Last week I made my annual trek south for our school’s 7th grade outdoor education trip, to Pinnacles National Park, two hours down and east of here. We spent three days there, camping in a near perfect setting and living among creatures that our not our usual neighbors–the California condor, cliques of coyotes that came calling in the night, and hordes of ever ready-to-ransack raccoons. In a past year on this trip it was tarantula mating season, hundreds of them running scattershot in some areas of the park, much to the thrill and horror of the two-leggers taking in the melee.
But it is not these creatures that held my attention so much this time around. Rather, it is the infinite possibility of creatures unknown–and so far unknowable–to us that did. For at night at the very light-limited Pinnacles the heavens and their celestial inhabitants come out in high relief overhead, and the overwhelming awe that one experiences, say, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon expands into an inexpressible bliss as vast, it seems, as that beheld above.
This year, my 6th or 7th year chaperoning, the Milky Way was at its clearest yet. It ran in a perfect shaggy tear down the sky above the valley in which we were settled. We here on earth, as you may know, are located out toward the edge of the vast flaring spiral that is the Milky Way. In what we see above us, one offshoot of the galaxy swings outward like a dramatically gesturing arm, our last visual aspect before the endless cosmos beyond. Brilliantly, that arm split into two tendrils which we could see really distinctly this year. So clear, and yet still a bit unfathomable this illusion, that what you were looking at wasn’t a real thing, but millions and millions of things–stars and planets–just like our own.
Of course thoughts turn during such observations to the idea of life out there. These thoughts are baited not just by the vast potential of the cosmos themselves but by signals of actual life that are in fact up there–the red and green strobes of planes stitching their way overhead, the drone of their engines trailing some ways behind; the unblinking white speck, rarer to spy, that is a satellite moving steadily in its soundless arc. And finally, the not living but quite animated and even more elusive comet, etching its brief scorch for those lucky enough to see it.
The mind demands the consideration–there has to be life out there, doesn’t there? Why would the elements and forces that conspired to create our existence here not have occurred countless times and places elsewhere out there? An endless number of times, no?
All those versions of beauty, of art, of communication, of sensuality. It leaves me ravenous thinking about it.
The odds of this NOT being the case must be infinitesimally small!, we assert. But in so doing we experience a collective pinch–a bruise, even, to our pride. For, if it’s so, why is it the case that no one from out there has…called…to say…hi?