Essays


 

Why Not Go?


 

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

Leonard Cohen

“Anthem”

 

 

 

Though we’ll go no more a-roving

So late into the night.

Though the heart be still as loving

And the moon be still as bright.

 

Leonard Cohen

“Go No More A-Roving”

 

 

In praise of solitude, to which we have been called in a special way, we will say but little;

since we know that it has already obtained enthusiastic recommendation from many saints

and wise men of such great authority, that we are not worthy to follow in their steps.

 

The Carthusian Monks of Grand Chartreuse

 

 

I don’t know anything. This should perhaps be the prayer we start with everyday. I say this at 4:30 in the morning. I don’t know anything. Chanted, reverberating. I say it out loud but not loud enough to wake everyone else. It has been raining all night. I note this, though I did not in fact hear it raining all night. So I was not a perfect witness to this particular rain. But it was raining when I went to bed and it is raining now. Still. And as I typed the word ‘still,’ lightning flashed again through the window. Arguably someone like Wittgenstein would say that I indeed did hear it raining all night. Or my ears did. The slight air pressure that the waves of rain made against the glass and the roof played all night on the thin saran wrap circlets of my eardrums. Sparked little electric sine waves on my occipital visual cortex. The presence of my ears heard the white noise of rainfall. My resting mind has a sound track loop of the rain somewhere in there that I am no doubt recording over right now or will record over later today. There is only so much space in the head for rain. Some of it being overwritten now with more rain loops. Or with bad television. The wind in trees. Conversations in the other room I can’t quite hear. The snuffling sleep of dogs.

 

The Big Dog’s tail is thumping down on the landing outside my office. If I turn to see him the white-tipped tail thumps more vigourously. The house is dark. He may be confused by my presence. He still reacts. I don’t usually get up and type at 4:30 in the morning though I probably should more often. I think aging brains flash back to the forgotten speed and skills of youth early in the morning. Later in the day, we know how old we are. Big Dog can’t decide if he should start doing normal dog things or not. At 4 damn 30 he thinks. He shakes his collar. And when I go over to him and rub his flanks he presses his large head hard into my belly and pushes. It is a sign I don’t know. But it is gentle. It is a language of press and turn. He has no hands, he does what he can. It is the right kind of interrogation. And I am the only one who gets to experience it today.

 

I wrote something recently about the planet searchers. And I have misplaced it. Temporarily. I will find it before the end of all this. Though that last sentence could be taken far out of context. One’s computer becomes like one’s other mind sometimes with its own little rules of misplacement I suppose. All those dark electric hideaways. But I find no trace of the thing now on this particular morning. Like it has also been overwritten by a rain loop. I have been fascinated by these guys who search for planets since they came into existence. I mean, there have only been Planet Searchers since I myself have been on this planet. And that is not a great deal of time in the vast and terrible scheme of things. I have been alive for 1 ½ Saturn years. On Saturn I am not quite two. Those terrible Saturnian twos. Ah, I may never get out of them. These searchers are the guys who look for the signs and signals from stars out there that have other planets orbiting around them. These tagalong planetary bodies cause perturbations in the light, the gravity, the long warps of space. And if finding such things was an easy job we would all do it wouldn’t we? But it is far from easy. It is all math-ridden and physics rich. Scares a great many of us off. We all want the easy money. Right now there are competing groups of searchers on different sides of our highly competitive planet looking for all these new planets. At first, finding even one was a really big deal. Star guys were urinating all over that territory, claiming it as theirs. Like Big Star Dogs would. The first rumors that someone had successfully documented a star with a planet around it was very big news in the astronomical world. Nowadays, it is page seven. Sometimes it doesn’t even make the paper. It is announced on the net, the ‘paper’, really, of the new world order. Wars go on. Here and there the earth shakes some buildings down. It rains so hard somewhere, everyone remembers. And in between, we find new planets.

 

There is a movie called “Into Great Silence.” I watched it in this past year. I can’t recommend it to everyone. Though if you have read this far, it is likely for you. But it is not a movie for the boom and flash moviegoer. If you really liked Transformers, I would avoid it. I laughed out loud at the synopsis on IMDB (the moviegoers database) after I’d seen the film. It has the usual warning that the synopsis may contain spoilers. (“In the second half, one of the monks eats some chicken.” Oh no!) As though, somewhere in the review and in the footage: the proof of God’s existence. Indeed. I think the monks would laugh at this suggestion of spoilers too. You know… if they even knew the internet existed (I proved myself wrong on this, at least in the present. See end of essay.) And I am not sure the internet did exist in 1984 come to think of it. I certainly wasn’t personally on the superhighway then anyway. Although, back then it was more like a dirt road through the information void. I had to wait for Internet in a Box (or something like that) to come out in about 1989. It was all very complicated and slow. Back then one would raise one’s arms in victory at single pictures coming across sometimes from that nebulous and new spidery information web. Congratulations, you just waited fifteen minutes for an image of Marlene Dietrich in a canted black hat and a feather boa. Anyway, the movie was filmed entirely in the old monastery in France known as the Grande Chartreuse. It is an ascetic Monastery. (As opposed to…? The Boorish Monastery? The Opulent, Unfettered Monastery?) And in 1984 Philip Groning went into the place for six months with cameras and without artificial lighting to film the monks in their everyday lives. A monk eating a bowl of soup by a window. Monks reading bibles. Monks reciting musical murmurings that were just out of range of understanding. Monks singing together in large, hollow candlelit rooms. Monks reading bigger bibles. Monks leading cattle. Monks sewing monk outfits in near total silence. Isolation and peace. Monasticism exposed.

 

They found another planetary object (the better, more careful name) last fall. And two more this past February around a single star. (While I was consorting with Hermit Thrushes.) More ‘star-objects-with-surrounding-bodies,’ I guess we can also call them. I believe we are now up to about 260. The February planets are 5000 light years away. The WASP group announced ten more planets in April 2008. These are the ‘Wide Angle Search for Planets’ guys. They are up to 15 now. In 1997 we were up to about 10 total extraterrestrial ‘orbiting planetary objects’ not counting our own. The early 90s was when we first figured out how to find them. And they are not all planets. They are not even all suns with, well, whatevers. Sometimes we find pulsars with orbiting bodies. The first three objects we found were all pulsars with orbiters. Though pulsars are still odd sorts of suns. I doubt they are ‘sunny’. What would it be like to live near a pulsar? Dunno. This may not be possible. There is some intense physics going on around those things. Pulsars are actually dead stars or, well, collapsed stars. They are specifically the collapse remnants of giant stars. Giant stars which burn intensely for short periods (I am speaking relatively here) and then supernova into dense pulsars which have a specific structure which would remind you (if I tried to describe them) of all the chemistry classes you ever took and didn’t really enjoy. Let us just say their other name is neutron star and they are densely rich in neutrons (remember those?).

 

The Big Dog always moves carefully on my hardwood floors. Stepping lightly like a man on moondust. Not for the sake of the floors but for his own fears. His opinion is that carpeting is the only way to go. All dog owners should only put carpeting in their homes. It is a maxim he would write down if he could work his paws that way. He would likely scratch it into my hardwood. Something like: “see, bad idea”. He doesn’t really care if there are other planets. He doesn’t really care if there are other neighborhoods. He hates a car ride. That sort of thing confuses his boundaries and likely his sense of the world. He ignores the moon at night. Lord knows what he thinks it is. One of our better nightlights I guess. I can tell he doesn’t care about these things when I scratch his ears. Such things never worry him. Like a Monk, the world is what you can see: the yard, the trees beyond the fence, the landing, the steps, the food-bowl zone. Dogs and monks simplify. It may be critical.

 

And in that vein, why would we want to find another whole healthy planet to deal with? If I informed the Big Dog we were going to buy another house right next to this one and he would need to sleep in both of them some of the time, he would be incensed. Think of all the new rules for a new planet. The scrabbling, the show of weaponry, everybody sticking their flags in the dirt, all that territorial urinating here-and-there to do. I mean we fight over little islands off the coast of Argentina. Over little oil-bearing emirates that are literally triangles of sand the size of Connecticut. What would we whip out to battle over the rights to rip-ass all over a whole new landscape? I am not optimistic. Recently this kind of possessiveness has been emerging in the news over the moon. Various countries firing up to go claim some moon surface as their own and all the stuff up there under the dust. I can hear some Americans saying “we stuck our flag up there first, the whole damn thing is ours. Back off, Chinaman.” We know there is no oil. And moon rocks will lose all that current value if we start hauling back truckloads of them. We should just go ahead and declare the moon as belonging to earthlings. Period. Save ourselves some trouble. All this might make us hope, of course, for some owners already living on the new distant planets and monitoring those places. I would anyway. Though I suppose if we took a poll of our globe it would be split on that. Whole lovely empty planet or whole lovely inhabited planet with caretakers who appear to be more refined and peace-loving than we are? Caretakers already protecting it from gladiators and fools like ourselves. Oh Lord, if it came down to it, we know we might even try to slaughter them at first encounter. In our warrior hearts, we know. We’ve already proven we stink at maintaining planets. We pretty much stink at peacemaking. We need some better examples from somewhere. Masters with style. I vote for one planet with nothing but Monks and big dogs. A lush world full of birds and inhabited only by German Shepherds and Monks.

 

I have been living on this twelve acres of land on this round topped 'mountain' where my home is now for almost two years. It is most of the world for us. Longer memories all overwritten with things local. I almost know the pattern of the trees across the road in front of my house with my eyes closed: pines and sweetgum, oak and cedar. These woods are starting to forgive me, I think, for my footprint here. In winter I still whittle at the green brier and the privet in several areas, making way for other things. My cedar grove is now walkable. The robins were so densely packed in those trees back during the warmer winter days they made a continuous noise feeding and winging from one berry picking spot to the next. There are none now in summer. They have gone off to wormy lawns, wormy golf courses—surely better fare. I should think cedar berries would be pungent and sharp, aromatic in the bird nose. When the worms are all in hiding though, the berries must be manna to the tongues of thrushes and robins. I can see the rarer summer birds now coming over and dropping into the earliest light: gnatcatchers and chickadees maybe. They are not audible through the double glass, but sometimes on the porch in early darkness you can hear them coming. They look in through the glass when the light is right. Cuckoos especially seem to focus and to know something about the workings of windowglass. They don’t come close to me like the winter Hermit Thrushes though. The Hermits walk right up to my freshest soil eruptions, my winter digging progressions and pluck out the edibles, the buried winter life in hiding. The thrushes perch near me in the cold and watch my efforts like small dogs. They cock their heads. They get impatient. I miss them in summer. Cuckoos are aloof despite their loveliness. Summer birds have other agendas.

 

Leonard Cohen, the songwriter, did a stint as a Buddhist for awhile there in his life. The guy who wrote Tower of Song and Hallelujah and A Thousand Kisses Deep. I think I may be willing to let Leonard rule a new planet. We have to have someone, you know, if there are no dogs and monks already there. Took Leonard a few tries on the Buddhist thing if I remember right. He was supposed to be an apprentice to a master and one night he ran off and left a note. I think he was pretty honest. Said something like ‘sorry, I couldn’t cut it.’ Came back later. He missed women and song. Man likes a drink now and then. He missed scratching poetry down on lined paper. I remember that Rufus Wainwright (the 4th or 5th, I forget which), who now interprets Leonard’s songs with some skill, said that the first time he ever saw Leonard, he was rolling up some food from a plate and trying to feed it to some baby birds that had been left motherless. Leonard was there in his underwear with mussed hair trying to stuff little bits of sausage into pre-fledgling Robin’s mouths. Yeah, he can run the new planet.

 

Seems like it was Kermit the Frog who said that ‘Horton Hears a Who’ was one of his favorite books (pause, pause…) from earth. I would think the planet searcher guys would keep that book next to their big telescope chair. I myself like to think they sit in a big telescope chair when they do this kind of work. Romantically perhaps. (Romanticism being one of my favorite words. Oddly enough derived from a verb meaning ‘to write in French.’) More accurately the searchers are likely in dank computer hideaways with calculators and big reams of graphic numbers and equations. Gravitational lensing is how they found the recent ones. (There are chairs on the sides of those big telescopes? Right? Please tell me there still are?) Anyway, you don’t peer through a telescope and look for new planets. Or you could, but you would just go blind and get very lonely. The planets have to be found by what they do to the light that reaches us from distant stars. Blinking flares of light caused by movements through all that gravitational ether. We assumed they were not very common. Many in the past have even insisted our little light and ball game here is totally unique, created by the one God. (God, smirking. You think I could only do it once? You think it was luck?) We know now that this uniqueness theory (fear?) is definitely not true. And remember how many galaxies and stars there are out there? And that monkey with a typewriter thing? Monkeys and Shakespeare, watches found on beaches? Let us not stir this up again. Or well, let us indeed.

 

There are so many factors involved in what we are, what we have here on our green planet. We make a lot of presumptions. Which we may not know are presumptions. But we have what we have. And it is a stretch for us to consider life without the conditions we know: sunlight, water, heavy metals, oxygen. There is no reason they do not act the same way over there as they do in that big spiral galaxy that is a tiny light inside our telescope atop some desert peak. But then there are rules on top of each of these factors. The sun must be a certain type. There are many types. Ours is not the only one that would work. But there are a large number of types that never would work. (We are delicate, needy things.) With the right light beaming, you need right planets around that right star, which we now know happens out there with fairly impressive frequency. The distance of the right planet from the right sun is critical. We have nine planets here (they still fight about some of them out there). And eight of them are either roasting hot or freezing cold. The mean temperature on Mars is minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit. And that is the only other one that comes close. (We would leap and jump around if we found a new planet even close to that.) Oxygen must be present. The planet must be able to hold onto an atmosphere. It must not be full of other nasty gases. The light intensity on Saturn is 1/100th of ours. It is constantly bombarded by dust and meteoroid material. The year there is 30 earth years long. The surface temperature is minus 289 degrees F. So many things can go wrong.

 

But then, the base clay out there, the number of stars and planets is so monstrous, so ridiculously larger than large that it may not matter about our little rules and requirements. However many we have. The true statement is: it is much less likely there are not any earth-like planets out there than that there are. Another earth exists and likely many near-earths exist. The trouble is the distances involved and the tragedies that befall the places. Asteroids and such. It is almost certainly true that on several to many places out there somewhere, life came up and expanded and blossomed into something that had a thought or almost had a thought. And then everything died in some great world tragedy. Though earth has proven that the totality of life is pretty resilient with all our past calamities and subsequent survivals. The other huge question involved in all this is whether DNA is the only method for getting where we have gotten. But that is a whole other discussion. What we have learned is that it is much harder to find planets that don’t orbit around pulsars. Like ours. Pulsars giving cyclic light, graphs and clues, secrets for the mathematician, who analyze the spectral light that is coming and coming toward our awarenesses for longer than the age of our own awarenesses. If someone out there is looking for us, we are damn hard to see on our non-Pulsar circling world. And quiet. The globe of our expanding radiowaves and television waves reaching and reaching even now, as I speak, into something, well, nowhere near significant. The voices of Lucille Ball and Lawrence Welk blazing the way out there on the edges of all our secrets and shared little sillinesses and sorrows, traveling at the slowpoke speed of sound. We are nothing, so to speak, in the field of the Lord. In the boom of the big awful silence that is the immensity. Think on it too long and you will want to grab a tree trunk, hang on for dear life.

 

Hermit Thrushes and cuckoos can’t form around neutron stars. And I don’t mean to stir up controversy with the word ‘form’ again here. Though if all the amazing evolutionary evidence is correct then that is probably the correct word. Or emerge? Possibly ‘conspire to be?’ God, if that is his/her style, could all along have been in control of the star sequences and physics and just tortured those fundamentalists by using evolution to actually create things. But we are not going there for now. Anyway, likely nothing can live around a neutron star, a pulsating one (they don’t all pulsate). And nothing can live on red hot gas giants speeding tightly around their suns. Or nothing could live there that we would understand. We should never underestimate the power of life, I suppose, until we know the true limits. But planets swept by the beam of the pulsating pulsars might be warm, could even be really hot. Warm enough even for our kind of living. But they would also be extraordinarily radioactive. No Hermit Thrushes. No humans admiring Hermit Thrushes.

 

Dark outside at this very moment. Cloudy. The stars are invisible. Just looks like flat darkness. I can barely make out the limits of the leaves from my window glow. I can see the trunks of the trees. Behind me the dogs are now sleeping. Because this is their greatest duty. The only real job they have other than protecting me from things that might come in the dark. I am not sure they even know about this job. Lately they seem to know only snack, chewy and squirrel. Their language skills are deteriorating. I have certainly never seen my dogs notice the stars. Or even the bright moon. Though one of them looked up to a flight of chatty geese once. And a hot air balloon that fumed some noisy air. Their world is mostly nostril and eardrum. Their world is less than twelve acres. I get the impression they divide the world up into home/yard and everything else. Not much different from the daily life of most humans. None of my dogs worry about whether we find other planets or not.

 

We give them very straightforward names, these bodies in space. As though they might not be that important. Upsilon andromedae b, around an F8 star. It is 44 light years away. Rho coronae borealis b around a G0 star (our sun is a G2). It is 600 light years away. The closest I could find anywhere on the lists was Epsilon eridani which was 10.5 light years away from us. The WASP planets for the most part are way out there. This beautiful diagram shows the sun plus the planet for all the WASPs compared to our sun plus Jupiter. And remember, the impressive thing about these is that we may just be seeing the largest planet. There may be several others there and they are presently invisible by our detection methods. The noted planets all have atmospheric temperatures in the 1000K and higher range. And some of them whip around their sun completely in 2 or 3 of our days! (For comparison, Mercury, our closest planet, zips around our sun in 88 days and it is 60% closer than earth at 0.49 AU). So the WASPs are tight on their stars and hot hot hot. Being that close to the motherheat may make them far easier to see. 

 

In “Into Great Silence” there is a scene late in the movie where a group of the monks in their long gowns and winter coats go for a walk out in the snow. They are in the French Alps, so it is just stunning all the time there, wherever you look. If you must go to a Monastery, then for heaven’s sake choose one in high mountains. They stroll out chatting to each other in the clear air and they find a nice sloped hillside of snow and they all start side-stepping up the slope until they can get high enough to slide down on their asses. Whooping and sliding, they repeat the walk up and over again and again. They compete with each other on who can get higher and slide down faster. Their gowns are powdered with snow. They gasp and shout. I have never heard a sermon or read a book that made me come closer to just throwing my stuff down right there in front of the television and heading out to be sized up for my monastic hood and gown. It is like God is the forever God of childhood. Go and study and you will be childlike unto death. On this dark morning, that sounds like what I need.

 

The speed of light, if it has escaped you, like it does me periodically, is a bit over 670,600 miles per hour. This is the speed of all forms of radiation in the vacuum of space. The space shuttle at high reentry speed goes 16,250 mph. Ten light years (a distance, not a time, which is sometimes confusing), with your quick calculating mind, is thus about 5.9 trillion miles. So the fireball space shuttle would take 42 thousand years to get to that relatively close 10 light-year planet object. Obviously something traveling close to the speed of light would take 11 or 12 years to arrive there. Clearly, we are going to need a lot of scotch, DVDs and little squeeze packs of beef and macaroni to get there either way. Big ship, family groups, dogs of course. We can do it. After all, our pleasant little G2 star, our personal motherheater, is destined to progress on its little timeline down to cold collapsed death and darkness eventually. We don’t have forever. We do have a couple billion years. We may actually be close to making it past the point where our little civilization can protect itself from large asteroid hits. Which surely puts us into the top echelon of planetary efforts. We are not yet in the elite life groups with fast space travel however. Damn it.

 

I’d take Big Dog with me. You know. Volunteer. Even without guarantees. And take twelve years of dog food, of course. Stir up some extra hair in the starship filtration systems. Though, on a twelve year trip, Big Dog would die. Hell, I might. These are the realities: fragility (from the Latin, to break), bad longevity (from the Latin for ancient). Making both us and dogs: breakable, bad ancient material. Big Dog is already seven or eight. So somewhere out there, I would have to send him out some ceremonial air lock. Somewhere in the long haul toward Epsilon eridani I would lose him and in the dark night of long stars be deeply down with dog loss. Risky. Risky anywhere. I dread dog loss bad enough to never focus on it. Like now. But between leaving him (and not seeing him for the last six years of his life) and taking him, even though I know he would not make it more than half way to the planetary object, I’d take him, dammit. And a puppy too. Several damn puppies. (Take that, longevity.) Sensibly however, I know those NASA bastards will not take a guy my age. They’re going to take twenty year olds, men and women in prime physical condition. I am past the age of possible space travel. (And we will not speak again of prime physical condition.) Plus, they couldn’t afford all that scotch for us spacetravelling fiftysomethings.

 

But still. Seriously. I can think about it. The planet searchers giving me the fuel. I can overwrite some rainloops any time I want. (Though, you know, I would sure want some of those in the long trip through space.) Rain is a luxury. Good God is it a luxury. I need the new planet at the end of the long trip to have rain and green heavy forests full of birds. Birdlike things anyway. Doglike things. Butterflies, butterfloids, butterflukes, you know, something in that line too. And, of course, something like Scotland on any and every damn planet. (I think I want the Scots to get their own whole planet in fact. Oh hell, let’s give them a galaxy.) I also want to fill the mountain areas with snow-loving monks. King Leonard can feed the lost baby birdlike things all he wants and write poetry to be distributed to everyone. And after death really, I don’t need the childlike God. After this life, what you want is to be Godlike. (Perhaps that is the monk’s goal after all. Perhaps Christ’s distilled message.) What we’ll want is freedom and speed. We want past that lightspeed limitation. We want to move like ether, better than light. We can go see what we will. Those “attack ships on fire off the shores of Orion.” The triple star rise of one blue and two gold suns shining through Epsilon’s ringbands. The dust of the Seven Sisters interstellar birthlights making shadowplay on five bright moons. Boundaries off is what we’ll want. And Dogs that talk.

 

Okay, maybe not the talking dogs. Forepaws, for them though, with dexterity. And the ability to notice the moon.

 

 

        HR

 

Website (yes, remarkably) of the Monastery at Chartreuse

http://www.chartreux.org/en/frame.html

 

Cohen’s Lyrics

http://www.elyrics.net/song/l/leonard-cohen-lyrics.html

 

 

 

       

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