Back when I was a teenager one of my favorite words was “cosmic.” It’s kind of embarrassing now, but I’m sure you had your own silly colloquialisms, so no harm done. I remember many “cosmic” moments in the adolescent years, like when Craig and I wandered up to Grand Boulevard and were hammered to the quick by a thought that strikes everyone at one time or another, normally when you’re 16 and a little bit high.
“Hey, when you look at blue and I look at blue, how can we know if we’re seeing the same thing?”
“Well, because… um… yeah, wow. That’s cosmic.”
“Wait, how would you describe red, like, if you couldn’t call it red?”
“It’s hot. Blue’s cold. But still… you could be seeing what I’d call green or purple and still say that. To really know I’d have to be inside your head. Or you’d have to be inside mine.”
“Man, that’s cosmic.”
Or then there was the time that Kathy — after holding a long hit of Leroy St. Purple — exhaled and said, as if she had just pierced the veil of all truths, “Infinity is… Incredible.”
At which we all weed-giggled, then conceded her observation was, indeed, cosmically true.
And, you know what? Those moments were cosmic. They were times, however hokey in memory, when the brain took a leap beyond where it was to where it could be, even if it occasionally crashed down into the shark tank like Fonzie with a bad carburetor. Those were the moments when the mind broke free of the linear thinking school tried to inflict upon us. And while I feel a bit foolish to remember once being that Cosmic Kid, I have to admit that those experiences were far more central in creating my character than entire years of Chaucer, chemistry or calculus.
But the one early cosmic realization that stands out above all others happened years before I had ever heard of Kathy or Craig or smoked any chronic.
In the summer of 1979, I went on a week-long canoe trip with my brother Jay and his Boy Scout troop on the Saranac Lake Chain in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. We were four nights into the trip and our Scout Master, Paul LeBlanc, had just whipped together a dinner that I’ll always remember as one of the best of my life. He called it Wheat-a-Moo Stew and it had it all – both wheat and moo. It was spicy. It was filling. It was shared around a campfire with my closest friends. Most importantly for a 12-year-old boy, it possessed the essential attribute for culinary perfection: The prodigious production of late-night, tent-bound farts.
After dinner, and before the poison-gas wars were to commence, the Patrol Leaders told some of the younger kids under their charge to police the campsite for any garbage that had been dropped and others to search for fallen wood to fuel the fire for the night. I wasn’t officially in the troop as I was a year too young, so having no Patrol, I decided to sneak away and avoid any unwanted chores.
Like an Iroquois of my imagination, I crept out of camp and stalked the 100 yards from our campsite down to the water’s edge, trying to avoid stepping on twigs that might snap or breaking branches on trees that could give away my position. At the edge of the island, I found a big, flat east-facing rock. It angled towards the shore and away from my troop. I settled in, out of sight from Mr. LeBlanc, my brother and everyone on the island. Feeling satisfied with my successful escape from work, I kicked out my legs, scraped up some moss for a pillow, laced my fingers behind my head and lay down.
And then it happened.
I saw, right there in front of my eyes, the moon rise for the first time. Of course I’d seen the moon before. I’d seen it risen. But never had I actually watched it climb. I had never seen anything like it. Never had I witnessed a beauty sing itself into existence. And from the first note, the first glimpse of its white crown, I was stunned, enthralled. It moved perceptibly, it didn’t hesitate a second. For an hour or more I watched it rise, arc-second by arc-second above the High Peaks, not daring to wiggle a finger for fear of unsettling its progress. There was something about the near perfect stillness around me — just the water washing the shore, just the crickets’ legs and bats’ wings — that further illuminated the magic inherent in the moment.I knew enough already about rotations and revolutions to understand, physically, what was happening — that it was the turning of the Earth that revealed the illusion of the rise — and yet it seemed magical beyond description. How did it float like that, so slowly, so steadily and silently upward above the mountains and into the sky? How did it seem like words and love? Why did I want my father with me? And yet, why did I want, equally, to remain completely alone? How was this distant and silent, eminently normal thing, so proximate, beautiful and rare? And why hadn’t I ever seen it before?
Looking back, I reflect that one can only experience love at first sight if he first opens his eyes.
When the moon was well above the horizon my brother, who’d been looking for me, called out my name. His voice cut through the reverie and pulled me back to Earth. Yet, in those moments alone on my rock I felt as if God had taken a bit of sly time, like my grandfather once had, to show me the workings of his pocket watch with the unspoken promise that someday it would be mine.
Before calling back to Jay, before returning to the fire, I raised a hand in salute to whatever, or whoever, is out there.
I’ve been doing that now for thirty-one years.
Cosmic, man. Cosmic.
After the trip, under those stars and that floating moon, I let my parents know some things about the east-facing rock — and about how the night sky had gotten under my skin. The next year they enrolled Jay and me in a summer program at the local planetarium. We learned the names of the 7 circumpolar constellations. We studied our star charts. We’d hang out in the planetarium after class and I’d ask Mr. Deluca about the star projector while my older brother would quiz him about relativity, something I did my best to pretend that I understood.
The fascination couldn’t have been timed better. In the early 1980s Star Trek was back in syndication and Jay and I learned that if we got to the television in time to hear, “Space: The Final Frontier…” before our dad settled in to watch the evening news, we would get a full hour of time with him and wouldn’t be bored out of our minds by the seemingly un-ironically entitled “Action News” of Binghamton, NY. Moreover, in 1980 the miniseries, Cosmos, premiered on PBS. Jay and I, along with our younger brother, Ed, watched every episode with our mom and dad, wrapped around one another in the living room. Mom scratching Ed’s back. Dad scratching mine.
That summer I fully bought into Sagan’s universe: the one where we’re all made of “star stuff.” My folks gave some money to PBS during the fund-raising drive and we got the Cosmos coffee table book as a gift. I remember staring and staring at the artist’s rendition of stars, galaxies, quasars, pulsars and planets, particularly one of Jupiter that showed what kinds of life might exist in its gaseous atmosphere. There were huge, floating sentient balloons and thin winged predators. It blew my mind to think, “Well, sure… I guess life could exist there. I just hadn’t thought of that, yet.” After seeing an episode I would ruminate for hours, wondering, for example, about the potential for life underneath the frozen crusts of Europa’s oceans or the seeming unfairness that the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty signed by Khrushchev and Kennedy banned the research necessary to build Orion Class star ships that could, theoretically, travel at near-light speed. Couldn’t they make an exception for nuclear testing in space if it was for something peaceful?
Watching Cosmos was the first time I’d heard the Milky Way described as “The Backbone of the Night,” as the Kalahari Bushmen had known it for thousands of years, and I’ve thought of it ever since. Cosmos was the first time I’d ever really thought about the Big Bang and what it meant, metaphysically, to be in an expanding universe.
Sagan talked, and I took in the stories, mostly wondering what was out there, who was out there – and how we were ever going to say hello. To me, saying hello, sending out a message of “Hey brothers, we’re here, too!” provided purpose enough for all our struggles. I’ve learned since that the first moment of contact isn’t likely to happen in my lifetime, but that doesn’t matter much to me. When it happens, the moon will still be rising over Middle Saranac Lake. Sagan said, and I believed, that the Galaxy – which consists of hundreds of billions of stars – likely contains tens of thousands of alien civilizations and all we have to do is send our voice outward long enough and someday it will be heard. Someday, maybe long in the future, we’ll all be given the opportunity to reflect that we are not just sitting out there on our east-facing rock alone. We will, someday, build a cosmic campfire around which to share stories and warmth with our newly found friends. The thought of it still fills me with dreams.
Decades later, on February 8, 2000 to be exact, I found myself sitting in Flannery’s Bar on 14th and 7th in New York City reading an article in the Times. On that day there was a story about a new book that had been written by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee entitled, Rare Earth. The book is a full-throated refutation of Sagan’s belief in a densely populated universe. Sagan based his thinking on a theory first posited in 1960 by Dr. Frank Drake. The Drake / Sagan hypothesis speculated that given the rate of star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy, and some generalized conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life (such as the presence of liquid water, a reasonably stable climate system and a civilization’s ability to not wipe itself out with nuclear weapons) that life was fairly common in the universe.
“Not so,” said Ward and Brownlee. After 40 years of research informing them on the conditions required for life to exist, they concluded that it was exceedingly rare and only would develop to complexity on one-in-a-hundred-billion “Eden Planets” such as Earth. And they noted that “for us, complex life means a tapeworm.”
Their science is compelling, if speculative. And as I read the piece, I could feel my heart drop through the barstool to the floor. They argue that, amongst other things, the placement of a solar system in a galaxy is crucial to its ability to develop life. Too close to the center and all would be torn asunder by cosmic rays and the gravitational impact of stars passing close to one another. Too far out to the edges and there wouldn’t be enough heavy elements to build life beyond the complexity of pond scum. Further, they stated that a relatively small number of galaxies (spiral galaxies to be exact) have enough of Sagan’s supernova-created “star stuff” to allow any life to develop at all. Whole galaxies, they suggested, “are barren.” Additionally, they argued that most mass extinctions on Earth have been caused by the bombardment of comets and asteroids, and that without the shepherding of a “Good Jupiter,” a planet like Earth would experience bombardment rates ten-thousand times higher that we have on our little blue ball. And they reported that all evidence available suggests that most gas giants discovered out there in the Galaxy are “Bad Jupiters.” Very Bad Jupiters.
Sitting at the bar and reading that story took me back to my east-facing rock, and it made it all seem in vain. In the course of 20 minutes reading, all those cosmic thoughts of childhood, those dreams of a galactic call-and-response, drained away with the last of my whiskey. Fergal the Barman, noting a look of shock and sadness on my face asked me if everything was all right. I said, “I don’t know… I just don’t know.”
I’d felt like I’d just lost my grandfather’s pocket watch. That I’d just lost all my friends. That I’d just lost my reason to salute the sky as I’d been doing every night for twenty years.
And then, in another flash — even before Fergal the Barman had refilled my rock’s glass — it all came back into focus. This wasn’t a problem at all. If we do live on a truly rare earth, then we can do things that whole galaxies cannot. If we’re really alone in the universe, then we’ve got the most unique of gifts — equal in beauty to metaphorical pocket watches and imagined conversations with our brothers on Ceti Alpha Three. If we are alone, then we alone can apprehend beauty. We alone can be, as Brother Vonnegut reminded us, “the eyes, the ears and the conscience of the Creator.” We alone can look at a mountain range or feel our lover’s breath at night and sense the enlivening magic of the universe. We alone can observe the moon as it sings itself into existence over the horizon and into the sky, and we alone can return to our family and share the grace of it all.
We alone can tell the stories of this universe. We alone can love.
As I left the bar that night and looked up into the Manhattan sky, I saw the moon over 7th Avenue and for the first time in decades, I didn’t care if anyone was out there. If they are, then God bless and keep them. If they aren’t, then may we bless and keep one another.
To you, my brothers and sisters, I raise my hand in salute.