Bridges in the Dark
Dad at his Alpenglow Observatory, Salt Lake City, August 2016
Last August I received a call from my 83-year-old mother. “Your father wants to speak with you,” she said. It is like that with Dad and me, not a lot of direct communication. I told Mom I would come over the next day after dinner. When the time came, I was surprised to see my wife, Kirsten, grab her purse and head for the door with me. My father has a reputation for being difficult and there are rarely volunteers to join me in seeing him. Dad is in his mid-eighties and as his oldest, I will be the executor of his will. I thought he might want to talk about some details or arrangements, but when we all sat down around the table together, he started talking about his observatory. I thought he was suggesting I coveted his belongings, which I surely do not. But in my own advancing years I may be gaining enough wisdom so that when Kirsten kicked me under the table I ceased my objections and turned to see her silently mouth, eyebrows raised, “This is an honor.”
Kirsten is right—of course it is an honor. For some 35 years now, my father has been creating a private astronomical observatory that approaches university research quality. It is his magnum opus. Today, however, he feels that using it has become too demanding, that his aging memory isn’t up to managing all the software demands and keeping the cameras, focusers, cooling systems, dome syncs, and filter wheels all operating as required any longer. Dad asked me to move it all to our property in Torrey, Utah, high on the Colorado Plateau in increasingly rare dark sky country.
It has been rewarding to see the warm and enthusiastic reception from friends and family to our giving my father’s equipment a new home. There is something about an observatory that universally invokes a natural response of wonder and curiosity. People want to see it. Perhaps they want to be inspired, perhaps to get that feeling of awe a starry night will inevitably conjure. Dad named the observatory Alpenglow but that did not seem like the right name for an observatory on the Plateau. Still, I wanted to keep Dad in any new name. Friends helped me come up with Torrey House—Alpenglow Observatory and I hope to have it up and ready to capture its “first light” soon.
I share my father’s attraction to the night sky. In Torrey, on a moonless summer night, the Milky Way blasts up overhead arcing across the sky from Boulder Mountain on the southern horizon to Thousand Lake Mountain on the northern. The mountains appear only as black space devoid of all light. But the Milky Way is so pronounced, so prominent, that once your eyes adjust to the inky dark it is possible to see your star-lit shadow on the ground. There is usually a cool breeze, the air smells of pinyon and juniper, occasionally a coyote yelps from out of the blackness punctuating an otherwise deep silence.
The Andromeda Galaxy, visible by naked eye in the dark skies of Torrey.
The Milky Way overhead is what we see when looking out through the spiral arms of our galaxy. While it seems like millions, even in the dark sky of Torrey one can only see at most a few thousand distinct stars. Yet there are over one hundred billion stars in our galaxy. And beyond the Milky Way there are another hundred billion galaxies. On the Colorado Plateau, one of those galaxies, Andromeda, is visible with the naked eye. By the time this gorgeous light enters our eyes it has been on its way for two million years. Science has discovered that the Universe is 13.5 billion years old. It started as an infinitely small, infinitely hot point of energy with the Big Bang. As the Universe expanded and cooled the first element came into being, hydrogen. Hydrogen coalesced to form the first stars where helium was created. Stars matured and blasted into novas and supernovas, the exploded gases emitted reforming into new stars all of which eventually created the 118 elements of the periodic table you learned about in chemistry class. You and I are made up of these elements. It sounds purely romantic, but it is true, we are stardust. When I look up and think of this stardust coming together in me to somehow become conscious and that I am the Universe become self-aware and gazing back out on itself, it makes me sit down awash in awe and wonder.
It is this feeling of awe and wonder and empathy for nature that brings me to the subject of Torrey House Press (THP) and publishing. Like the dark sky, our natural landscape is a diminishing resource. Kirsten, now the executive director and publisher at THP, and I started Torrey House as a way to engender love of the land. In 2010, we worked as volunteers for a week in the fall with Mary O’Brien, a field scientist with the Grand Canyon Trust and the Jane Goodall of the southern Utah National Forests, in assessing damage to cottonwoods, willows, and aspen caused by overgrazing. Mary had us out in the field all day on our hands and knees doing transects and counting browsed shoots. At night, with PCs hooked to car batteries, we gathered around the campfire and entered the data. The overgrazing is bad news, anyone could see it at a glance, but how could we get other people who weren’t there with us to see that our public lands are being mismanaged? And care? Was this data going to do it? We felt Mary needed help to share the message. We thought we would take a crack at bringing the power of pen and story to bear, to try to create some cultural empathy via good literature. We launched Torrey House Press that same fall.
Kirsten’s endeavors as THP’s publisher have brought her together with people and communities working towards the designation and preservation of the new Bears Ears National Monument. She and Steve Trimble took chapbook copies of Red Rock Testimony to Washington, D.C., and she is working with Jackie Keeler on an the all Native voices anthology, Edge of Morning, about the Bears Ears, both titles soon to be released. She was gratified and delighted when, on December 28th, the monument proclamation was announced. And what a beautiful thing it is. The writers of the proclamation, no slouches themselves with a pen, clearly spent some time up between the Ears. Just one short excerpt:
From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.
However, as you know, Utah politicians are united in their efforts to undo the Bears Ears National Monument. There is much work to be done to protect our common heritage, and Torrey House authors are a part of that story.
Torrey House – Alpenglow Observatory in progress at its new home in Torrey, Utah. February 2017
My goal for the observatory, once it is put back together and working in its new home, is to sit down with my dad in his basement office in Salt Lake City and run it together remotely from there. We will be able to take images of objects he previously captured from the light polluted hills of the Wasatch front and compare what clear, dark, pollution-free skies have to offer. I don’t know what Dad really thinks of it all, what his attraction to the heavens amounts to. Above his desk in his home is Salt Lake are some of his beautiful astrophotos. There is also an idealized image of icons from his religion. I am reluctant to ask. My dad, I am quite sure, would be on the side of Utah’s radically conservative politicians on reducing the Monument protects for the Bears Ears, for instance. And his sense of the starry night is likely to be more about proving his faith than of my amazement with nature and science. But out there in the dark and star sprinkled firmament there is this bridge between Dad and me. With it communication can be had, empathy found, gaps spanned, and for that I am grateful.