Time to breathe

Stargazing and geology satisfy the spiritual needs of a Utah writer and teacher


Saturday night, in the pasture south of the house, the moon glinting in windy willows, I showed several friends how to use the outer two bowl stars of the Big Dipper to point to Polaris -- the North Star. Flames flickered just a few yards away in the fire pit by the Blacksmith Fork River. Voices and laughter wafted from that circle of light. A few thin clouds stretched across the sky. It was a beautiful spring-to-summer night in northern Utah.

"There," I said, pointing past Victoria's shoulder. "Over the roof and, oddly, it's in the north."

She smiled. Then I swept my arm past the Dipper's handle -- "Arc to Arcturus," I said. "It's a red giant star -- there. Then speed on to Spica," I added, gesturing at a white star and explaining that we were looking toward intergalactic space. Connect the dots, and suddenly you're on a cosmic escarpment, the space beyond brimming with unseen galaxies.

"Cool!" said Victoria, a historian, who, with her husband, Paul, lingered in their looking to the sky. For a moment, we felt like kids, happy to be allowed to stay up past bedtime.

I stepped back and sighed quietly, thinking about my father's upcoming visit. He believes in God; I do not. I didn't want to lie, but I didn't want to hurt him. What could I say? All evening the matter had weighed on me. Looking at the stars above Cache Valley was somehow like looking into the heart of my dilemma.

A couple of years ago, when I was visiting my dad and stepmom in Indiana, the subject of my "soul" had come up. Their faith has brought them to an enviable sense of peace, and now they worry about me, especially about my destination after death. But because we all love each other and had reached a conversational impasse, we let the matter drop. It would come up again, I knew: My father and I are both feeling his mortality. For that matter, I'm feeling my own. My dad is nearing 80, and I'm solidly in the middle of my life.

I realize, though, that there's more to this than our ages. Ever since moving to the West, I've felt time  more keenly. It's the land, I think: The gray, fossil-built dolomite of the Bear River Range. The exposures of snow-white quartzite. The glacier-carved cirques I backpack to in the High Uintas. It's the benches, the shorelines of ancient Lake Bonneville and its descendent, the Great Salt Lake. It's the lunar-like Mancos Shale south of Price, where the Book Cliffs rise -- seeming to be always orange with sunset, whatever the time of day -- and it's the red rock lapping across southern Utah, time sheening everywhere, more spectacular with every fact I learn and every year that passes. The land shows us fathoms of the past -- the land is the surface of that geological ocean -- and while this is true everywhere, Utah's plateaus, mountains, canyons, arches and valleys have been chiseled for so long by so much force to such spectacular scenes that I live not only in Mountain Standard Time but also in the Precambrian, the Mississippian, the Eocene and all the other tongue-tying eras that preceded us and that, in these strange landscapes, abide.

The party was slowly breaking up. Later, I wished that I'd reminded my friends that we'd been time-traveling -- not, in this instance, by the visible rock of daylight, but by the night's mysterious map of starlight. We had looked back 80, 105, 680, 68, 88, 210, 37 and 220 years into the past, each figure being the light-years' distance of a particular star we'd glimpsed.

The next afternoon, I sat under a maple that devoured local starlight. The sunshine dappling my skin was eight minutes old. Every moment on Earth is lit by the sun's past. Shadows crossed the boulder behind me.

How often do we perceive the land and the sky as a kind of temporal nest? How often do we think of light as already ancient? The past seems mostly personal, familial, tribal. The present can seem to contain only the in-box of our electronic mail, the ceaseless beeping of machines, images of thin children standing on dust. The future? As uncertain as ever.

Geologists can identify whole eons in a stony glance. Biologists speak of vestigial organs. Astronomers amble through billions of years every night. Their knowledge surprises and soothes me, but this is not conventional faith, which insists that certain things can never be wrong. It's a fidelity to facts, provisional though they are, given our human limitations, and it is also an openness to wonder. I find the grandeur and meaning in science that my father mostly finds in religion, although, like many people, he sees each as founts and not necessarily contradictory ones. In any case, neither one of us seems especially fond of death. We take comfort where we can.

Beneath the maple tree, I perused an old science book for children, Heinz Haber's Our Friend the Atom, and I learned that in each breath of air there swarm 25 X 1021 atoms. That is: 25,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. I learned that the atoms that Leonardo da Vinci breathed are still in the atmosphere today -- of course -- and, considering "storms, updrafts, hurricanes, trade winds" and the master's re-uptake of atoms in "closed rooms," the book claims that "with every breath ... you inhale 100 million atoms that were once breathed by ... da Vinci!"

Rocks and stars remind us of and touch us with time, and breath is a kind of immortality.

My father, a former chemist, would appreciate that, even though he found it insufficient.

As I read, a log still smoked from last night's fire. I got a bucket from under the leafing-out virgin's bower near the shed. I walked down to our small beach, held the bucket in the river, and then poured water on the ashy log. Lazuli buntings, orioles, black-headed grosbeaks, siskins and towhees filled the warm space with calls and songs. Soon the air will smell of chokecherry blossoms.

And this is what I think: What we breathe now is afterlife enough. 

Christopher Cokinos is the author of The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, forthcoming from Tarcher/Penguin in July 2009. He teaches at Utah State University.

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