Cold Spring Diary: A Found Letter; Seeing Stars

by David St.-Lascaux


“The Invention of Printing.” German postage stamp, 1983

March 4, 2014

UNPACKING, I DISCOVERED a letter from a friend from high school days who was pursuing his postgraduate education in German Romanticism (precocious polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a quick and recommended read, and an instant best-seller published when he was 25, is a caste tale whose tedious moral, recurring through time, is to know one’s place) in the photogenic university town of Tübingen, Germany, locus of Goethe’s publisher (hence the subversive memorial sign, “Hier kotzte Goethe.”). My friend referred to stargazing, which we had done on frigid winter nights in Iowa, commenting that seeing the stars reminded him of me.

Seeing stars is another benefit of exurban living, but it wasn’t always so. For most of the human era, the night sky was populated by stars, planets, occasional meteors, passing comets and the rare, impressive supernova. Not anymore: The last century has been electrified, and the magic wonder of the fathomless cosmos lost to most people. If a post mortem for the human species is conducted, there is no doubt that Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse will be indicted as men who unintendedly engineered planetary demise – both physically and aesthetically. As poet Diane di Prima is quoted as asking in Ann Charters’s The Portable Sixties Reader (2003) in her “Revolution #16,” forty years ago in 1974:

every large factory is an infringement
on our god given right to light and air
to clean and flowing rivers stocked with fish
to the very possibility of life
for our children’s children, we will have to
look carefully, i.e., do we really want/
electricity and at what cost in natural resources
human resource
do we need cars, when petroleum
pumped from the earth poisons the land around

So much for the societal impact of poetry; since di Prima’s complaintive words were published, humanity has redoubled its productive and consumptive efforts.

Edison’s company, General Electric, figures into the Hudson River’s history, as well as that of the adjacent Housatonic, from whose headwaters in Pittstown, Massachusetts, GE’s operations at one point polluted the entirety of the river down to Long Island Sound (earlier, Danbury’s nineteenth-century hatters contributed the quicksilver element Hg, so that when it rains today in “Hat City,” the mercury level in Long Island Sound measurably increases); more on this later.

Even dimmed by the atmosphere’s electric glow, and despite our proximity to the photon polluting Eastern seacoast and sour-pink sodium vapor streetlights, the stars are – and have long been – thrilling. They were, early on, conceived as animals by the cave artists at Lascaux, and later by most all civilizations, whether in solar or lunar ecliptics – the seeming paths of the sun, moon and planets through the sky. The stars and constellations are easy to learn, and, once learned, are easy to remember. Like people and animals, they have qualities and personalities – Aldebaran – “the Follower” of the distinctive, dim-sprinkled cluster of Pleiades, whose golden glint crowns Taurus, the Bull, at the vertex of its horns; Sirius, Rigel and Spica, with their diamond clarity; and Arcturus – “Guardian of the Bear” – Ursa Major, the Great Bear, or Big Dipper, with its red-orange beauty; they form a circle of friends.

COLD SPRING’S NIGHT SKY is a delight. As a lifelong stargazer – my stellar self-education included Richard Hinckley Allen’s Star Names – Their Lore and Meaning, originally published in 1899, which reveals the West’s lexical debt to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean astronomers, I missed the stars in the City. I’m relieved to see that my old constellar friends Leo – the Sphinx-posed Lion; Orion – an hourglass cinched by a bejeweled belt; and Canis Major – the Big Dog, standing in attentive conformation; are reliably rotating overhead. Ensconced in Cancer at the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the yellow planet Jupiter is now passing through Gemini, high in the south, this winter season’s gleaming “Wanderer.” Surely there must be a balance between the free and natural, inspiring diurnal/nocturnal rhythmic riches of some billion years’ celestial illumination and the artificial dominion of human-created “power and light.”

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March 7, 2014: “Rip Van Winkle”

Text and photo copyright © 2014

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