The days finally have grown warm enough to gaze for long hours at the sky. Of course, there are amateur astronomers who brave any weather to locate a specific star or galaxy for those few short hours it is visible on a January night, and sometimes I have been among them. But there is a grander and ironically more personal perspective that one gains by taking in the whole sky as it covers the Earth.
Often during childhood we've reclined on a slope and as staring at the clouds above, pondering such questions as what are clouds made of, why do they float and why is the sky blue. Science now offers such answers. Yet, even in adulthood, resting upon a knoll still can raise our sense of wonder.
Here on the Great Plains, we have an added advantage. There are no mountains as out West or high hills like in the East to block our vista. When we gaze upward, the great enormousness of the sky surrounds us, making the stretches of corn hugging the good earth miniscule in comparison.
I recommend resting on a knoll during the early morning hours, when the stars still puncture the black sky with light and the moon reigns great and noble over it all. Though right before our eyes, stars remain elusive, out of hand's reach. Even if we could magically grab one, it might not be there. The brightest star, Sirius, is so far away that its light takes 8.5 years to reach us; what we see low on the horizon is how the star looked in 1996. And Sirius is among the closer stars.
Eventually, the stars begin to fade. They're still present; the earth just has turned far enough that our side of the world begins to face the sun. Its glare, every second equal in energy to a year's output of every one of our largest power plants, washes this small planet in ambient light; amid it, we could no more see the stars than we might a firefly in front of a searchlight.
Slowly, as our small section of the world comes to fully face the sun, a red then orange glow covers the horizon. Dawn spreads over the homes of men.
A blend of notes fills the morning sky as life awakens. The smell, too, of the world changes while the dew evaporates.
As the sun rises, burning the hillside, the breeze grows warmer. Life begins to quiet as the heat slows our muscles and the young ones have been fed. We can hear our breathing again.
Fair warning: There are those who will say you have wasted time reclining upon that knoll. Such people often are more concerned with money and other man-made fabrications that quantify existence, like a child madly insistent upon naming all objects. How can staring at the sky be measured with green bills in a wallet, electronic blips on a computer screen or pencil marks in a ledger?
Such people spend too much time looking in the wrong direction. As Rachel Carson wrote, "It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility."
Of course, one cannot contemplate forever. It's best to rise once the sun ascends fully into the sky.
Before doing so, look to the ground beside your head, though. There may be an ant looking up at you from its tiny mound.
Perhaps it has been sitting there all morning, too.
(originally published May 29, 2005)