Most attribute the domain of night to evil because they can’t see. People fear the shadows of the night because shadows represent the unknown, and the unknown is frightening. They assume evil lurks behind every shadow, in every corner not illuminated. But their fear of the unknown is often what really terrifies them. They find comfort seeing in the daylight for that reason, but the irony is they are often more blinded by their comfort than by the shadow of night. It’s a pity. If they could overcome their fear of the unknown they might realize that the unknown is not evil, it is simply an opportunity waiting to be explored. The night is no more a domain of evil than the daylight, both were created good, both have evil lurking in them. When you can overcome your fear, the night becomes a domain of beauty interlaced with danger, and that is exciting!
Suddenly I came out of my thoughts to notice everything around me again-the catkins on the willows, the lapping of the water, the leafy patterns of the shadows across the path. And then myself, walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronization with legs in a body that felt long and stretched out, almost as sinuous as a snake…when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.
Myth is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there. The narrator’s voice in the tribal assembly is not enough to relate the myth. One needs special times and places, exclusive meetings; the words alone are not enough, and we need a whole series of signs with many meanings, which is to say a rite. Myth is nourished by silence as well as by words. A silent myth makes its presence felt in secular narrative and everyday words; it is a language vacuum that draws up words into its vortex and bestows a form on fable.
Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively.
A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
Humanity crosses increasing distances searching for new territory to explore. Is the distance between and within us threatening our survival?
Italo Calvino published Cosmicomics, a book of fantastic short stories in 1965. Each story was inspired by an accepted scientific theory. The first and most well known story is entitled “The Distance of the Moon”. It springs from the theory put forth by George H. Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin– yes, the one who wrote The Origin of the Species– that the moon was once closer to the Earth and is continually receding. Science has confirmed that the Moon is in fact drifting away from us at a rate of 3.8 cm per year. This doesn’t actually have much to do with Calvino’s tale, a story of masterful and colorful magic realism that betrays sinister undertones.
You can read “The Distance of the Moon” here. This English translation, made by William Weaver, won the National Book Award for Translation in 1969.
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
What at first reads as an absurdist tale of people climbing up to the Moon from Earth to harvest Moon milk evolves quickly into a story that delves into the dangers of exploration and the interplay between masculinity and femininity. You could easily see it as a very perceptive allegory for a love affair, but there is more here than a warning of the dangers of sexual exploration. “The Distance of the Moon” speaks of how the human race is constantly pulled between a desire to explore what is other or unknown and the desire to settle down with that which is familiar. Either option can involve exploitation.
We are at first proud to meet Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who is such an excellent jumper and so adept at harvesting the delicious, but actually quite disgusting, Moon milk (a particularly successful metaphor for the fruit of duplicitous sexuality). Without understanding him, we admire his skills and savor his success, but there seems to be something a bit inappropriate in the way he touches the Moon, something lascivious in his desire to be alone up there. His deafness, as it turns out, is an allegory for insensitivity, which keeps him from caring or bonding with anything, including the territory which he is exploring. He is a true psychopath, unable to make relationships. All he can manage are conquests.
This cousin troubles me. I see in him a kinship with an element of humanity that has explored the Earth for centuries and now turns its attention toward the stars, seeing only profit and a means to fill appetites. Not all explorers have such dark motivation, but there is an unchecked masculinity– I say masculinity rather than maleness, because I think we all contain elements of it, regardless of gender– that will never lend itself to nurturing life. Life viewed through these eyes is seen as disposable, lacking in value.
Earthrise on the Moon via Pixabay
Qfwfq has been up on the Moon as well, but he isn’t very proficient in the skills required. He frequently misfires, getting Moon milk in his eyes. It seems our friend is prone to that blindness we call “love” or, perhaps more precisely, infatuation. Unlike his cousin, he does form attachments, as we can see in his fixation on Mrs. Vhd Vhd, who could not really care less about him. There isn’t much attractive about Qfwfq. He’s randy, awkward and indecisive. When he is heroic, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But he is capable of some attachment and affection, which is more than anyone else shows in this tale.
We are given the background story of Xlthlx, a playful teenager who enjoys catching the small animals and plants floating towards the Moon. One day, she gets caught in the Moon’s pull and floats off with them. She saves herself by eating the small animals and plants until she gets heavy enough to fall out of the Moon’s attraction, although she is marked for life. This is a creative image for teen pregnancy, which compounded by social stigma, ends this young woman’s “moon” experiences and exploration.
After waffling around on the moon for a few trips, Qfwfq makes the decision to stay on the boat and put the moves on the Captain’s wife, an attractive woman who plays sweet and piercing songs on the harp, songs that no one wants to hear. Is it that her songs make the men feel guilty for all that time spent up on the Moon? He can tell by the way she’s looking at his cousin that she’s ripe for the picking, and he’s been fancying her for some time. He’s completely ready to settle for her, at least for the moment. She chooses the very same moment to exercise her freedom and go explore the surface of the Moon with his cousin. The cousin is either unaware of or uncomfortable with her pursuit and disappears into the darkest regions of the Moon alone.
Terraced Wall Crater on the Lunar Limb, NASA
Vhd Vhd is ecstatic to see his wife off to the Moon. Her infidelity and exploration free him to indulge in his own vices. He is bored with stability, tired of the respectability that has probably contributed to his station as Captain. But he also seems bored with adventure. Surely he has been up on the Moon exploring for himself, but now he lies back on the boat to feed more earthbound appetites.
Despite all this activity, it seems that the status quo will prevail, until the final actor makes her move. The Moon picks that very moment to change her orbit, drifting far from Earth and forcing everyone else to make the decision between the Earth and herself. Xlthlx and the Captain have already put distance between themselves and the Moon. Surprisingly, the deaf cousin races back to Earth as well. Perhaps he fears what will happen if the Moon becomes too familiar. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, unfamiliar with the leap back to Earth, is unable to make the transition and floats helplessly near the Moon. Qfwfq jumps out of the boat to save her, but his efforts do not bring her back to Earth, but drop them both on the Moon’s surface. At last, he has everything he wanted– unlimited time with his lover. And yet, all he can think of is home. It is no surprise that, at the next full moon, when their friends return with a long bamboo pole, he shimmies back down to Earth.
But what of Mrs. Vhd Vhd, alone on the Moon? She has no attachment to Qfwfq, nor to Earth. She has become one with the moonscape, indifferent, distant and free of masculine influence. All of his designs and efforts have only served to push her farther away.
Earth, Moon and Lunar Module, NASA
This fable points at a crisis modern humanity is facing. Our longing for freedom and our longing for home have collided, and, unless we can learn to curb our exploitive nature, we may lose both.
On April 24, 1990, the Discovery Shuttle mission STS-31 launched the Hubble Space Telescope into a low orbit around the Earth, the result of decades of planning, research, funding and construction. It was not the first telescope in space, but, twenty-five years later, it remains among the most advanced and most versatile. Its position grants it the ability to observe infrared and ultraviolet light, both of which are filtered out by Earth’s protective atmosphere, and it does not have to contend with atmospheric turbulence, the force that makes the stars appear to twinkle.
The early days of the Hubble began with disappointment and embarrassment. The first images received were not of the expected quality. A fault in the main mirror, which had not been ground correctly, created blurring. NASA, already under the gun for spending money on “Buck Rogers stuff” was a public laughing stock. The fault was fixed three years later by installing corrective lenses. The result has been pure magic. Please click on the attribution links for a wealth of information on each image.
Westerlund 2, a star cluster in the Milky Way, inside the stellar nursery Gum 29, located 20,000 light-years away in the Carina constellation.
The Pillars of Creation, interstellar dust in the Eagle Nebula within the Serpens Constellation, 7,000 light years from Earth. The large formations are called elephant’s trunks. New stars form here, even as radiation and solar winds erode the dust clouds. New data from the Spitzer Telescope suggests that these pillars may have already been destroyed by a supernova a few thousand years ago. Credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team
For the past twenty-two years, images of a quality previously unimaginable have been taken of distant nebulae, planets and galaxies, looking far into space and time. Some of these cosmic features are billions of light years away. By the time the light from the stars reaches the Hubble, they may no longer be shining. Astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble was one of the first to espouse the the idea that the universe is expanding. His namesake has proven him correct.
Tarantula Nebula, 170,000 light years from Earth and part of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy disrupted by multiple encounters with our Milky Way. Credit: ESA/NASA, ESO and Danny LaCrue
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, full of thousands of galaxies. This is the deepest visible light image available, looking back billions of light years. . “The image required 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth. The total amount of exposure time was 11.3 days, taken between Sept. 24, 2003 and Jan. 16, 2004.” –ESA/Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team
Arp 273, two interacting galaxies in the constellation of Andromeda, about 300 million light years from Earth. The smaller one is actively forming new stars and is thought to have passed through the larger, reshaping it into a form that resembles a stemmed rose. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
The high resolution images taken by the Hubble feature little to no background light, and are some of the most detailed images from outer space. This well placed telescope has been able to turn its gaze to many places and produce pictures of heavenly bodies far too dim and distant to be observed from ground based telescopes. What it hasn’t been as successful with is taking shots of planets, which are much smaller and rely on stars for luminescence. Such work is more suited to smaller, portable devices that can get the correct angle and light on the subject. As I write this, the New Horizons Spacecraft, on its journey to Pluto, is beginning to transmit “better than Hubble” enhanced images of the dwarf planet. You can read more about that here. Jupiter, which is more than twice as massive as all of the planets in our solar system combined, has proved the easiest and most impressive planet to photograph from the large telescope.
The Hubble is the only telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, specifically astronauts traveling in Space Shuttles. The final servicing mission occurred in 2009, and the subsequent retirement of the Shuttles means that there is no vehicle capable of performing service to the large telescope, nor is there any means to bring it back to Earth when it fails. This beautiful window to the stars is closing. It is anticipated that the Hubble may remain in operation through 2020. If allowed to take its natural course, the Hubble is predicted to fall from orbit and re-enter the atmosphere sometime between 2030 and 2040.
Hubble has shown us the distant past, but will not be a part of the near future. It will be succeeded by the James Webb Telescope, slated for launch in 2018.
The images the Hubble has collected have changed and reshaped our knowledge and perception of outer space, revealing both order and chaos. They have enlarged our sense of wonder, simultaneously giving us pride in human achievement and humility in our extreme provinciality and insignificance.
In the Butterfly Nebula, 20,000 degree (Celsius) gas shoots into space at more than 950,000 km/h. This nebula surrounds a red giant near the constellation Scorpius, about 3,800 light years away. Credit:NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
The Antennae Galaxies in the constellation Corvus are two galaxies in collision. Formerly arranged into spiral galaxies, stars have been flung out into space. The nuclei of the galaxies will one day collide, resulting in one large elliptical galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Binary star system Eta Carinae lies within the Homunculus Nebula, inside the Carina Nebula and Constellation, about 7,500 light years away from Earth. This shows a false supernova which stopped short of killing the star. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Until every soul is freely permitted to investigate every book, and creed, and dogma for itself, the world cannot be free. Mankind will be enslaved until there is mental grandeur enough to allow each man to have his thought and say. This earth will be a paradise when men can, upon all these questions differ, and yet grasp each other’s hands as friends. It is amazing to me that a difference of opinion upon subjects that we know nothing with certainty about, should make us hate, persecute, and despise each other.
Then, one on either side, they walked me to the shore, which was black and endless. But there was a fire waiting. And there was a little meal laid out on a blanket. And there was a whole world beyond that shoreline, beyond the forest, beyond the knuckle mountains, beyond, beyond, beyond, not beneath the surface at all, but beyond and waiting.