October 8, 1993

Experiencing the Heavens

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,

In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,

Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

September 22, 1993

A call to nature awakens me at about the time that Venus appears on the horizon in the northern corner of my bedroom's east window. I look out the window to see that Venus is right next to Regulus, that bright dot at the bottom of the backward question mark in the constellation Leo.

I am fully awake and I lie in bed and think about when I started experiencing the heavens. Experiencing the heavens is about as different from studying the stars as experiencing sex is to reading about it or studying it.

I learned to identify the Big Dipper and the North Star in my childhood, but that was about it. I didn't start experiencing the heavens until I moved up to my mountain top. Before that, most of my nights were spent in cities, which was like spending those nights in a closet. I could distinguish day from night, and that was just about all. At night, I occasionally looked at the brighter stars, but they had no relationship to me. They were up there and I was down here.

It was the pain that started it all. I had led a sedentary life until I started building our house. As a consequence, at the end of a day of hard physical labor, my shoulders and hands ached so that I couldn't sleep without the help of aspirin. After about three or four hours, the aspirin wore off and the pain awakened me. I took two more aspirin and had about half an hour to wait before they took effect, so I went outside our tiny cabin and looked at the stars. There were some very bright stars, stars with very distinctive patterns, and the spectacular Milky Way.

Owen, the owner of The Odd Assortment in San Pablo, where I had been buying surplus electrical parts, gave me an Edmunds star chart, which could be set for the day and time. He was an established amateur astronomer and that chart was his way of giving me an astronomy grub stake. Knowing the names of the stars, planets and constellations enhanced my intimacy with the heavens, just as knowing the name of someone is a step toward knowing the person.

I knew that I wanted our house to face north-south because I wanted a solar greenhouse. Our bedroom ended up in the northeast corner of the house and we placed very large windows to both the north and the east. As I write this, the sun has just appeared in the lower corner of my east window. It is about 7 a.m.(daylight saving time) and today is the day of the Autumnal Equinox. The Sun will set at 7 p.m., if things go as they have been going since time began.

Sharing my bed with the stars, the sun and planets has made me intimate with the heavens. It is the same experience that those who sleep under the stars have, except that my sleeping place is fixed and warm, and I can orient the stars, sun and planets to the window frame, and see how they move in the course of the night and year. A window facing east is better than having a window to the west because watching things being born is a more pleasant experience than watching things die.

I now understand why we have solar years, lunar months and seasons. I can actually see the circumpolar constellations move around the North Star. With the help of books and magazines, I have been able to understand what took mankind millennia to discover. I can appreciate the genius of those who charted the heavens in times past.

The fact that many others before me have had similar experiences doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the heavens. On the contrary, it gives me a feeling of intimacy with the past and the people in it.

With my wife, I and The Heavens, our bed does not seem crowded. On the contrary, It seems as if we occupy the vastness of the heavens along with the rest of the universe.

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