A few years ago, I was at Ottauquechee Farm in Vermont at a retreat. One of the evenings, we were all walking to our cabins for the night. A few of us notice of the sky. Despite the chill, we made ourselves comfortable on the top of a hill and looked heavenward. The Milky Way was smudged across the sky and there were more stars visible to me that night than I had ever seen. I was in awe of the vastness and the beauty and disturbed at how little attention I had paid to the night sky. Dramatic sunsets always grab my attention, but when had I last marveled at the stars?
Photo By Greg Rakozy
When I returned home, I told my husband about how amazing and beautiful it was; and how deeply moved I was by the whole experience of feeling small in light of the vastness of space. He told me about a dark sky park at Cherry Springs State Park in North-Central Pennsylvania. The geographical location makes it an enticing spot for astronomers. It's positioned on a plateau in the middle of an enormous forest. There are no sizable cities nearby, so there is no light pollution. And, apparently, it's an exceptional spot to see the galactic center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which shines so bright at Cherry Springs that it casts a shadow. So, we booked a weekend at a nearby inn. Thankfully, it was a new moon, so the light of the stars was even more pronounced. That weekend happened to coincide with a star party. Several hundred astronomers from all around the country gathered on the plateau with campers, telescopes, and hot cocoa. We had to affix special filters on our flashlights and there were no campfires allowed, as to keep the park as dark as possible.
The thing that struck me the most was the hallowedness of that place. All of the people who came out that night, came to look up and marvel at the universe. The sense of awe, humility, and reverence was palpable. It was a cathedral of stars.
It also occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about space. I knew a little song about the planets that I learned in grade school, but I had to ask what an astronomer, "what is a nebula?" And, "What is the Milky Way all about?" But the beauty of this experience inspired me to learn more about astronomy.
Since then, I have listened to audio books by notable physicists like Brian Greene, subscribed to podcasts that feature interviews with scientists, downloaded astronomy apps onto my phone to learn the names of the stars, and I continue paying attention to the sky.
I also learned that the ancient Greeks had nine Muses for the arts and poetry. Urania was numbered among them, but she was the Muse of astronomy.
There was a time when our ancestors navigated the world by the positions of the stars and they told stories according to the constellations and now we are a people who have little need for such a thing. I would have gone on ignorant about the marvelous vastness beyond Earth had I not looked up that quiet evening in Vermont. Instead, I have found a new source for inspiration.
Urania, a restored Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, Hadrian's Villa.
Pay Attention. When we pay attention, close, undistracted attention the Muse can speak to us. She often speaks through the mysteries of the universe.