It is 4:30 AM on this mid-October morning and I am wide awake. It’s within an hour of my normal rising time so I’m not very concerned about lack of sleep. The night is black and I can see Orion’s belt through the two 3 foot by 6 foot windows that hover over our bed. It is wonderful to lay here in the warm comfort of our bed and witness the heavens on this dark autumn morning. Orion, the hunter, is one of the easiest constellations to recognize. This time of year it is easily seen through our panoramic windows and I am focused on the three brightest stars in the belt. These three bright stars are known by astronomers as Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. All are classified as super-giant stars. Alnitak is 800 light years away and 10,000 times the brightness of our sun. Alnilam is 1000 light years away and 18,000 times the brightness of our sun. Mintaka is 900 light years away and 7,000 times the brightness of our sun. All three stars are about twenty times the mass of our sun around which the nine planets of our solar system revolve.
Given that Alnilam is one thousand light years away I am at this moment looking at light emitted from this giant star in about the year 1010. I am looking at light that originated from this planet almost five hundred years before Columbus reached the West Indies. I am looking at light that was thrown from this sun before the signing of the Magna Carta. I am looking at light rays that were cast off of this bright star over 50 human generations before I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye. Time wrapped in space may not be linear; proof that I may have to reconsider that the past and present may be simultaneous at critical junctures.
The distance that this star is from our planet earth is nearly incomprehensible. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. This equates to light traveling around the circumference of our planet at the equator more than seven times in one second. In one year light can travel a distance of 5,878,488,981,000,000 miles in a year. For those who might not want to figure out the numerical equivalent that is nearly 6 billion miles in a year. The light from Alnilam that comes into my view on this dark morning has traveled 1000 times 6 billion miles. At this early hour I am having a hard time fathoming these figures.
Sometimes numbers get so big they almost become meaningless. I really have no way of understanding how big the number one billion is. I have read that if one could count one number per second it would take nearly 32 years to reach a billion. That figure sort of puts things in minimal perspective. One billion is a really large number; much larger than I can easily understand. Six billion miles is a long, long way.
There is little chance for me falling back to sleep at this point so I get up and walk to our elevated deck that is just outside of our second story bedroom. This deck is perhaps our favorite amenity to our humble abode. Although the view is pretty much restricted to the heavens at night, during the day you get a unique look at a large meadow to the east, and deep forest to the south and north. It is reminiscent of tree forts that I helped build when I was a child although I must say the deck is much more sturdy and secure. It lacks the rocking back and forth on windy days that I remember encountering in my tree forts as a youngster. And it is easily accessible, one only has to open a wooden door and a screen door from our south facing bedroom walk out onto the wooden platform to take advantage of the view.
As I sit here, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders and upper body, I can hear one of our bloodhounds snoring in the bedroom. I am reminded of what great companions these two wonderful dogs have been to me and my wife. In many ways they have replaced our now grown children. I have conversations with them, speaking both for myself and them, on a regular basis. You’d have to be there to understand the voices I use; a different one for each dog when appropriate. I know it’s peculiar, but it is a wonderful way to pass the time. If nothing else our “conversations” serve as a source of entertainment for my wife and me. After many years of this she is now partaking in the ritual. Something she said she would never do. Occasionally I forget and do this little act in front of strangers. There are a lot of first time guests that never seem to return to visit a second time. I can’t imagine why.
As the dogs harmonize their snoring in the background, one snoring in bass and the other in soprano, I look to the southeast. A subtle pink color emanates from the perimeter of a cloud that lies across the horizon. Black night, quiet pink horizon, pinholes of bright light in a black void patterning the sky; it seems to be the perfect time. As I enjoy the quiet and as I take in the view a barred owl calls out into the night.
“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
The call is repeated several times. It shatters the silence of the beginning of day. The tone is elevated, indicating to me that it is a female. I wonder who she calls out to. I wonder if she seeks company. Perhaps she is just talking to herself like I so often do. The owl calls again. It is soothing and a wonderful way to begin a new day.
Just off the deck there is a staghorn sumac. The red compound pinnate leaves are striking even in these low light conditions. I count the leaflets on the nearest compound leaf. There are 13 leaflets. I count the leaflets on a second compound leaf. There are 21 leaflets on this leaf. Both are numbers in the Fibonacci series. It may be just a coincidence, but it is interesting. The Fibonacci series, sequential numbers whose ratio always equal 1.6180339887… is referred to as the golden ratio. The series is 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89 etc. (any two numbers in the sequence always add up to the third number). It appears in nearly countless numbers of different applications throughout the natural world. Adolf Zeisling, a well known mathematician and philosopher of the mid 19th century found the “golden ratio” or Fibonacci series was present in many leaf arrangements and plant leaf vein arrangements. Nautilus shells, some moths, and even human bone structure contain this wonderful arrangement. Many flowers have petals that are found in the Fibonacci sequence for example lilies have three petals, columbine and wild rose has five petals, delphiniums have eight petals.,ragwort and some daisies have thirteen petals, asters and black-eyed susans have twenty one petals, and so on. Sunflowers and many other flowering plants have seed heads where the seeds are arranged in a perfect Fibonacci series. Pine cones have whorls of seeds also arranged in a Fibonacci series. In 1854 Zeisling wrote “The Golden Ratio is a universal law in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form.” Although this logarithmic series is found in human architecture, art, natural structures, and biology its purpose is not fully understood. Its very existence is a signature of beauty and of form. It is simple, elegant, and evidently necessary, even though we have not fully comprehended its exact purpose or reason in the natural world.
Through the screen door I hear the dogs stir. Adaia gets up and puts her nose to the screen. She surveys the air with her overactive black nose. She catches my scent, even though I am out of sight, and scratches at the screen to come out and join me. The light is brightening in the east as clouds move to the south and the sun quietly rises. As the sun brightens the eastern horizon the world looks beautiful, clear, and nearly perfect.
Written for www.wildramblings in October of 2010.