Weekly Post 002: Acknowledge the Stars, Acknowledge the Land
29 November, 2020 - 8 min read
"Dark matter" is the name given to a substance ubiquitous in the universe but which exists perpetually out of reach. We cannot capture it with anything our bodies interact with and even to say it's a shadowy substance is inaccurate because it casts no shadow.
Its presence is inferred based on how it confounds the behavior of the particles we can measure and predict. Dark matter has mass so it bends light passing near galaxies, creating "halos" that tell of its existence. The only way to detect the theoretical particles responsible for the substance of dark matter is to create laboratories deep underground, shielded from our energetically chaotic comings and goings on the Earth's surface by a half mile of rock, and carefully measure controlled environments, patiently waiting for one such particle to bump up against a particularly lucky atom.
This search, paradoxically positioned underground to get a clearer view of the cosmos, is described in an early chapter of Underland by Robert Macfarlane, but that book isn't the subject of this small post. In this chapter he writes:
Dark-matter physicists work at the boundary of the measurable and the imaginable. ...Theirs is hard, philosophical work, requiring patience and something like faith: 'As if' - in the analogy of the poet and dark-matter physicist Rebecca Elson - 'all there were, were fire-flies / And from them you could infer the meadow.'
Elson's vibrant analogy and her "poet and dark-matter physicist" description grabbed me so I started reading more, starting with this excellent piece by Maria Popova. Elson was a very accomplished astrophysicist who, after completing a PhD at Cambridge at the age of 26, went on to work with the first data from the Hubble Space Telescope.
At 29, the same year she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard and became the youngest astronomer to serve on U.S. National Academy of Sciences decennial review committee, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The blood cancer went into remission for several years in her early thirties, but ultimately came back and took her life in May 1999. She was only 39.
Through her research, she studied how much regular stars determine the effects of the dark matter halos surrounding visible galaxies, making major contributions to our understanding of their makeup. In addition to her scientific accomplishments and publications, however, she also left behind a short book of poems, A Responsibility to Awe, published posthumously in 2001. Through her art, she captured her wonder at the cosmos and at the life cycle of stars, galaxies, and all living things, written out in beautiful language honed over a lifelong practice of writing and poetry.
Elson's poems include meditations on life as extensions of precise and unyielding laws of the universe, alongside odes to the wonder that we exist as anything at all: "We are survivors of immeasurable events / Flung upon some reach of land / Small, wet miracles without instructions / Only the imperative of change," as she writes in Evolution.
As I read her poems, I'm struck by the life she breathes into the laws and scientific theories we are taught as static bounds of the universe. Our experience is reframed as just a snapshot of a single moment in an ever-changing process expanding infinitely before and beyond us, where even this moment is charged with potentiality and infused with a cosmic history. Evolution and change are recurring themes in her poems, placing us squarely within the flowing current of the process rather than above or outside of it, so in Devonian Days she writes "We didn't notice, in our restlessness / The webbed toes twitching in our socks."
Many of her poems strive to bring awareness to our small place within macro-scale processes without becoming lost to them. This is the same goal Macfarlane has in Underland more generally, exploring what it means to exist in a world shaped by "deep time," where even seemingly static, timeless entities like limestone exist in ongoing dynamic tension with other bodies, just maybe on a timescale we lack the sensitivity to fully understand.
Elson carefully balances this broad scale of being with meditations on individual details. The short poem Dark Matter, reading very much like a Zen haiku, entirely focuses on a slowly spinning leaf suspended by a spider's thread. While in Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe, Elson describes us as waves within an ocean of being, always shore-bound but arising from an ocean that has no center point of origin.
I want to end with the last two stanzas of her poem Antidotes to Fear of Death, which you can hear read by Janna Levin here. Much like Underland and the cosmic observatories located deep underground, this poem calls attention to the infinite by starting from an acknowledgement of the history contained in the land we walk on.
And sometimes it's enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
Continuing with an acknowledgement of the land we walk on, with Thanksgiving passing this past week and alongside it Native American Heritage Day, I'm reminded of a goal I gave myself upon moving to Seattle a few months ago: learn about the history of my new area.
When I first read it in September, the official history published by the Seattle government was full of dismissive language and gaping omissions regarding the original native people of the area and the treatment of non-White ethnic groups during Seattle's history. Thankfully, sometime in the last 2 months since I found that page it has been completely updated to be more comprehensive and inclusive! So the version above does now give a better overview of the area.
The people indigenous to this region including what is now metropolitan Seattle, are the Duwamish Tribe who still live here. The name "Seattle" itself is an Anglicization of Si'ahl, the name of the most famous Duwamish chief, born to parents from both the Duwamish and Suquamish Tribes.
I have a lot to learn about this area, but as a new resident, I would like to acknowledge that I live on the traditional land of the first people of Seattle, the Duwamish People past and present. This is a people still here today, and I honor with gratitude the land itself and the Duwamish Tribe.
- This phenomenal conversation on The Creative Independent between Matt Berninger and Phoebe Bridgers on songwriting, song meanings, and using everything as creative kindling. One of the things they discuss is one of the magical aspects of performing music I've also experienced: hearing about what your song means via someone's interpretation of it. It's always interesting and rarely what you intended.
- The compelling work of artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who uses a wide array of technologies and mediums including novel synthetic biology work to look at our relationship with nature. I particularly like Designing for the Sixth Extinction and The Substitute.
- On Spotify by George Larkwright, discussing music, loss, and the importance of owning media in "a new economy where we own nothing and rent everything." Favorite quote: "Loss is a part of life. But there are some losses we can control and prevent."
- A Tribute by kafkaesc recounting her childhood memories of searching for Mew in early Pokemon games, in a world of glitches and unknown language. Favorite quote: "Walking the world of a story I didn't know was finished."
- I've recommitted to meditating this week and I've joined several open zazen sittings with Seattle Soto Zen center. This was a moment when the total strangeness of having moved nearly all interpersonal events to Zoom came back into sharp focus, now that the same window has encompassed everything from business meetings to open mics, friend hangouts, and now spiritual experiences.
Obviously working through Underland by Robert Macfarlane and now A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson as mentioned in the main post. I've also picked up The Overstory by Richard Powers that I've added to my queue once I get through these.
All books I've read to date this year are on my 2020 bookshelf on are.na. I've fallen behind schedule for my recurring ≥13 book/year goal so I'll have to hurry to get 3 books finished over the next month!
I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend and went absolutely nowhere.
Until next time,