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11/18/2011

Observing, Death, Nature and Philosophies; My Thoughts


First, let me save some of you some time. This post will have a little to do with any observing session or product. The weather is snowing tonight so as much as I had hope to get out tonight and tomorrow, it isn't going to happen. The entry is a personal reflection of how life and observing connect for me. I guess I just need to write something in the public forum because I feel the need. So feel free right now, if you haven't already, to bail out, to click out, to rip the cord so to say. If you want to know more about me, then I feel free to read on at your own risk.

I think I will try to cover a couple of things here. First will be a reflection that age and observing have brought to me about life and mortality and the challenge of seizing each day of life to grab that day's full potential. Next, I'll attempt to share the feelings that going observing brings to me, be it in the storms of summer, the freeze of fall, or the bone chilling stillness of winter. Last, the conflict between my individualism and my humanitarian philosophy that comes from life and from being in this hobby. Answers. I think I have found some answers for me, while I continue to look for more.

Life has a strange way over the last couple of years of reminding me that I am not mortal. I had the immortality complex up to about 44 and then one day, I quit breathing during a procedure and they had to rush me from a simple procedural room to a OR room to complete what I was going through. I realized that day, and was reminded for the next several weeks as I recovered and my whole torso continued to hurt that I could have passed so quickly. Of late other medical things have reminded me of my own mortality. My father passed away when I was 17 and that was one of those defining moments of life for me. Life changed drastically for me that day and I'll leave it at that, as that is a story that has had long and deep consequences for me on a very personal level. Anyway, one of my fascinations of life was similar to Abraham Lincoln who feared an early death in life because of the loss of his mother. My father was 45 and 7 months and when I passed that mark awhile back, it provided me comfort that I wasn't going to die early. However, it reminded me that despite the best laid plans, life for me or anyone I love or know can and does end abruptly more often than not. It reminds me of the importance to maximize each day I am alive.

So, why bring this up? Because when I observe my favorite sky objects, deep-sky objects or other objects, I often reflect on the amount of time it has taken the light to reach us and in that time what events have transpired in our universe, galaxy, solar system and planet. It reminds me that as important as my ego would like me to think I am, in the end, I am truly not so important. Yet I am in a way very important in that my legacy is what I leave with my loved ones, especially my children who are young adults now, and my friends. My influences, thoughts and more important, our mutual enjoyment of each other. Perhaps a student, yes, one student will remember the impact I had on them as a teacher and in a way, who I am will continue with them in some small way. So though I am reminded of my own mortality from my life, and from my observing, I can honestly say that death no longer is a scary notion for me. I don't seek it, and I don't want it to come early, as I want to live to observe for many more years and to see grandchildren, and so much more of the world. However, when it comes, it will not be feared. I guess I finally feel peace about that for the first time in my life and in a strange way, my astronomical observing truly has been one thing that has helped me to obtain that. I believe that our hobby can have profound impacts on our lives.

So this notion that death can occur whenever, has brought to me not a recklessness, but a desire to make sure that every day I am alive is the best I can make it for that day. It doesn't mean I don't have rough or bad days, I do, just like everyone. However, it does mean that I strive to find something positive, that I enjoy the day even with its challenges. Again, a parallel from observing. I remember when I was first started observing, and in reading my old logs I made so many mistakes and got frustrated after trying to do a star hop for over an hour. Then I simply realized that what I was seeing in the finder was reversed in the eyepiece! Yet that frustration and that simple learning helped me to learn to star hop, a skill I am so glad I have. I think life is like that at times. We see the direction we want to go, but then we make some simple mistakes, unknowing mistakes, and until we realize it, and correct it, we don't find what we are looking for. From this I learned that it is the experience that is to be treasured, the entire experience, not just the joy of figuring of what your doing, of being on the target, or getting that sketch or image. I don't seek an end result of happiness, but I treasure the journey, the quest and find my happiness in that. By doing that, I think I maximize my joy in life, and find the positive regardless of the day, and that makes me a better human being and person.

Some of the people in my life that I am extremely close to, don't understand my desire to go observing. Well, a large part of observing I have covered. I just love observing and in my feeble way sketch the objects of the deep-sky. Why? It centers me as a human being while also bring me a peace and serenity that getting away from the city does. It reminds me that as complicated as life is, there are wonders and beauties to be discovered. I wish, even if for a day, I could experience first hand what a professional astronomer feels doing their job as they seek the truths of our universe. What an incredible feeling to leave a legacy that others will build upon as the mysteries of the universe are revealed! Anyway, observing just makes me connected to the notion that I am discovering things for the first time for me. Then I can gain the background knowledge that goes with the quasar, galaxy, planetary nebula etc. that I am observing. I thus increase my own knowledge of the universe and that, is just downright cool to me.

There is another notion that I want to expand. The notion of leaving our busy and structured life and getting out in the dark places of our country and local areas and connecting to nature. In August, I was able to get out to the West Desert and I posted some similar pictures here, yet there was a large thunderstorm coming through the area. The wind was just blowing as I got out to the observing site, and you could smell the rain in the air. I actually parked the car and got out and just felt the rush of the wind, the rapid movement of the clouds and that must moisture smell mixed with dust of the rain. It reminded me of John Muir's A Wind Storm in the Forest where he wrote:


"Winds are advertisements of all they touch, however much or little we may be able to read them; telling their wanderings even by their scents alone. Mariners detect the flowery perfume of land-winds far at sea, and sea-winds carry the fragrance of dulse and tangle far inland, where it is quickly recognized, though mingled with the scents of a thousand land-flowers. As an illustration of this, I may tell here that I breathed sea-air on the Firth of Forth, in Scotland, while a boy; then was taken to Wisconsin, where I remained nineteen years; then, without in all this time having breathed one breath of the sea, I walked quietly, alone, from the middle of the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, on a botanical excursion, and while in Florida, far from the coast, my attention wholly bent on the splendid tropical vegetation about me, I suddenly recognized a sea-breeze, as it came sifting through the palmettos and blooming vine-tangles, which at once awakened and set free a thousand dormant associations, and made me a boy again in Scotland, as if all the intervening years had been annihilated."

This wind and its smell took me back to a time in California when I was a junior in high school and I was helping to bail hay or biking up the many roads that we did back then before biking became so popular (riding touring bikes, not motorcycles). So in this instance, my experience with a thunderstorm took me back to my youth and brought back memories that are still lingering with me. It also reconnected me with the writings of John Muir who I read a lot as a teenager and young adult. I reconnected with a part of me I hadn't recalled for sometime and it was magical.
Here are a couple of images of that day in the hope that I can share in image what I fear my words don't.




































Some wonder why I observe in the cold of a northern Utah winter in the depth of December, January or even February. First, the winter sky is my personal favorite with so many wonders to observe and discover. Next, nature changes yet again as it withdraws from activity to preservation. There is a stillness in winter that I have never found in the summer. There are no insects or birds chirping. Animal activity is at a minimal and when the sky is clear, often it is some of the best seeing and transparency I ever see in northern Utah. The air seems to be whispering, even if it dares to speak to us and break the silence and beauty of the sky. Winter observing connects me to my memories of first learning to snow shoe in the Sierra Nevada, or going to a cabin in sixth grade and learning to cross country ski. It brings back memories that are deep, personal and connecting. Memories that make up who I am, that I embrace and want to ensure that I record. It recalls the story of me, and for me, that is significant. One time I need to just take a chair, binoculars and a digital recorder and just record the memories that flood back. So, if you ever are observing with me and I look nostalgic (you'll really have to know me to know when I am having one of these moments) realize I am just being sentimental, and the bear is showing a side that he often hides except from those he cares and trusts, those he loves.

Now for my final thought. I was raised to be a humanitarian by my parents in the sense that if you define a humanitarian as being an ethical belief of extending kindness, benevolence and sympathy universally and impartially to all human beings. To further extend it, it is a philosophy that the has at its core an acceptance of every human being for plainly just being another human being. In another way I was raised to be an individual or individualist with the notion that I needed to be independent in my thinking and in beliefs. I wasn't to rely on others to form those, but I am to form those and thus be self-reliant. My parents were not extreme here because of a belief we have in my family that at some time, we need and rely on others to help us, to assist us and indeed, we have that humanitarian belief that we are here to lift and support each other. You can put your own definitions on these two words and that's fine, I am just trying to communicate part of my own belief system.

So how does this relate to astronomy? First, I never turn away someone from observing with me. I actively seek others to observe with me and with my group of friends. I thoroughly enjoy everyone I have ever or do currently observe with. I find their personal experience and just who they are enjoyable to be around. I find I often learn more from them than than they do from me, even though I can be quite gregarious. Second, I also love observing with a group of friends and new friends also. Yet I also like just observing with one or two friends or even at times, by myself (I believe for safety one should have a buddy along to be safe). There are times I really feel like helping others and reaching out to them and for the most part, this is how it is ninety percent of the time. However, that ten percent of the time I want to withdraw the scaffolding (the educator coming out) and let others just learn like I did. The best teacher is experience. I guess the difference is knowing when to do this.

The other issue for me is outreach vs individual observing. The humanitarian in me says participate in outreach. The individual says though that there are only so many clear days in the last two years so maximize my observing time and this is what has won out. I did one outreach event per month this year but that was it. Part of me thinks I need to do more so I am doing an outreach in my home city next time the moon goes past first quarter. I fear I will still struggle with this dilemma for sometime. If you have ideas on this last one let me know. One thing I won't do is the weekend before new moon or the weekend of new moon go to an outreach because I just think that is a waste. So I seek a better balance here but I am not sure I am ready to sacrifice personal observing time under new moon.

So that's it. A long rant and I am sure not too many have made it this far. If you did, you may know a little bit more about me for what it is worth. Perhaps you made a connection with what I am exploring and connecting with and your own observing. I am sure I am just too complicated and that not many do what I do, but simply enjoyj observing. I am so glad your out there because your needed to counter someone like me. Hopefully next Wednesday looks like I might be able to get out that night and get a session and I'll get that review up if that can happen. Next up, a book review and some winter objects to pursue.


2 comments:

  1. Anonymous11/21/2011

    Well said Jay. You've expressed some good thoughts here that many will relate to.

    Mat

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  2. Anonymous2/07/2012

    Those are some profound feelings being expressed and like the other comment stated, many other amateur astronomers can relate to in some way or another.

    I haven't observed 1/1000th the amount of time you have (literally) but find similar excitement and motivation that you do, but of course linked with my personal memories of connecting with the outdoor and the universe at large.

    The actual *gift* is to be able to appreciate observing and everything that comes with it; that's not something you can easily teach or transmit to others.

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