Monday, October 18, 2010

Cities and Stars

(One of the problems with forcing yourself to keep a weekly blog is that a week will pass and you will realize you are a day late with the latest update and have absolutely no topic in mind. Today we will be winging it.)

I grew up and still live in the New York City satellite suburbs of North Jersey. At night you can see some stars, but Manhattan and the local shopping centers cast a sort of transparent opacity across the sky that makes it difficult to see anything but the most prominent constituents of the most famous constellations. In September you might spot Vega, but cannot glimpse the rest of Lyra without squinting. After midnight in October you can locate Orion, but will probably miss the dim little star beneath his leftmost belt loop and have very little chance of glimpsing the M42 nebula within his rhombus-shaped warrior's kilt. A month or two ago I spent twenty fruitless minutes searching for the M31 galaxy astride Andromeda's tresses. Last night I looked up and saw the Pleiades, but could only account for five of the seven sisters.

The situation is hardly ideal for someone with an interest in stargazing, but it could be much worse. But this is one of the reasons I have no interest in relocating to an urban setting. About half of my friends are currently living in New York or Philadelphia, and about all of them think I am insane for not wanting to join them.

A couple of my New York friends were born and raised in the boroughs, while the rest hit eighteen, got accepted to SVA and NYU, got the hell out of the suburbs, and stayed the hell out. Most of them are true New Yorkers after the John Updike fashion: believing that anyone who would live anywhere else can only be kidding themselves, and would pack their things and scour Upper West Side real estate listings if they would only come to their senses.

It is hard not to fall in love with a city. For all the glamor and gritty mystique we attribute to our urban centers, a person's attraction to the city is most firmly rooted in biologics. We are wired so as to be very interested in ourselves, and the city is a portion of the planet redesigned in the image our our interests. The city is safe, orderly, and moves at an artificial pace better-suited to human business; easy access, straight lines, solid surfaces. Homo sapiens has evolved as a diurnal organism, so the city bathes itself in its own light from sunset to sunrise. Homo sapiens is a gregarious species; the city is a place in which loneliness is practically impossible, provided one is not fastidious in choosing his companions. Homo sapiens prefers a temperate climate; the city's hotel and restaurant awnings radiate heat onto the February sidewalk, and its boutiques blast air conditioning into the August streets. Man's proclivity is to admire his own cleverness and ingenuity; the city streets are lined with all sorts of places where he can study and obtain objects that are built by man for the purpose of stimulating man. And even in the city, man retains his affinity for the natural world; thus there are parks, tiny, tamed swathes of nature where he can enjoy the green without hazard or uncertainty (barring the occasional mugger or rapist).

Of course, establishing such a hermetic human-friendly environment comes at a cost: it must conscientiously expel any elements that man feels is detrimental or irrelevant to his immediate comforts and concerns. Nowhere is this more evident than the sky over Manhattan. Not long ago I was out on the streets late at night with a resident friend and pointed out the Summer Triangle to him: that is, Vega, Deneb, and Altair. They were not difficult to find, as they were practically the only visible stars. He nodded and said "neat." And that was that. Stellar objects are not things towards which New Yorkers dedicate much thought. (No place else but the city; no thing else but man.)

This past weekend I got in my car and drove to Fenwick Island, Delaware to visit my grandparents and spend thirty-six hours deflating. After September, the place is practically a ghost town. If you ever think to visit a beach in the interest of relaxation, Autumn is the time to do it -- but I digress.

On Friday, I got a late start and crossed the Memorial Bridge between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. At around two o' clock, nearly precisely between Dover and Rehoboth Beach, I had to veer off Route 1, park the car on a grassy shoulder beside a soybean field, step outside, and take in the sky. The sight was incredible. For all our singsong odes twinkling stars, I would bet that fewer and fewer of us regularly see a night sky that perceptibly flickers. On Friday night, I saw the sky blaze. Aldebaran and Betelgeuse flaring like orange torches from some 382,110,649,256,934 and 3,762,320,238,837,508 miles' distance (respectively). All seven sisters accounted for in all their modest splendor. Cassiopeia skirting the banks of the visible (although dim) Milky Way. I could keep waxing romantic, but I am doubtlessly losing your interest. I will only say that those twenty minutes I spent standing at the edge of a soybean field in Delaware staring up at the sky are worth more to me than entire weekends I have spent gallivanting around Manhattan and Philadelphia.

It is crucial to remember that the universe does not begin nor end with us, and to give the realities beyond our artificially lit, climate-controlled little bubble their proper consideration. Any mammal is capable of eating, playing, copulating, sniffing his neighbor's rear, and barking at its own reflection. Man is unique in his capacity to acknowledge the infinite and attempt to answer the ineffable questions it poses. The faculties that fire up in us when we take in the unobstructed sight of eternity -- though what we see is really only a fraction of a moment of it -- are precisely what make us such unique animals, and we should engage them more often, lest we forget what and where we are by way of a near-idolatrous self-interest.

I guess my point is that the things around us that are slow, quiet, and not immediately noticed are often the most important. We probably owe it to ourselves to treat them as such -- but I suppose that could be as potentially disastrous as continuing to ignore them. Our frivolity-based economy would collapse, taking with it society's central support beams. Civilization as we know it would break down. A full quarter of the population would be slain during the widespread riots, and a full half of the survivors would perish from starvation. Those that remained would abandon the cities in droves, striking out for the hill and plains to lead the austere and bitter lives of sustenance farmers. But think of what they would see when they happened to cast an upward glance at the evening sky above their frigid, torch-lit mud fields.

(Next week you can look forward to a silly little comic strip instead of half-cooked metaphysics. I hope.)

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