6th August 2013

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Blog :: Starry Night

All my life I've been involved in camping, mostly at Camp Peaceful Pines up in the Sierras. I took this picture there recently and this view is what getting up into the mountains is all about for me.

Oh I enjoy hiking. I like the exercise, the vistas, the sense of accomplishment that comes from scaling a peak, the camraderie of shared struggle.

I like nature. I enjoy the cool water, the fresh air, the scent of pines, the evidence of wildlife everywhere. I love the quiet in the middle of the day when you can hear the wind whispering and the squirrels chattering. But that view is what it's all about.

I enjoy getting away from the distractions and playing in the great outdoors. It's probably a good thing to get out of cell range now and again, to leave the gadgets and electronics at home and enjoy a warm fire, hot chocolate, lazily chatting in lawn chairs in the sun while not doing much of anything. There is value in watching my kids build a dam in the stream or jump excitedly from rock to rock accompanied by constant calls of "look at me!" I remember being a kid at camp myself - exploring, "discovering" wonders in the well trod ground around the camp.

I love a camp kitchen - I'm happy cleaning my cast iron skillets, polishing the great griddle on the stove, sharpening the knives. I don't think anything else I do has quite as much satisfaction as organizing and cooking a high quality meal from scratch for hungry campers - hearing the gratitude and praise that good food administered to a hungry belly naturally evokes (People are always hungry at camp - even when they're eating huge meals. I think its the altitude.) Some of my most enduring happy memories are working summers with my mom or my dad in the kitchen up in the mountains. But that view...

Here's the thing - its not even a good picture. (How do you take a picture that captures the majesty of a night sky? I set my camera on a tiny tripod, set the exposure for 30 seconds and used a delay to take the picture hoping to reduce shakiness. The result was a picture that was nearly black until I processed it and turned up contrast and brightness quite a bit.) But I've seen the original and this picture does for me what a snapshot is supposed to: calls to mind, evokes the emotions of the original...

Up there the night is different. For one thing it actually gets dark. And quiet! We mostly don't know what dark is: darkness unilluminated by headlights, streetlights, porchlights, cell phone screens. And modern life has an unremitting soundtrack: cars, horns, distant sirens and trains. Up at camp when the electric generator shuts off for the night its possible to go out where you can't see a source of artificial illumination and you don't hear a sound.

Over the years I've made friends with the dark and the quiet. It's a slow process but once your body accustoms itself to the shock the once uniform blackness resolves to many shades of gray. Look up - and you can see the silhouettes of the great tree trunks against the night sky. Look around - the granite boulders almost give off a glow. Just give your eyes a chance to adjust to the lack of light and all sorts of details of the night come into focus. And the sound, or the lack of it, soon fades as you become aware - there's the gurgling of the creek, the sound of your own footsteps, perhaps even the beating of your heart if you are very still...

If you'll allow it the night can be a comfortable blanket. A quilt of darkness and silence that doesn't have to be oppressive, doesn't have to be merely endured but can feel ... comfortable and cozy! It makes me aware of myself: Here I am and what I am most conscious of... is me. I can hear my heart beating. I can feel the passage of time with its slow but inexorable drip drip drip of seconds passing by. I am acutely conscious of the texture of the rock I am sitting on, the pain of the great cold of the mountain seeping into my body through the granite. Every breath of wind across my face and every breath I take in response fills my senses. And then I look up at the sky.

The night sky in the mountains is a different sky than the one I know. Up high, above the pollution and haze, above the lights of urban environments, the stars shine with an almost fierce splendor. There are so many! Uncountable yet distinct pinpricks of light and behind them a smear of cloudiness I know to be the Milky Way - space vast beyond comprehension and filled with stars I can't even see.

This is the only place I am conscious of starlight. The stars cast a visible light by which I can dimly see. This is the only place I have been tempted to shield my eyes from the glare of the night sky. And looking up at the intense infinity my sense of self recedes - I am pinprick, a mote on a lump circling a pinprick in that vast night sky.

I've never done much in the way of spiritual disciplines or practices. I have trouble with much that the saints describes as typifying their spiritual life: long prayer, meditation and contemplation. Mindfulness. But a few minutes - or is it hours? - under the stars and the black sky is refreshing to me and provides a rich store of tranquility to draw from when I come down from the hills and go back to my "normal" life.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him?

Psalm 4

Posted on August 6th 2013, 11:00 PM

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