Friday October 6, 2006
One of the great pleasures of being on retreat around this time last year was looking up into the sky and being able to see the stars, rather than the sheet of sodium orange that you see in Birmingham. It is a sad thing, the loss of the night sky: there is something wonderful and humbling about craning your neck and looking up at the Milky Way as it arches overhead. And there is something odd about the way, inside our well-lit homes, we can not even notice the passage between day and night, about the way, if I remember the quote from Heidegger, we “turn the night into day and the day into harassed unrest”.
Once when I was living in a Buddhist community up in Newcastle, there was a power cut as we ate our evening meal. When I say “Buddhist community”, perhaps you image a serene and calm environment, but the truth was we were a fairly excitable and talkative bunch, and so our mealtimes were spent in animated discussion, peppered with quips and wisecracks. Anyway, there we were, chattering away, having finished eating and started on drinking tea. The sun had disappeared behind the rooftops, but it was still light. Then the power went. We continued to talk, but that particular evening, something strange happened: as the sky outside darkened, we became quieter and quieter, stiller and stiller, until we were sitting in silence. It seemed to happen quite naturally and easily, but the contrast with any other evening around that particular table was astonishing.
Ever since then, I have wondered about our tendency to drive out the night, so that we can perpetuate our ceaseless activity. Sometimes it seems that we live in a world of restless frenzy that is contrary to our nature, or even to our biology.
So I was delighted to read a story in the New Scientist today about those hardy souls up in Iceland, land of, um… polar bears, Björk and Ram Groping (don’t ask…). Apparently last week, to mark the opening of the Reykjavik International Film Festival, the people of the capital city turned out their lights so that they could gaze up at the heavens (see this report in the Iceland Review Online ). There was some concern that crime might suddenly rocket in the half hour of darkness, but as the New Scientist sagely pointed out, criminals need to be able to see to go about their nefarious activities, and such fears seemed to be unfounded. Unfortunately cloud cover obscured the skies, but the idea is fantastic. I’m waiting for Birmingham to try the same thing. And why not, for that matter, London, New York, Tokyo…
But not all hope is lost. For those who are city-bound, as I am at the moment, and who yearn for a good sight of the skies, you can always download a copy of Stellarium, the open source home planetarium. So in the evening, you can turn the lights out and gaze at your flickering screen, tracing the lines of the constellations. It’s really not the same as sitting on a bench with a cup of tea and feeling the cold seeping into your bones as your neck starts to ache; but it might act as a reminder that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the sky (and hence the rest of the universe) still exists…
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