Friday, May 29, 2009

Highway Under the Stars

Let me start this blog with an assertion:

The greatest and most underestimated loss incurred by urban humanity are the stars.

Why am I saying that?

As some of you may know, we've moved out of 'town'. To a place near a little town called Woodford, in Queensland. We live about .5 km away from the D'Aguilar Highway, which is a two-lane feeder highway that goes off from the main coastal highway and into the west.

There are no streetlights where we live. In the distance, over the top of Mount Mee, we can see the reflection of the lights of Brisbane. But it is minor. When we look up, at this time of the year, and the sky is clear and the moon isn't riding high, we can see the center of the galaxy right above.

It's been about 10 years since we lived in a comparable environment. Then, it was in New Zealand, outside Dunedin, on the Otago Peninsula, where we could also see these things. Then, we just had a road go past our place, but it wasn't a 'highway'. That makes a difference, as will presently become clear—and I'm not talking about noise and all that, but more profound things. Things that have to do with perspective.

When you live in an area where there are no streetlights, and it is quiet and civilization seems far away—you can find that kind of thing, for example, on lonely stretches of highway in the Northern Territory; when there's just you and the desert and the stars—then you have yourself and the Earth and the sky, and there's something about it that warrants the attribute 'pristine'. And you go 'Wow! Look at the stars!"; and if you're fortunate enough to are someplace where you can see the core of the galaxy; if you're fortunate enough to have some knowledge of what it is you're actually looking at; if you have a good spatial imagination and can sustain imaginative efforts...then you might, for a moment or a few moments, get the most amazing 3D understanding of your place in the universe—well, at least in this tiny nook of it that we call 'our galaxy'.

Urban mankind has lost that for good; and if I look south and see the glow of Brisbane over Mount Mee and the nearby ranges, I look at the light that envelops urban man—and which to a certain extend contaminates the sky out here, too—and it is this envelope of light, banishing the darkness, that robs urban mankind of the stars. It also provides benefits, of course, such as security and safety; for in the dark invariably there lurk unpleasant things, and you wouldn't want urban existence to be lightless. But there's a price for everything, and when I look at the night sky and the highway with it occasional long string of vehicles following each other, going one way and the other, I understand the price—mainly because I see the darkness that reveals and the light that conceals at the same time.

More so than the lights of Brisbane in the distance, the highway shows me people, busy with their concerns and quite unaware of where they actually are, moving this way and that, with their headlights picking out only that part of the world they are actually concerned with or focused on, and going in headlong rush to wherever it is they're going; with plans for this or that; almost certainly without any consciousness of what they are actually doing at the moment, but just doing it; without awareness that, from this glorious sky above them, in which we move at dizzying speeds not just around the sum but also around the center of the galaxy itself, from this sky in which, a long time ago a supernova or several exploded in inconceivably fury to create the very elements that form the fabric their very bodies and the brains that rush along that highway from there to there...

Long sentence, I know.

It's the contrast that reminds me of the context. Immensity versus contraction of perspective to what one sees in the headlights. Not that there's anything wrong with seeing what the light shines on! But you've got to realize that what may lurk in the darkness—the kangaroo, in this country at least, that bounds from the side of the road and into your headlights—may be more dangerous to you, or more fatidic, than what you can see. And the immensity above, from which at any time, because of the crapshoot of indifferent cosmic contingency, may come that which annihilates not just you and yours, but all life on Earth. And yet, it's the same cosmos that brought it forth to begin with.

These thoughts are not morbid, merely the inevitable results of gaining 'perspective' other than that you get when you drive along that highway, in your car or truck, going wherever you're going, preoccupied with whatever preoccupies you, planning whatever you're planning, hoping, wishing, fearing, fretting over, laughing at, sad about.

A highway under the stars. People moving along it, up and down, going here and there and everywhere and nowhere at all...

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