The universe is really big but most of us never get to appreciate its size because we aren’t directly exposed to it. One of the great subtle blessings of my life as a tortoises biologist has been the chance to lay under the stars and planets and galaxies and meteorites and comets and space night after night.
For all the beauty of the daytime sky- glorious cloud formations dancing in the blue, the mad flare of sunset- it is a curtain drawn around us, cutting us off and making us feel that this world is all that is. Then we shuffle into our boxes, watch some TV and go to sleep in tiny rooms. We wake in the morning and never know that the universe has wheeled past us just beyond the drywall and the shingles. And even if we are out at night, in our floodlit cities only the brightest few dozen stars can cut through the glare of the 21st century. Sometimes I think we are purposely avoiding looking at what is truly the biggest picture available to us.
I have always slept out in the desert- no tent, no back-of-the-pickup-under-the-camper-shell. I lay out a pad, roll out a sleeping bag in the cold times, huddle behind my car if the wind is particularly vicious. Every night I witness the miraculous drawing back of the cosmic curtain. Evening light fades and the sky loses its opacity. The planets appear first- Venus low on the horizon if she is in her evenstar phase, Jupiter and Mars maybe. The brightest stars accompany them- Sirius, Aldebaran, Arcturus. Moment by moment the velvet black of night arrives and with it more and more stars. The dozens turn to hundreds and then thousands.
The moon, that wonderful little lapdog that follows us everywhere we go, circles slowly, her face changing not just day to day but hour by hour. Perhaps she is a sliver setting in the west an hour after nightfall or maybe she rides up as a full moon from the east. An hour later every day, she rises, waxing and waning and waxing and waning over the course of a season in the desert. On the brightest nights I take walks in her light, casting a moonshadow.
But the moon is a stone’s throw away. Pouring down on me from all parts of the sky is ancient light- photons that have spent millions and billions of years traveling at 186,000 miles per second to strike my retinas. Space is really big.
Then the Milky Way- the neighborhood- slashes its way across the sky. What a wonderful name we have given to our home galaxy- the Milky Way! Now I point binoculars in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Clustered around the Swan are the densest star fields (another great term) and the addition of a few lenses in front of my eyes allows me to see that the celestial milk is composed of tens of thousands more visible stars, a blanket of stars, an inverted bowl of stars.
And so it wheels past above this pretty, troubled little planet, this dust speck on which I have lain my bag, on which I rest my little head with its busy little brain. On the best nights the sheer immensity of the scene, so majestically indifferent to me and my little projects, quiets me to the depths of my being. The night sky puts me in my place, shows me just how important I am in the incomprehensibly grand scheme of things. What chance does an ego have in the face of such clear evidence?
So many of us have to wrestle with these inner tyrants, these little narrators telling us how great or how lousy we are, how so-and-so did us wrong, how we can get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world. We spend time on the therapist’s couch sorting through the mad monologues running non-stop through our circuitry. We reach for the medicines- pot and booze and television, Xanax and Zoloft and Prozac- to turn down the volume inside our brains, the chatter of status consciousness.
It is my sheer dumb luck that my obsession with reptiles has led me out to this hot, dry place where night after night I can see the truth: that I am tinier than tiny and briefer than brief. I learn the old lesson that we moderns have somehow forgotten. In the face of the glory of the universe a great calm floods through me, the realization that this little life of mine is an opportunity for giving and receiving joy as long as I don’t take myself too seriously. With all of space and time wheeling overhead, a star-spangled lesson in perspective, I find the task quite easy to accomplish.