Last night, the moon didn’t rise until almost 9 pm, which meant I had a couple of hours after dark to see the stars in all their glory. This campground is many miles from the nearest little town, on a bluff over a lake in a canyon, surrounded by mountains. It sits in a field of waving golden grasses, with large junipers providing ample shade everywhere. In the five days before all the campers arrived for the weekend, there were only two couples here, and I settled in a site so far from them that I couldn’t see or hear them. Not even their goddam generators. I was alone in the world, in this idyllic spot, unsullied by a single whiff of human civilization. No wi-fi, no phone service, no radio, and best of all, no news. Pure bliss.
I haven’t seen stars like this since I was in Death Valley. I took a blanket out into the middle of the field, hoping there were no chiggers or snakes, but quickly deciding it was worth it even if there were. Funny how in an instant we can make these life-and-death decisions. I found a place with not too many stones, spread out my blanket, lay down, looked up, became one with starry eternity. And the Milky Way! A statistic jumped into my mind: I read somewhere that 87% of the people who live in the U.S. have never seen the Milky Way. That brings me to a halt every time I think of it. The ramifications of that must be huge, though I’m not at all clear what those ramifications might be.
I think back to all my years of children and cello and school and making a living and in general leading a very demanding life. During those years I was now and then startled to realize that most of the time I didn’t know even what phase the moon was in. Would I or my life have been different had I been more closely connected to the sky? I wonder if astronomers differ from the rest of us in some deep and interesting way.
It was these same stars that bound me to my first husband, the father of my three daughters. We met in the woods on the California coast one summer afternoon. A group camping trip. By the time evening came we were aware only of each other. We spent the night lying side by side in a clearing we found, in a field very much like the one I was in now. We talked and talked and in the early morning, before sunrise, we fell asleep, still lying side by side, holding hands, our faces still turned upwards. When I awoke, I knew he was the one. After all, I had slept on it.
And here I was now, again in a field looking up at those same stars. And when I turned my head, there was that same young woman, me, also looking up at the stars. Between us lay my entire young adulthood and middle age, over half a century of living. Infinite space above me, a vast lifetime stretching out beside me.
An owl called from a nearby tree, and it was at that moment I saw the first peek of the moon over a distant mountain. Instead of watching it as though it was rising, I felt myself being spun – so smoothly! – by this planet. I viscerally felt the earth rotating in space as we, the earth and I, turned, so that minute by minute, more of the moon could be seen. I felt gravity rooting me to my blanket, keeping me from flying off.
I slept deeply last night, in my cozy little Scamp. Maybe that’s the difference: astronomers sleep more soundly than the rest of us.