There have been a lot of changes lately in this telescope tourist’s life. Two big changes dwarf the others, and gave rise to lots of little fractal-like changes of their own: I started my first real, non-internship job covering space and physics for Wired.com, and I moved from the east coast to Seattle.
To get to Seattle, two of my dearest friends and I packed everything we could fit into my tan Toyota Camry and drove literally from ocean to ocean. (We drove an extra two hours on the last day to make sure we put our feet in the Pacific, since Seattle’s not actually on the coast.) We stayed with friends, took a couple hundred pictures, and drank more varieties of beer than I had thought possible. We swam in lakes, rode horses, and played a green ukulele around a campfire. It may literally have been the time of my life.
I planned a few science writing trips along the way — our visit to the historic Yerkes Observatory was featured on Wired last month, and there are more to come.
But one of my road buddies, Kristine Heiney (pictured above, in the Badlands of South Dakota), kept a much more powerful record: She wrote poems. And she’s getting some recognition for them. Thirteen of her poems (two from the road trip) will be hanging in Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, New York for the entire month of November. If you’re anywhere near Ithaca, go check them out! They even have some science in them.
In case you’re not going to be anywhere near Ithaca in November, Kristine said I could post the whole set of poems here. I can’t think of an introduction that would do them justice, so I’ll just let you go read them. They’re the best record I have of what those days felt like.
I leaned over the top
of the drop tower–
which is where earth has been removed
to skyscraper depths,
what’s dropped balances
gravity to weightlessness–
and I wanted to holler or spit
to feel what voids of that caliber do.
My perception couldn’t register
that depth, that light at the bottom the only
visible portion. Men burn fabrics
(fiberglass and cotton) to see–
through cameras and mirrors, angled
just so–what the shape of fire is,
and if it consumes the fabrics during
the 5.18 second drop.
If I was in that vehicle,
I would weigh tons during the splash
into polystyrene pellets, a pile of
soft hail slowing me down,
and my body would break
the tether between it and its soul. But,
before that, convection stops
and I float beside that
unrestrained spherical flame.
By the time the green
ukulele was out on the street, in my hands,
I was already playing. The afternoon
was all summer, fresh after our
early morning, post-observatory bedtime. The moon was
so bright through the lens it made our eyes
water, made a globular cluster small
in comparison. Apparent brightness. Everything
there rotates, and, in the dark I couldn’t keep
my bearings, the shape of the room, where
to find the stairs, straight.
But I knew, still, that nothing had
really changed–a sleepy comfort.
I wanted a supernova.
It stopped feeling like a toy,
after a while, when the uke was all I had
to sing to. It stopped
sounding so comical, so bright.
Before driving on, we ate the last
from an iron that
caught fire on our watch.
I could walk forever
on the bottom of Lake Michigan
and breathe and feel the
cool water on my legs.
I haven’t found any evidence
to the contrary.
Sand ridges under my feet—
rib of lakes—
shifts. I expect
salt, but it smells
like sunned sand and
deep dish pizza. People dressed
for bars—legs up to here,
polos, strappy sandals—
party in the beach parking lot. The cars
pound the street with bass.
I do not belong here.
The waves don’t break up
the moon like I’m used to, the
salt, where is the salt?
Out here, the sand does not
drop off, and I
stand breathing seagulls.
WISCONSIN / MINNESOTA
We bought beer to put in
our beer cheese soup,
cheap beer that probably wouldn’t
taste any good. A cow on the label.
The world’s largest refracting telescope is big
and balanced enough that I can hang on its end and
barely move it. The mechanical banks
in a Minneapolis museum were
discarded, re-collected as artifacts,
unused like Yerkes Observatory.
Chicago took all its books back.
But the men there still love, still
treat us to lunch at a restaurant,
domed like the observatory.
They still coddle the century-old slides
from before were moved on from glass.
In St. Paul, slam poets from far states
compete. We drink beer brewed and named
for the event, we listen
to the poets’ rhythmed lamentations.
The words happen just once,
the performance, the vocalization, image
imprinted imperfect on my glass memory,
fragile, and then scored.
The crickets stopped singing
for the ukulele strummed at our campsite.
The beer we bought in Wisconsin,
two states ago, was better than we guessed.
We should have tasted
it before we used it in our
soup. Badlands are sleeping
elephants dyed yellow and
pink for the circus. The real spirit
of the hills is in the country, a woman in pink
told us. Her dog barked like
it was bigger than a dachshund. An ant
crawled up her shin. Her watch spoke
the time at regular intervals.
Here, they dynamite faces
into hills to bring the crowds. There used to be
swarms coming in to pulverize rock, melt,
hammer extraction into a button, remove
lead, remove silver. Gold mining just
doesn’t hold that same promise any more;
stimulation comes from gamblers and
souvenirs. I buy postcards.
You don’t know
rain til you seen it coming
a hundred miles off, til
you watch it turn hail
and hop like grasshoppers
off the rocks, pick it up
so it melts like a tooth
and then stops falling
when you got a puddle
there in your hand, til
you felt it on the back of your
neck, watched it on the back
of a mustang’s, caught and tamed.
This is rain.
These are highways, flat
and seventy-five miles per hour
through plains and Rockies and
reservations. Patience is
sewing five hundred elk teeth–
that’s two hundred fifty elk felled–
on that dress and holding on til
the first freeze so you can knock
buffalo berries onto a blanket.
I am here for this:
peeling back my mind
to understand the scale of
big sky hills, acquainting
my skin with the rain,
my balance with the scree.