I bought my first telescope when I was 12 years old. I had saved up enough money delivering newspapers to buy a Criterion 4 inch reflector, known as a “Dynascope,” and it opened up the universe to me. I was able to view distant galaxies and nebulae, and double stars that otherwise appear as one, and spent many hours exploring the night sky. I had a star map to locate various objects, and a small pocket guide to look up new things while I stood out on my front lawn.
One night, while I was reading a short passage about infinity, I was so overwhelmed by the idea that the universe has no beginning, and no end, that I could not comprehend it. The more I tried to think about it, the harder it was to imagine. For some reason, it frightened me a little, and the only way I could deal with my feelings was to fold up my telescope and go back into the house. That may have been the last time I took it out.
Last year, a friend of mine invited me to his family reunion in Minnesota. It was an outdoor event, held in September, on a sheep ranch that is literally “in the middle of nowhere.” I would be sleeping in the loft of a two-story garage that sits at one end of a large field, and the party would be held at the other end. When I got there, I was surprised to find that Minnesota looked very much like parts of New York State. The meadows and trees, rivers and lakes, were identical, and the only difference was that there were no mountains on the horizon. The land was absolutely flat, except for the wooded areas that surrounded the field.
I spent the night before the party sleeping on a couch in the loft, and the next morning, I walked across the field to see if I could help set things up.
My friend is a musician, so many of the people who would be coming that night were also musicians. I helped put together a stage, arranged bales of hay in rows for seating, and gathered kindling. There was a lot to do. Lights needed to be hung, tables had to be set up for food, and wood needed to be chopped for the camp fire. The afternoon passed very quickly, and by the time everything was ready, there was probably 60 people or more who had gathered to hear the music, eat, and enjoy the outdoors on a beautiful Minnesota night. Many of them stayed to sit around the camp fire. One of the young men played his guitar and sang a few songs, and the rest of us joined in, singing and playing until it seemed as if we had run out of songs, and were ready to call it a night.
As I packed up my guitar, I could see the lights of the garage off in the distance. It would be a long walk, but a few of the people I met had decided to sleep there as well, so when the party was over, we started across the field together. I had brought a flashlight, which came in handy, because we had to step over large clumps of grass, and make our way around an occasional tree, but when we were far enough away from the glow of the camp fire, I decided to turn it off for a minute and look up at the stars. It was a moonless night, and they were so clear and bright that I felt as if I could reach out and touch them. There was nothing in-between, just a sense of atmosphere and space, and as if to punctuate that feeling, Jupiter was visible half-way above the horizon; a single bright light that seemed capable of casting shadows at our feet.
When we got to the garage, I made plans to go back out later that night. I would not get another chance to see the stars in such a pristine environment, so I set my cell phone for 3 a.m.
When I walked out into the field again, there was not a sound. I was struck by how still the air was. The sky was darker and the stars brighter than they had been earlier, and everything seemed so much bigger. The position of the constellations had changed. Orion, easily recognized by the three stars that form his belt, was nearly overhead, along with the tight cluster of stars known as Pleiades, or “The Seven Sisters.”
I had known these constellations since my childhood, and tried to recall the names of some of the others, along with different nebulae and double-star systems, but all I could do was stand there in awe. Looking at the tree line along the horizon, I thought I could sense the rotation of the planet against the backdrop of stars, and feel the earth moving through space. It was the first time in my life that I understood our relationship to the universe. It was a humbling experience, but there was also something comforting about being surrounded by the stars, and seeing the endless expanse all around me. It was a reality I could understand. Even infinity did not seem so scary anymore. The idea that the universe has no beginning, and no end, just made the night seem more significant; it was a moment in time, and I was there to experience it.