Earth Day 2004 reflections

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

"Observe and contemplate," says Madeleine L'Engle, and so did a small band of planet-gazers on March 25, shivering around two telescopes positioned in the parking area of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

We were there to view the five planets available to see on this clear night. Andy Veh of Kenai Peninsula College was our host. He had agreed to set up his equipment and explain what we were seeing.

Mercury was obscured by trees and clouds to the west. Venus was bright, holding the four o'clock position, about "15 inches" from the moon. The gray pock-marked lunar surface was easily seen. Mars was a noticeably red dot within "five inches" of the moon, (we could see neither of the Martian rovers). Moving east and almost directly over head, we saw spectacular Saturn with its rings and one of its tiny moons. Largest and farthest in the eastern sky, Jupiter, with its cloudy bands of gas and four of its moons, completed our solar system tour.

Children and adults lined up, taking turns with the telescopes. Mr. Veh adjusted them to scan the four visible planets, telling us that these five (Mercury might be available on another night) would be in about this present location until our increasing daylight obscured them.

He explained that the four visible moons of Jupiter were not necessarily in the order of proximity as we saw them; that is, the moon appearing closest was not actually the closest to Jupiter. It only appeared closest because of our viewing angle. Another case of things are not always as they seem.

In a recent lecture in Anchorage, Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes," made this comment, "We really don't know much about anything, do we? If we did, why is a larger and larger percentage of the population obese while another part of the world is dying of starvation?"

Mystery and paradox surround us and we find different ways to cope. Looking at the stars might help. It might at least put things in perspective.

Earth Day, April 22. Fittingly, a time of year for rebirth, new starts. And how will we celebrate this year? Recycle a cottage cheese carton? Plant a tree? Well, not yet, at least in Alaska. Protest an ecological crime? Eat an organic apple?

Maybe we should just take a good look up at the planets and then down at our feet. Is this a great planet or what?

In order for this planet to sustain life as we know it, there are more than 50 very narrow parameters which must all coincide at once. These include the temperature and age of our parent star, the intensity of the magnetic field, the gravitational interaction with the moon, the ozone content of the atmosphere and the extent of seismic activity. Even the shape of our galaxy is very specific to sustaining a life-bearing planet.

Every morning I expect to wake up to a consistently rotating, asteroid-free, magnetically sound, atmospherically perfect world, located in a predictable solar system in a "safe" universe. Add to this an almost-infinite list of sub-expectations and you have my normal operating attitude. Rarely do I do any intense or long-term appreciation for this amazing place.

I suppose that gratitude is one of the rarest commodities in circulation today. It has been smothered by expectation. I propose for Earth Day this year, a new protocol of perspective. I call it the N.A.T. system: Notice, Appreciate, Thank. I would like to apply this sytem to the events which occurred in the Challenger Center parking lot on March 25.

What were all of us out there for? To see a spectacle which we can rarely view. We did not really care who else came, but very briefly, all of us who did come were on the same page gazers, wonderers, ponderers, humble, mobile little microbes of the universe staring up into that infinite unknown.

And what were we thinking? Did the sight of these solar system neighbors make us feel small and powerless? Filled with awe? Proud of our technology? More appreciative of the ground on which we stood?

The conversation taking place during our viewing was brief and varied. A dark-haired woman with a very polite son about 11 years old, introduced herself to me, mistaking me for someone else who knew a person named Yeager. A comment-question about the age of the solar system arose which spurred some humerous discussion. A mother corrected her daughter who was using the legs of the telescope for a London Bridge game.

There were no amenities there that night, except for a couple of chairs from the center. It was a blissfully consumer-free moment nothing to buy, nothing to subscribe to, nothing being promoted, no Internet site to refer to, no schedule, no number to take to be sure you got your fair and accurate turn to use the telescope. Everyone acted enthused and very considerate of all others who were there. This is Earth at its finest people, the caretakers of the planet, acting kindly, wisely and humbly in the face of a vast universe above us.

We went, we saw, we shivered. We reflected upon what we know and what we don't know and upon the choices we make based on both. Possibly we came away with a deeper appreciation for what we have right here likely the most valuable and glorious piece of real estate in the entire galaxy.

Thank you, Andy Veh, thank you for this unique, early Earth Day appreciation opportunity you provided!

On Dec. 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts could see the approaching Earth out their space capsule window. They had just orbited the moon, describing it as lonely, forbidding place, an expanse of nothing. Capt. Jim Lovell said to the listeners at Houston and all over the world, "God bless all of you, all of you on the Good Earth." And if they could speak, I suppose the Martian rovers would say the same.

Rosalind Foster has been a resident of Kenai since 1987. She has lived on the Kenai Peninsula since 1977. A former teacher, she now is an independent distributor for Shaklee Corp., a manufacturer of health care and environmentally friendly products. She is a member of the Kenai Fellowship Church.

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