December 1, 2014

Paria Milky Way

Ever since I came back to Ohio after my unforgettable summer at Bryce Canyon, I've been itching to draw impressions of my experience. I've had a bunch of images floating around in my head, but for various reasons have been totally unable to get them down onto paper. Finally, today, I finished my first. I'm calling it "Paria Milky Way" for now, until I either come up with a better title, or forget about it for long enough that this name sticks.

Paria viewpoint is a little less visited than the main amphitheater, but it's a superb spot for stargazing. I went there many times. The formation I've roughly pictured is actually one you see looking out from Paria overlook. There's no trail leading onto it, so the figure I've placed there comes out of imagination. And though I may have fudged a bit as to the placement of the Milky Way (this is more of an eastern view than a southern one, so the Milky Way would actually appear off the right side of the page), I included stylized depictions of real constellations (Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Corona Australis) and a few "faint fuzzies" (curly-cues that represent Ptolemy's cluster, the Butterfly Cluster, and the Lagoon Nebula).

This scene could've taken place on a night when a waxing crescent moon illuminated the rock face, casting deep black shadows against subtly shaded limestone walls. On such a night the bright Milky Way would still have arched across the sky with barely a hint of dimming. The absence of warm hues is intentional. One thing that's always bothered me about popular photos of the Milky Way over landscapes is that there's just too much color. Though these photos are, of course, gorgeous, I always feel that they aren't nearly as rich as what I see with my eyes--even though they show more texture and detail in the starscape than eyes could ever perceive. Even on the brightest of full moon nights, the brilliant oranges, reds, pinks, and yellows of Bryce Canyon are paled to bluish grays. This transformation of landscape under moonlight and starlight is magical. Though I can't claim to have perfectly captured that here, I've made my best effort.

*please forgive the bad photos. I have an aging mediocre camera, and terrible home lighting. 

A few weeks ago, I came across a beautiful prose poem by composer John Luther Adams entitled "The Place Where You Go to Listen." His words, which so poignantly describe a deep experience of and connection to the natural soundscape, inspired me to write my own variation on the poem. My intent was not to plagiarize, but simply to elaborate upon his poetic framework, just as a musician might improvise a tune over chord changes. And now it seems an appropriate text to accompany this new drawing.

It strikes me that natural soundscapes, and natural darkness (along with the skyscape it reveals) are both resources that are commonly overlooked, easily disrupted, and vitally important to the ecosystem. Having the luxury of spending a long period of time at Bryce provided me with the time and space I needed to learn to look and listen more closely. I can only hope that some of the work I did this summer also enabled at least a small taste of that experience in others.

Bryce Canyon: A Place Where You Go to See

I remember how I could see there.

I stood at the Rim, a place where you go to see. Rising darkness on the horizon and long shadows between the hoodoos held their stories. The first stars glinting overhead smiled in mystery.

I looked.

And I saw.

I spent many days and nights alone—and in company—poised with the deep reverence of an observer, my eyes and my body attuned to everything around me. Before the witness of stone and the great desert, I hoped for myself this blessing: always to see.

I looked at the Earth beneath me, for its story arrayed like the pages of an open book. I looked up toward the light of the Milky Way, caught within its ancient dance like frozen flame. I looked around at midnight for the echoed presence of others who’d also come to see. In time I could understand the movement of the sky. I traced the silent march of planets through the stars. I watched distant shadows move over the face of the moon, and measured the passage of time from lunar morning…to midday…and into nightfall. The light awakened in me an ancient longing for the wonder and wisdom to be found within the great vastness that lives between Earth and Sky.

As I watched, I read the story of the land; rocks and sand and soil telling the origins of place—recording the history of life here and now, and preserving remnants of life gone before.  As I looked, I came to discern a landscape of time—how limestone emerged from beneath a cloak of sediment, how water scoured and waxed its faces, and how ice broke it away into a forest of pinnacles. How if you were to look long enough, the land would change before your eyes—Earth calmly spinning away beneath an endless universe of stars, and dust, and unseen gravity. The edges of my vision clouded at the scope of it all—a particular confluence of sight and sensation that can be found in but few other places.

I long to show others where and how to look for these things; to invite them to read the stories of the sky and the land—stories not told through ordinary words, but through light and shadow; color, texture, and shape; the movement of clouds; the changing of seasons; and the observations made by life and of life on this tiny blue speck of a planet.

Darkness falls—heavy, luminous with stars. The Aquarius plateau, in silhouette, stands sentry. There are no clouds. The dry air is transparent, thin, and brittle. It breaks open the sky like a hammer on dirty glass. The motions of visitors awaiting their turn at a telescope are like the chaotic sway of ants over bread.

We stand, each a bit apart, gazing up into the pale star-speckled arc of light overhead. A meteor gasps across the wings of Cygnus. Mirrored eyes penetrate the darkness as new stories reverberate through the crowd, feeding curiosity with insight and memory.

Now, together, on this land, and under this sky, we learn to see.