Universe in the Trees

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
-John Muir

“Still with all my faults, I draw my breath from an ancient earth.”

I spent most of that day with my nose in a book memorizing the form of leaf shapes to Utah’s mountain trees, and the cumbersome Latin of their nomenclature. My summer had been spent rambling around in the mountain forests of the Wasatch and Uintah Ranges, and I was getting pretty good at identifying trees and some understory plants. Out on an assignment for my internship, I arrived at the Cedar Breaks National Monument campground just in time to watch the sun set over the chalky white and alternating red cathedral-cliffs that make up the monuments main attraction. The jutting striped walls were created by millennia of deposition when the area was at the bottom of an ancient lake. With time, millions of years, the Hurricane fault has slowly uplifted the area to over 10,000 feet. The wind and water slowly gnawed away grain by grain at the spires, canyons and arroyos; so much so that the Southern Paiute called the place “u-map-wich” or, the place where the rocks slide down constantly.

I began setting up my tent as the dusk breezes cooled the 10,000 foot mesas. It was getting cold and I wanted to cook a hasty bowl of rice before going to sleep. With the tent finished, I focused my attention on getting a fire going in the wind and, after several tries, ended up using my backpacking stove to boil the water.

Sitting on the ground while eating my bland meal, hypnotized by the silence, I glanced up at the night sky. It was the first time in a long time that I was able to see the thick dusty trail that makes up the Milky Way, our cosmic cul-de-sac. In Salt Lake City the stars where faint and few, outshined by stars of our own making. But here they pulsed and shined in their billions, white-blue light bursting through the atmosphere, that laid to rest all around me, millions of years after leaving home. As I sat in wonder and awe, the trees dosing sleepily in the night wind, I recalled the words of Brother Muir atop a Douglas-fir tree which he had climbed to shake hands with a Sierra storm.

We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much. (The Mountains of California)

Staring at the stars, mouth agape, I remembered that there was a resident astronomer at Cedar Breaks. It was nearly 10 o’clock, but if I hurried, I could make it in time to have a peek at the sky through a decent telescope. In the dark, I made my way over to a small group of campers, and arrived just in time to hear the astronomer, in a nasally voice, repeat his lesson for the night, “and remember, from Polaris, the North Star, you arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.” It was a simple mnemonic device to trace the position of these prominent stars. As I traced the path between the big dipper, the North Star, Arcturus and Spica with my finger, I could see how the big dipper spins around the North Star in a huge circle. It’s not that I didn’t know that the stars move in the sky as the earth’s axis tilts, but I had never comprehended its path all at once, which gave the sky a sort of readability that was liberating.

It is hard to describe the subtle feeling that came over me. It was a sort of warm security, of orientation, like arriving home from a long journey and settling into the familiar routes between door, hallway and bedroom. I wasn’t just in a forest, a National Monument, or the state of Utah, but hurling through space among the gaseous space dust, planets and stars that make up our galaxy. The very atoms in my body, turned out by the massive bodies of distant stars being born and dying. Separated by time, but unified in substance.

As I walked back to my tent, tripping over sage and scrub in the dark trying to take in as much starlight as I could before going to sleep, I thought of another passage, this one by Larry Rasmussen:

When you peer at the Southern Cross, Orion, or the Big Dipper, the gnat on your arm, the flower near your path, or the food on your plate, you are gazing at a neighbor who shares with you what is most basic of all—common matter as ancient and venerable as time and space themselves. (Earth Community, Earth Ethics)

In learning to find my way in the forest, I stumbled upon my place in the cosmos.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Have you read

You probably have, but it's lovely.