The morning after the Perseid meteor shower, I woke half-expecting to find burnt cinders in the yard, shards of comet debris littering the road. Mary Wynns and I had lain out in the grass with some friends the night before to watch the show the night before, but we’d seen more satellites and jet planes than shooting stars. There were silent hours of heat lightning between torn clouds. Bats flitted here and there, their flight jagged and irregular. It takes a strange attention to watch the night sky, like watching water for signs of life underneath, so we’d all laid there a little bored but not wanting to say so, watching for something that we didn’t quite know how to predict. Every now and then we’re rewarded by someone’s cry, “Oh! There’s one!” which kept us laying there as the dew rose about us for another interminable twenty minutes or so. Probably a little like fishing, or, maybe, watching fishing on tv.
So while we were there, my mind wandered back to a radio interview I’d heard a couple of days earlier, an interview I’d missed the beginning of, with a Russian, who either was or wasn’t the first woman to go into space flight, and this all might have occurred forty years ago or not. Whenever it happened and whoever she was, I was struck by her description. Her first sight of the earth falling away, spinning through space. There were forest fires burning in Africa that summer, as there are across Russia this year. And as she saw the smoke covering the continent from her airless perch, she said, “I realized that there wasn’t more oxygen, there wasn’t more air. I saw that no one was going to help us. It was up to us to take care of our planet.”
She sounded lonely, and brave, like one child pretending to another that everything will be fine, even though she’s convinced that they’re both abandoned. For thousands of years, the godly put God in His Heavens, trusting and insisting that “all’s right with the world.” But this spacecraft had flown straight into the direction the heavens had always been, and found nothing there but space and more space, more stars, more planets, and a view back towards home that we’d never had before.
For thousands of years, it was considered akin to heresy to question the abundance of the earth; even to conserve was to implicitly suggest that there were limits to the Almighty. Consider the manna, falling from heaven. You shall not save it but eat your fill at the time. You have enough – keep moving. We’re only pilgrims here, moving through towards Canaan’s land.
Growing up in the South is already tantamount to being born into a state of perpetual nostalgia for a place that never was, and being raised in the church is being raised in a tradition that insists, This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through. But forty years ago, we saw pictures that indicate that maybe, at least geographically, we’re already there. No wonder it felt like heresy. The big blue marble. One earth, one island home.
Being able to see the earth in its roundness, a point of view traditionally ascribed only to the Almighty, leads us into a temptation that is remarkably akin to the responsibility that has also always traditionally been ascribed to powers greater than mankind, and, quite frankly, it’s nerve-racking. Another ice sheet breaks off from Greenland. Record-breaking heat world-wide. In the floodwaters of Pakistan, millions, tens of millions, unfathomable numbers of people are suffering. Meanwhile, a hummingbird is sucking nectar from the morning glories growing wild up against the barn, and I’ve got a list of things to get done today. Lying beneath the stars was fine for a couple of hours, but hey, I’m a busy girl. Work to be done. Decisions to be made, problems solved, bills paid, things maintained and managed. Tomatoes to be put up, peaches to be frozen, clothes to be hung on the line before the heat of the day. You can consider the lilies of the field – I don’t have the time.
Flashes of faith come as quick as shooting stars, disappear just as quickly. Long hours pass while nothing seems to change. And then, from a direction we didn’t see before, one star falls, then another, then another. The sky fills with stars, confirmation that we didn’t know as much as we thought, that even the things we were surest of weren’t necessarily so. In the hard light of day, there’s no evidence to suggest that comet dust in the air. But that don’t make it so.