Saturday, July 11, 2009

Spaced out...

Penned September 10th, 2008

It is an area filled with mystery. But here is not mystery of the conventional kind. It is not the mystery of Poe, Hawthorne, or King. It is a mystery of a different sort than is usually attached to the land. It is not the mystery of the dark and foreboding, the unknown and unseen, represented by creaky closing doors, shadowing canopy, or concealing mausolea. None of these are found here. You would be hard pressed to find much of anything, in fact. And that itself is the cause of the fear and wonder. The secrets held in these lands are not so much in what dwells here, but instead, what may have have dwelt here, but for a brief moment, and, some say, are bound to come again.

Again, this is a function of the land itself. If a man ill-prepared were to find himself here, it would not be long before hallucination would be upon him. If it was not the starvation-driven consumption of the local psychotropics, then the heat, dehydration, and fatigue would certainly give rise to mysterious visions. But even the well-fed, well-watered, and well-rested are prone to be rapt by the mystery of the land, and taken to seeing things that others may not. But I am being misleading. The land here hides no secrets. Amid the sand, sage and saguaro, there is little to hide. The snakes and scorpions are rare, their numbers held in check by the same want of water that curses all living things in the desert. There is little to fear on land, here. The mystery of this place is in the sky.

It's impossible to not feel a tinge of insignificance when you look into the night sky above Southwest desert. There is no end to the sea of black that spreads itself across your field of vision like a quilt, light piercing through the pinholes of the stitching to reveal the crude and imaginative renditions of hunter, bull and crab. Judaic mythology teaches of the firmament encompassing the planet, the abscesses in which showed us literally the light of heaven, twinkling just beyond our earthly grasp. Perhaps crazy to some, when you look into the sky over the desert, this view seems strangely real. To the Navajo of this land, the stars were ornaments placed above by the Holy Ones, when Coyote, the trickster, stole the bag of stars and swung it open, spreading a milky stream across the night sky. Perhaps it is the trickster still who fools some into seeing visions in the night sky here. The night sky that goes on and on, uninhibited by edifice, timber, or peak, whose end is dictated only by the disappearance of the stars, black otherwise persisting in all directions. Directions which, in the lack of a compass, become all but figurative to those illiterate to the stars, whose bearing is surely lost in the dizzying array.

And below this array lies the Very Large Array, deep in the desert amid the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico. The Very Large Array, a collection of twenty-seven massive radio telescopes arranged in a Y, continuously scans the sky for incoming radio waves, low frequency radiation emitted from bodies deep in space. When melded with skill and technology, this information is pieced together, and images are rendered of dying stars, supernovae, black holes, brown dwarves, red giants, and other wonders far off in the Kosmos.

But brown dwarves and red giants aren't the only strange visions to be seen in this desert. This is the place of science fantasy. To the north lies Area 51, the supposed examination facility for alien corpses and spacecraft. Officially, the area surrounding the base was used for the development stealth planes. Some allege these high tech aircraft were reverse engineered from alien technology. Others claim UFOs seen in the area were simply these advanced aircraft in flight. The truth, of course, remains unknown.

To the east is Roswell, the legendary UFO crash site. Far from denying this event, the recovery of a 'flying disc' was reported by the Roswell Army Air Field. Later that day, the statement was amended to admit the capture of a weather balloon only. Controversy has persisted ever since. Regardless of the validity of any of these reports, this area garners some of the highest numbers of UFO sightings anywhere, and feeds the imaginations of dreamers worldwide. Dreamers, well, like me.

I've never been a UFO aficionado, but I admit that there is this part of me that yearns for the knowledge that there is something else out there. The reinforcement that we are not alone in the universe. I mean, perhaps it's silly, given that there are plenty of intelligent creatures on earth: dolphins, bonobos, octopi, elephants... not to mention the 6+ billion of us that crawl the surface of this rock. I don't know, I guess it's perhaps just a lingering desire for that mystery, something that we seem to have so decisively banished from our psyche through reason. Maybe if we were to find extra-terrestrial intelligence, that mystery would, too, vanish, like our infatuation with the moon when we set foot on her. But that doesn't mean we should stop searching.

I'm sure I'll take criticism for this, but I think, regardless of anything, we can never cut the space program. I understand that people are starving, and kids can't go to school, and there's mercury in the oceans, and on, and on, but to me there is something greater at stake. I feel that there is something pure, almost altruistic in our desire to explore space. Just learning, and knowing that what we learn will do nothing to improve our lot. That our knowledge will be virtually useless, but for its own sake. It strikes to the heart of science, heartless itself, wishing only to comprehend, not to feed greed, or mouth, or build any empire but of understanding alone. And to me there is something beautiful in that. Almost like having a zen garden, or doing crossword puzzles with the heavens.

And I feel that in some way, in this hunt for the unknown, we gain a better understanding of ourselves. I believe that in trying to understand what goes on so deep in outer space, we'll gain just a little more understanding of our inner space: who we are, from where we came, to where we are headed. That if we can find something else out there, then we no longer have to be the butt of some cosmic joke: the random planet, near a random sun, that looks for significance in everything to find a reason for its being beyond randomness. Or maybe we'd just feel like we weren't special anymore. Who knows.

But I've spent too much time in musing. We have to be in Dallas by tomorrow. I take one last look up at the night sky. It really is stunning. I fear having to enter a metropolis again, where the stars are all but drowned out by the noise of the city lights. But for now it's all just beautifully black and white. I try to soak it all in, close the shutter of my eyes, and let the image soak into film of my mind, an image I can take home with me, because no picture I take could ever do it justice.

I open my eyes as I head back to the car, and out of the corner of my eye, I see something flash across the sky. And I feel a tingle of excitement and wonder. I think that perhaps all those locals aren't so wrong. Perhaps there is something in the sky above this desert. Maybe there is intelligent life out there. And maybe, if we work hard, and keep searching, it will be revealed to us, and we won't have to feel so alone in the universe.

But then, there's very good chance it was just a weather balloon.

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