This week’s ‘big thing’ is the night sky. Stargazing. Is there anything in the world more awe-inspiring? Or more likely to make you feel very small indeed, our tiny life but a blink of an eye as the galaxies roll ever on.
Where was I? Oh yes, stars. Leaning back and trying (and failing) to find constellations is to blink profusely at the mind-boggling bigness of the universe. Are those tiny pricks of light really trillions of miles away? What’s a light year? And why do we use a term of time to describe distance anyway? The two sides of my academic life collide on such occasions as the artist in me starts to quote poetry and the scientist (the shy, nervous one) frowns and gets all perplexed.
At the turn of the new millennium (who remembers the fraught Y2K anxieties?) I stood in the middle of a field in the middle of Ireland with a group of people I barely knew and stared up at the sky. To our happy surprise the Milky Way was shining in a fluffy arc, decorating the darkness with sci-fi twinkles. Orion shone his sword, the Plough stood firm and Cassiopeia zig-zigged nicely. It was gorgeous. Just for a moment I was rootless and felt free.
Fast forward twenty-odd years and I’m in another field, a forest in fact, with best mates on an Autumn camping trip. We’re wrapped up in blankets and holding onto flasks of hot whiskey, leaning ever backwards to stare into the sky. Much consternation ensues regarding planets vs stars and time vs distance. We point and frown and come to some alarmingly unscientific conclusions (whiskey is helping). And then, just as we’re sighing with the majesty of it all, a visitor tip toes towards us and we all hold our breath. It’s a pine marten. His big round nose nudges a tin mug and he sleeks on past, sanguine. A wild animal, still very rare in Ireland, had joined our nature appreciation session. The perfect reminder to look up and look down at all the beauty around us.