Friday, May 27, 2011

South of Orion

We were camped at Max Patch for the night. It was late October already and Pookie Donaldson and I had not been packing since Spring break and that was just to the Twin Springs shelter, two-and-a-half miles northbound on the AT from my home. But tonight, the winter constellations were just peeking over the horizons by the time we bunked down. It would be a clear, brisk night. We could see forever if we just stayed awake long enough.

We used to build fires when we packed overnight but not any more. Besides the ground being dry this late in the fall, we'd slowly come to the conclusion over the years to not burn more wood nor sterilize more ground. Plus, instead of using the tried-and-true gas stove, we had come to rely more on my battery powered fan-stove and burn just enough wood chips to heat the water. No tent, either. But that wasn't an ecological statement. We left the tent in the basement, mostly because one of us would have to carry it. We did bring along my old oversized tarp just in case we got a light rain or wind. (Our hike up through Land Between the Lakes, and several on Isle Royale, taught us that we could get along even without the tarp, sometimes. Although one weekend at Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee we got soaked for our presumptuousness.)

But Max Patch was open ground and pleasant and clear skied and no breeze. A good warm meal of instant salt and dried potatoes --seemingly the two major components of all freeze-dried trail food. A view to the south of nearly light-less countryside. (The view to the north horizon was over a rise. We decided we wanted the south side in order to catch the morning sun long before it was up.) The was quiet. All the night insects long dormant. No owls expected.

We weren't either one of us given to too great philosophical thoughts. We were just a couple of guys who liked the great out of doors, the moon lit landscape of the forest; the eye-popping views of the heavens. Life was pretty much cut and dry for us both. Not that things were the way things were, we just were not ones who complained about "them." When you stand on bald and look over a half-million acres of forest and hills, lighted by a full moon, on quiet night, there is something about Nature and God and good chances and fortune that touches something below skin level. I never could explain it to anyone who hadn't been there.

(Once upon a time a friend (Audrey Wilde, to be exact) and I joined a full-moon hike from Grassy Ridge to Carver's Gap along the AT. You could see city lights and lightning (way off in the distance but at our elevation!) and outline of the trail and the hills under a full moon but you couldn't see your feet in the trough of the trail. Everyone hiked quietly to avoid disturbing the peace with idle chatter.)

He could take care of himself, pretty much, but at the same time had a strong sense of assisting others. When a tornado passed through his town he had enough energy and tools to help the neighbors as he helped himself. With his camping equipment to cook a few meals and make coffee when the power was out and keep some folks comfortable until life was restored. I'd done this one time when we had a late Spring blizzard strike my fair city. The technologies were nice and he and I had appreciated them all but a certain self-reliance and self-assurance, as snobbish and rude as that can appear to be, I found to be missing as I aged.

"Can you see Cepheus?" I said. "Straight up. It looks like a house with the peak towards north." The Big Dipper was just over the top of the knoll just barely out of sight.

"No," he said.

"Do you see the little dipper, back behind us just a bit?"

"Oh, yeah. I see it. I think."

It was possible, it seemed to have too many stars to choose from. We'd camped on Isle Royale years ago under the Northern Lights and a canopy of stars almost beyond belief until a whole lot of those stars moved! It took a moment or two to remember we were in the landing pattern that night for the Thunder Bay airport fifteen miles to the north on the shore of Lake Superior.

"Go from the Big Dipper pointer stars right through Polaris and you'll bang into the roof of Cepheus. Cepheus is just down a hair, so to speak, in astronomical terms. And angles to right slightly and go you farther down to the right, south westerly, and see that really bright star that sits on top of the tee going further to the southwest? That one is Cygnus. The swan. The northern cross."

"I see it. The swan, huh?"

"Yup. It's Latin, Cygnus, is. But I think the swan symbol comes from Greek mythology. I'm not sure."

We fell silent for a moment. I thought I heard Barred owl but then maybe not.

"That's a hard one to pick 'cause it doesn't look like anything real clear like."

"I always wondered if the Greeks had arguments about naming the constellations?"

"Yeah, really. As if the Athenians had better naming rights than the Spartan?"

"You reckon there's somebody camped on one those stars and they're just laying in their sleeping bags looking back at us?"

"It's kind of hard to imagine isn't it. There's got to be life out there, somewhere."

"You believe in aliens?"

"I dunno. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. You?"

"Sure," I said. "Why not?"

"Well, I 'spose. It seems too improbable to not have aliens."

"Been a few people who say they've been abducted?" I said.

"Oh, them? I think they're all bunch of loonies. They're not very imaginative."

"Sometimes I think this whole alien business is just a bit too over done. You know? Even with all the so-called evidence I'm still not sure whether to believe it all or not."

"I wonder what they look like?"

"Why wouldn't they look like us?"

"That's just it, isn't it? Why should they look like you or me or why should they look like something we'd recognize anyway?"

"We'll I don't think they'd look like rocks. Or maybe, viruses or plants. We don't give plants any credit."

"No, but what says our heads and butts can't be in different places?"

"Nothing says it has to be that way, I suppose. Just the way it worked out?"



"So do you suppose aliens evolved?"

We both chuckled over that.

"That could lead to some interesting thoughts."

"Why wouldn't they evolve. Or would they hold to a creator? An alien creator? There's a movie in there someplace. I bet they won't teach that option in high school science."

"I'm wondering if out there is another creation story like ours from an alien point of view. Wouldn't it be interesting if each alien life had its own creation story?"

"God is in the universe?"

"Well, isn't he supposed to be?"

"What else would there be? Why should I think that aliens would have any less sureness of evolution than we might. I mean part of the argument is that there is not proof one way or another. The record is incomplete. So, couldn't it be that an alien world has just as incomplete records as we do and the same fearful wondering about God as we do. Couldn't it be?"

"So many aliens? So many Gods?"

On a clear night like this, there were too many stars! Too many wonders. Too many options. Too many patterns. The night needed imagination. I needed imagination! The constellations didn't have to have any imagination. Stars didn't need to know they could create life.