“One may try to look at the sky, but in fact one looks through it…. for no matter how deeply one sees into the sky, there is always an infinite depth remaining.”
The green overhead street sight for Whitney Portal Road swings wildly in the November wind, as I wait at the signal on Highway 395 in Lone Pine, California. To my right are local restaurants, Seasons, Merry Go Round and the Grill which radiate inviting hospitality, jammed with skiers heading to and returning from Mammoth Mountain, two hours to the north. My Honda Pilot shudders in the buffeting blasts of wind. With a green light I turn left heading toward Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada. As I travel away from shimmering city lights, dense darkness descends. Suddenly a tumbleweed the size of a VW crosses in front of me.
The road twists and turns, following Lone Pine Creek. Denuded cottonwood and willow trees bend in the whistling wind. More debris flies by. Maybe I should not be on this road in such an intense desert windstorm?
I enter the narrows of the Alabama Hills, as the road climbs higher. Gnarled, weirdly shaped boulders cast haunting shadows with my car headlights. Having driven this road many times before, I looked for familiar clues to Movie Road. I come upon an open plateau where the wind is blocked out by the hills and rocks. I see the sign for Movie Road, turn right and continue north on a paved section that ends in a half mile, leading to a wide dirt road. I brake suddenly, as a mother doe and two fawn dash across the road.
I park the car here and step out into the dark night. At this point one-thousand feet higher than Lone Pine, the city lights are blocked by the Alabama Hills and I am standing on a wide desert plateau on a moonless night.
As I stand beside this desert road, the car and landscape dissolve into the darkness. I am unable to see my feet. Facing east, I see the starry night sky on both sides of me, 180 degrees. Without reference to the ground or surrounding landscape, I seem to be surrounded by night sky, brilliant, twinkling star diamonds of light scattered about me. It seems as if I am being lifted up into the sky, surrounded by these stars and the vast Milky Way. The more I focus on visible stars, slowly the faint background of other stars become clearer. Millions of stars. Infinity. This is a thin place between heaven and earth, between reason and wondrous mystery.
Thomas Merton shares:
“It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.”
When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, p. 87.
Others before me in times past have stood in this same place or in other locations on earth, surrounded by night sky, lifted up into infinity and wonder, the birthplace of gods, myths and holy signs.
One thousand miles east of Lone Pine, at Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery, Abiquiu, NM, at the end of a long, difficult desert road, Belden Lane writes:
“That first night at the monastery I went to bed while it was still light, knowing I had to be up early if I was to make it to chapel for Vigils. I lay there, listening to the wind howl as night came on. The desert was dark, cold, and moonless. Unable to sleep, I pulled the sleeping bag around me and waited out the night. When three-thirty finally arrived, I pulled on clothes in the cold morning air and walked outside with a small flashlight. It was pitch black, still completely alone, I nervously felt my way up the canyon toward the chapel.”
“But as I stopped to lie down on a large rock and look up into the night sky, my uneasiness suddenly dissolved. I was home. The sky was lit with thousands of stars, stars I immediately recognized from my backyard in Saint Louis where I pray every night. Leo the Lion, Bootes the Ox-Driver, Hercules with his arms upraised—they were all there, stretched out across the heavens. A place without comfort or familiarity suddenly revealed itself as home.”
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, pp. 221-222.
I have this confession: I rarely look at the sky when I am home in Laguna Niguel, California. Our night sky is usually occluded by fog and coastal clouds, as we live near the Pacific Ocean. For millennia, the night sky has been a celestial canvas on which people have recreated images from myths and sacred stories in their communion with the Sacred.
I encountered one night sky story in an unusual children’s book:
Menorah in the Night Sky: A Miracle of Chanukah, by Jacques J. M. Shore.
Zev loved the Jewish feast of Chanukah, the gathering of extended family, the holiday foods, gifts and games spread out over eight days. A new candle on the Menorah would be lit over eight days and his home would radiate light and joy. But eleven-year-old Zev and his ten-year-old friend David were far from home and family, confined to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they survived by sorting through huge piles of shoes left behind by those who were killed in the gas chambers.
In the growing darkness of winter, Zev’s memories of Chanukah returned, and he remember the lighting of the Menorah each night. When David recalled his own memories of family and Chanukah, it filled him with sadness. Zev began to pray for a miracle.
One night Zev and David looked up into the night sky and saw a bright star. They sang a Chanukah song quietly in the night. Each night the boys would go outside of the bleak barracks, light a candle, say a blessing, and each night another star would appear until “a semi-circular shape of eight stars appeared, emerging one after another.”
“The Night after Chanukah was over, the boys took their spot outside the barracks as they did for eight days earlier. This night, unlike all the others, the sky was filled with millions of stars. Never before had they seen such a star-filled sky. Never before could they have imagined that so many stars could exist.”
“Zev said, ‘Those stars are free, so free in the heavens. David believe me—we too will one day be free.”
“The remnants of light and warmth of Chanukah kept Zev and David alive. Zev explained and promised David that the spirit of Yehuda the Maccabee and the miracle of Chanukah that they share would ensure their survival in the camp.”
“God, who lit the Menorah in the sky, lit their way out of Auschwitz, a few months later.”
Menorah in the Night Sky
Among Native American tribes, the animate and inanimate world, the earth and the sky are one unified, interdependent entity. The stars in the night sky are living spiritual beings. The problem for Anglo-European exploration of these traditions is that in the past these earth-sky stories were suppressed by the dominant Anglo culture. Contemporary probing and inquisitive academic explorations have met native suspicion and resistance toward disclosing the sacred stories. Sharing information about that which is sacred dilutes their operative power.
The close relationship between people and the stars in the night sky is illustrated by the Navajo. They see the world and universe holistically, everything is connected in a system of relationships that is in constant flux. While western science applies rational tools to study the cosmos, Navajo astronomy is at the heart of their spirituality. All things, animate and inanimate, on earth and in the heavens are living entities. Every human action effects this organic universe.
In a unique partnership between western science and Navajo spirituality, NASA and the Navajo Nation have created an astrology curriculum used in schools on the Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and Navajo Cultural Knowledge (2006).
Here are some Navajo perspectives of their relationship to the creatures of the night sky:
“Constellations Provide Guidance and Values. Navajo relationships with the stars can be very personal. Star constellations can be utilized for healing body, mind and spirit. Many Navajo constellations are depicted in human form, providing principles and values for living.”
Stars as Related to Animals and Natural Elements. Many Navajo constellations are directly connected to animals……. Porcupine, Gila Monster, Mountain Sheep. Other constellations include natural elements such as Flash Lightning, the Sun, the Moon. The stars are also closely related to seasonal vegetational growth and animal life processes as birth and mating.
While much of the traditional knowledge of Navajo astronomy has been forgotten, this curriculum is an attempt to knit together dispersed stories and information into a collective whole, reaffirmed at a meeting between NASA and the Navajo Nation at Window Rock, AZ in 2005.
The Navajo Elder’s NASA joke
When NASA was preparing for the Apollo Project, it took the astronauts to a Navajo reservation in Arizona for training.
One day, a Navajo elder and his son came across the space crew walking among the rocks. The elder, who spoke only Navajo, asked a question. His son translated for the NASA people: “What are these guys in the big suits doing?
One of the astronauts said that they were practicing for a trip to the moon. When his son relayed this comment the Navajo elder got all excited and asked if it would be possible to give to the astronauts a message to deliver to the moon.
Recognizing a promotional opportunity when he saw one, a NASA official accompanying the astronauts said, “Why certainly!” and told an underling to get a tape recorder. The Navajo elder’s comments into the microphone were brief.
The NASA official asked the son if he would translate what his father had said. The son listened to the recording and laughed uproariously. But he refused to translate. So the NASA people took the tape to a nearby Navajo village and played it for other members of the tribe. They too laughed long and loudly but also refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.
Finally, an official government translator was summoned. After he finally stopped laughing the translator relayed the message: “Watch out for these asxxxxx – they have come to steal your land.”
In Believing in Place, Richard Francaviglia contemplates the night sky after midnight in a visit to western Utah. “I’d looked up into the night sky and beheld a Milky Way that looked like crushed glittering glass—or pulverized diamonds—spread from horizon to horizon.”
The vast dark sky studded with luminescent lights becomes a canvas for the imagination to “connect the dots” between stars and recreate images and creatures of nature. Francaviglia echoes the imaginative minds of the Navajo, as he writes about the Milky Way and star figures:
“One of nature’s most awesome sights, this clustering of millions of stars has deep cultural significance in the Great Basin. The Paiute call it Kus’ipo’ (Dusty Trail) or, more to the point, Numu-po (People’s Trail) and they believe it to be the path traveled by the souls of the dead as they seek another, more abundant world to the south where there will be good hunting and time for gambling and dancing. The Big Dipper shimmering overhead is Ta’noa’di, a heavenly net into which men chase rabbits. To some Native peoples hereabouts, Orion’s belt consists of three stars that are either mountain sheep or mountain sheep husbands, while the brightest star in this constellation (Sirius) is a woman called Tinagidi (The Chaser). Significantly, the heavens themselves are not the product of remote physical forces, but of Wolf (creator of both Heaven and Earth) and his trickster brother Coyote, who caused his family to flee to the sky.”
Believing in Place
It is time for me to return to the warmth of my car and the lights of Lone Pine. I am remembering the thoughts of the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who, as he also gazed into the dark night sky exclaimed, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” I leave with a different feeling. I could hear other sounds of nature out there in the darkness that could have triggered anxiety and fear within me. But as the wonder that came from focusing my eyes on the stars, and as each minute went by, the dimensions of the sky and number of stars grew into immensity, I too felt a sense of homecoming, that I was being embraced in love by the Holy Creator.
I lose myself in darkness among mythic star creatures. Until now I have lived a life attentive only to daylight, unaware of the wonders and mystery of this other half of creation: the pulsing, vibrant, numinous night sky.
Menorah in the Night Sky: A Miracle of Chanukah, Jacques J. M. Shore. (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing, 2003).
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Belden C. Lane (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and Navajo Cultural Knowledge (2006).
Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, Richard V. Francaviglia, (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003), p. 22-23.
Bishop Visitor’s Center: The Night Sky in the Eastern Sierra.https://www.bishopvisitor.com/the-night-sky-in-the-eastern-sierra/