Red — is the Fire’s common tint –
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Light is, quite literally, the stuff of life.
Around the globe and especially in its more arid reaches, light is ubiquitous, and light is defining. The common clarity of overhead sky allows the light of both day and night to constantly illuminate by degree, and illumination refines the activities of life.
The first time one encounters severely illuminated aridity, the impression is likely to be strong, seldom tentative. There is the landscape – typically rugged, jagged, harsh, angular, never overtly delicate or soft. The endless dome of blue overhead is very often without a single cloud, or sometimes it’s masked by roiling, dark, and fearsome clouds and storms – or, by gentle cumulus, or high and giddy cirrus streaks. But always, no matter the conditions, there is something magical in the interplay of light and landscape, in pockets or splashes of intense color in rock, or sky, or springtime wild flowers sprinkled across an otherwise drab, tan, and often convoluted surface.
After a time, either of two possible outcomes seems inevitable: one is a wish to leave, quickly; to escape the heat, the thorns, the always sharp edges of aridity, and the blinding light of the midday sky. The other is to seek the unerring beauty intrinsic to form, to subtle color, and to ponder the sheer paradox of a land where everything genuinely is harshly delicate, to become captive to the realization that in the unique, there is no equivalent anywhere. The urge to explore the subtleties soon can overwhelm, demand immersion. How can it be? Why is it thus? What is it that underlies the mystique of the land, the mystery of the soul — the light — of life itself? How can either be best explored? Where to begin?
On the nature of light
To the physicist, light is a wave, a photon which races through the cosmos at constant speed, a speed which, in and by itself, establishes limits on all relationships of mass and energy. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has located a distant dot in deep space, and each time its orbital coordinates intersect with the coordinates which mark the precise location of that dot, the Hubble gathers another photon or two which have traveled from that source. With each encounter, the ‘image’ of the dot becomes more refined. It’s now been calculated that those occasional photons which the Hubble detects emanating from that source have been traveling from that source for approximately 13.5 billion earth-years, or from a time when the universe itself had existed only a scant 300 million years beyond its moment of origin, the so-called Big Bang.
Much closer to earth, approximately 9000 light years distant, lies the Trifid Nebula, a gigantic cloud of gas surrounding a massive star which is hundreds, possibly thousands of times the size of our own tiny sun. The Trifid Nebula is a place where new stars are being created even as we speak – as if a fundamental testimony to the endless ‘life’ of light intrinsic to the universe.
Figure 1: A “Stellar Nursery” area in the Trifid Nebula (HST photo).
The photons that scald and illuminate the earth’s arid regions originate much closer to the earth, of course, but aside from that little detail they’re identical to those already traveled 13.5 billion light years, or 9000 light years, and, in a simple sort of way seem less mysterious. ‘Our’ photons – generated in the nuclear furnace we call the sun – have a relatively short travel time of seven minutes, give-or-take, and collectively their impact on earth-bound light is a lot more predictable, more useful by sheer weight of numbers. Sun-generated photons continuously bathe, at any given moment, half of the earth’s surface, with intensities dependent upon both the angle of attack and the migrating atmospheric patterns which stand between the earth’s surface and the sun-weather patterns.
Overall, the temptation amongst the modern throng is to assume things skyward have always been as they are today, that we have a sun, and a moon, and at night, stars arranged in connect-the-dot patterns descriptive of bears, bulls, hunters, etc. But that which we observe today is far from constant. True enough, eclipses and comets, though relatively rare, are generally predictable because they are also predictably cyclic, as are the annual migrations of constellations across the night sky.
But there are, sometimes, unexpected and unpredicted perturbations in the observable cosmic ‘norm’. On July 4 of the year 1054, C.E., people in Asia and in the Americas – including the indigenous peoples of what is today the American Southwest – duly recorded their observation of the sudden appearance of a new ‘star’, a star bright enough to be seen, at first, even at midday. What they witnessed was not the ‘birth’ of a star, however, but rather the sudden death – an explosive supernova and gravitational collapse – of a star perhaps ten times the mass of our sun, situated nearly 7000 light years distant from earth. The supernova initially blazed with the light of 400 million of our suns and, had our solar system been positioned within fifty light years of the explosion, it would have been burned to a crisp. Today, the Crab Nebula has tamed substantially but can still be observed as a glowing mass of gas and dust.
Figure 2: HST image of the center of the Crab Nebula. The Crab Pulsar is located in the vicinity of the two bright spots near the center of the ‘red’ cloud.
At it’s core is a neutron star which has a diameter of approximately six miles, a mass at least as great as that of our sun, and rotates 30 times each second. In so doing it unleashes pulses of intense radio emissions – 30 pulses per second – and this “pulsar” acts as a cosmic generating station which produces enough electromagnetic energy that the nebula today shines brighter than 75,000 of our suns. It is dim to us only because of its distance from the earth, and though it no longer contributes substantially to the light which today blankets the American Southwest, when it was ‘new’ in July of 1054 C.E., the Anasazi were impressed enough to depict the event in pictographs in at least two separate locations including Chaco Canyon and a cave at White Mesa. Follow the ‘instruction’ in those pictographs today, and each time in each 18½ year lunar cycle that the moon is positioned as it was on July 4th or 5th, 1054 C.E. point a telescope toward the spot in the heavens relative to the lunar crescent as indicated in the Anasazi rock inscriptions, and the Crab Nebula will come into view.
The ancients understood light, that it was central to life itself. They understood and measured the lunar cycle, and knew how to predict exactly the moments in the solar cycle we now call the equinoxes and solstices, and they understood, precisely, the impact each had on life, on their lives.
Over the entire course of human civilization, light – as it emits from the great darkness – has been understood to enable survival and persistence of not only humankind itself, but of the entire spectrum of life. Over the billions of elapsed years since life first appeared on planet earth, light has been its primary source of energy, the energy which enables the one primary event upon which all life depends for success, i.e. reproduction of kind, and in persistence which, ever present, accepts myriad modification to allow the incredible variety of form and species present today, each and all of which share an interdependence with all of life, hence with light.
It’s generally agreed amongst astrophysicists that the overwhelming percentage of mass which makes up the known universe is matter that cannot be observed directly, appropriately designated as “dark matter.” Dark matter itself emits no light, but its mass and resultant gravitational effect enables the formation, evolution, and ‘functions’ of galactic clusters, of galaxies themselves, and components therein/thereof. In that sense, it is dark matter – that metaphoric eternal darkness – which enables the formation of light-emitting sources, stars of every description and which in turn enable the formation and function of life itself.
From the Dark, Luz: Light, Life, and Vision
Light enables life, and life enables vision. Vision is bifurcate: there is the record of that which exists in the immediate surround, evidenced by ‘sight’, and there is the intellectual extension of sight, often called ‘insight’ which is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Internal sight, mental vision or perception, discernment; in early use sometimes, Understanding, intelligence, wisdom.” John Ruskin spoke of insight when he noted that “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
Ruskin was very concise as he pointed to one of humankind’s most common shortcomings, i.e. an inability to ‘see’ beyond the moment because of an overall lack of insight – or at least an overall resistance to practice same. Today, we sometimes refer to that dilapidation of vision, that darkness of purpose, as Politics.
Nevertheless, the truism remains: to ‘see’ allows comprehension and understanding. The ancient peoples scattered around the globe understood, and used their intellectual vision to enable their survival – even to prosper – for thousands of years, often in harsh and unforgiving lands. One could hope, perhaps should hope, that across the breadth of humankind, illumination, not darkness, serves to reveal, to light the way of life on journey toward its own ultimate destiny. And still, the pages of human history are crowded with evidences of fluctuation: from the light of Ancient Greece to the darkness of the Crusades; from the light of the Renaissance to the Black Hole of German death camps; from the victory over tyranny by the Great Democracies to the impending darkness of a new Imperial age set amidst the unenlightened clash of Capitalist and Cleric; the lessons seem all too difficult to learn, to obey. But always, when the light dims and when, as the poet Dickinson describes, “. . . the vivid Ore Has vanquished Flame’s conditions, / It quivers from the Forge / Without a color, but the light / Of unanointed Blaze,” the black hole of shallow intellect shatters and life persists, even in, or perhaps because of “. . . the light Of unanointed Blaze.”
Perhaps this “unanointed Blaze” is the light which emanates from that which astronomer Carl Sagan commonly referred to as “star stuff,” and is not encumbered with or otherwise distilled through the faculty of intelligent examination?
In any case, it should be noted that when the “Red of the Fire’s common tint” of the star stuff which defines the gas cloud at the center of the Crab Nebula (Fig. 2) is vanquished by the vivid ore of the neutron star called the Crab Pulsar, the result might become not an unanointed Blaze, but instead a black hole from which no light can e’er escape again. The choice well may, in that instance and in fact, have already been made – we’ll not know till some 7000 years have passed after the conclusion of the event, because it will take that long for the message to arrive, even as it travels at the speed of light itself.
It could thus be that the lesson we might learn is more simple, i.e. better we rely on the illume from our own sun to show us the way and to provide us with the illume to proceed accordingly. On the earth, the rocks, the plants and flowers, the animals, the mountains and clouds all know how to deal with illuminations and make them work appropriately. Only the human animal has, it seems, the tendency to move away, to migrate instead toward the intellectual darkness his fragile ego portends — a phenomenon which today seems to have reached a zenith of sorts, particularly within the realm of Politics, American-style.
So perhaps it would be the wiser course to pay heed to the natural world, to the grand universe itself. When darkness seems pervasive it is, after all, the wise person who recalls the wisdom as (again) was perfectly expressed by the Poet Dickinson:
Those — dying then,
Knew where they went —
They went to God’s Right Hand —
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found –
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small –
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all –
Better *any* light, even the glow of swamp gas, than the darkness — the black hole — of unenlightened blaze.
Someone — anyone — please feel free to pass said tidbits on to the Grand Old Party (assuming a remnant of it still exists . . . somewhere . . . in its self-imposed darkness). Meanwhile, a final personal (hopefully poetic) tribute to intellectual illumination, to Luz itself:
Luz: The Light
A thread of light persists as darkness falls;
Luz, life’s subtle flame, shines forth as beam cast
Sharp through reality’s ere darkened pall,
Revealing hints of living soul’s repast.
In darkness, too, the whispers of the muse –
Silent intonations, though heard before,
Evoke reflections of lives lived — a ruse?
Fires sensed by those who live become as cores,
Pure shafts of light. Collections of past times
Not readily dispelled arouse the Source —
The Souls of those long gone returned as mimes,
Intoning memories of Luz, a force
No darkness can conceal, nor dare it try
Extinguish light — with shadow, or with cry.