Image taken of the Earth by Voyager, 5.76 billion kilometers away, in 1991, at the suggestion of Carl Sagan. Credits: NASA, 1991. I’ve retouched the photo to take out the original light reflections from the Voyager camera. That tiny white dot a little off center to the right is Earth. You may want to clean your computer screen of any other dust particles. That is where dinosaurs scuttled, continents jittered, Jesus claimed he was the son of a god, the Buddha found a truth, Julius Ceasar claimed victory over the whole world, Mick Jagger sang “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, a growing, vibrating spot of microbial beings threatened to overwhelm the dot, two tiny projectiles plinked against two folicles of concrete and it was claimed to be a changing point in the history of the dot, and a curiously unaware leader of the microbial beings squeaked out to the dot, “We have prevailed!”
I couldn’t sleep. Swinging my legs over the side of the bed I stumbled in the darkness out into the hallway and blearily made my way to the toilet. Cricket song rang through the open bathroom window and seemed to float on the chilly night air that poured in through the screen. Somewhere another sleepless soul, a jungle crow, cawed irritably among the treetops. I flushed the toilet and for a few moments the rushing water drowned out all other sounds and the closeness of the apartment made it seem as if the world ended at the walls around me. When the gurgling of the water cut off, suddenly the darkness opened around me again and the walls seemed to disappear. The clock ticked in the kitchen along to the hum of the refrigerator. LED lights from the microwave oven, the telephone, and the sleeping computer floated in the dimness, like distant city lights. A wraith of a moth softly batted at the kitchen window and then whirred away.
I heard myself whisper in the dark. “What are you afraid of?”
I broke open the refrigerator door, light streaming out like the Mother Ship, and ran my eye over the milk carton and carton of apple juice. Nothing I wanted, so I closed the door and stood a moment letting my eyes readjust. I picked out a glass from the drying rack and ran the faucet in the kitchen sink, filling the glass. More by feel than sight, I sipped from the rim, and felt the cool liquid run down my throat. A little spilled over onto my chin and the chill made me jump. The taste of chlorine and iron.
“Shouldn’t have to pay for this,” I whispered.
I tiptoed back to the bedroom door and looked in on my wife sleeping. The covers were partly thrown back and one knee was lifted. Her face, her closed eyes and slack lips, reflected the grey light from the window, all still. I leaned over the bed and as softly as I could, drew the blanket back around her. She stirred, the rhythm of her breathing momentarily paused, until it resumed again.
Last photo of the Earth taken from the surface of the moon, Apollo 17, 1972. I was twelve years old in Japan, Israel was at war with Egypt, my best friend Steven Radolinsky was about to return to the States, the human population had just reached three billion a year or two before. Credits: NASA, 1972
My fingers found my fleece jacket on the floor at the foot of the bed. I slipped it on and headed back out to the hallway, to the entrance way. Crouching down, I laced on my beat up sandals. They felt cold and the straps stiff when I pulled the tab. I unlatched the front door and pushed it open. Cool air rushed in, like a curious dog sniffing out the confines. The door closed with a heavy thud, which raised the hairs on my neck; the sound was so isolate and abrupt in the pre-dawn stillness. The soles of my sandals crunched on the gravel and I glided beneath the dark beards of unpruned Japanese maples and Japonica, the tips of leaves brushing the top of my head and shoulders. When I came out to the street the street light was blinking and a lone hawkmoth whizzed around the light, seeking a center that only it could see. Beyond the sphere of light neighborhood houses stood along the sides of the street, somber and dozing, and I passed, peering left and right, expecting any moment for someone in a window to shift position. A lone cat slid across my path, pausing only a moment to glance at me, before blending into the shadows.
I made my way to the nearby park, where open space, dewey grass, and the sky cut out of the frame of Tokyo let me stretch out a little and look up. All above hung a black curtain spilled with salt, with needles on end, with the powder of silver from a broken mirror, the fabric so thin and delicate that the skin of heaven shone through. I lay back in the wet grass, legs and arms spread out, my back soaking up the chilly damp, and breathed in and out. A satellite charged across the emptiness chasing a bear and a swan, hunted in turn by a soldier. I closed my eyes and heard the crickets again, millions of them, all in chorus, singing to the sky.
“What if this is not here tomorrow?” I murmured. “Who will remember me, in this moment?”
Sombrero Galaxy M104, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credits: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STSci/ AURA) Hubble Space Telescope ACSâ€¢STSciâ€¢PRC03-28
14 replies on “Nocturne”
You’ve really grabbed me and taken me along on your night prowl, which I can identify with as a fellow insomniac! Going outside and lying down on the wet grass and looking up at the stars and questioning one’s place in the world… I could feel the cold shivers down my back and a vast feeling of emptiness. Very profound thoughts expressed beautifully, Butuki.
Thanks for the image of the Sombrero Galaxy (I never saw before). And of course for the writing, esp opening and closing the fridge door and the sensation of lying in wet grass. A grim movie I saw yesterday, Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, has a NY man lying down in the puddle that forms around the garbage in the middle of the subway track. I surfed here from via Negativa
I’m glad you expanded the note under that first photo! When I first read this post, I thought I was losing my mind. I kept wiping at the screen with a tissue and trying to decide if one of those fuzzy dots was in the photos. Very effective, though – I’m glad Sagan suggested they take it.
Great post as always. Good to see that you’re getting some traffic from Via Neg (Hi, Evan!).
Hey, check this out – today’s poem in Poetry Daily, http://www.poems.com/:
Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.
Man and Camel
Alfred A. Knopf
Marja-Leena… I myself was getting shivers down my spine as I wrote it! It was one of those inexplicable, pushed-from-behind kind of passages of time, when I really didn’t know where I was going with what I was writing until it had spilled out. I wasn’t even going to use the celestial bodies in the post at first, but rather a photo I had taken of a juniper bush. Then, pushed again, images of Earth and stars and galaxies filled my mind…
Evan… When I first saw this picture of the Sombrero Galaxy about two years ago I couldn’t stop looking at it. It mesmerized me. And then I thought, “You know, we can’t even fly between two of those dust-like specks at the edge of the galaxy.” I still can’t really fathom the distances…
Dave… When I first saw Sagan’s photo it affected me pretty strongly. The Earth seemed so lonely! Such a picture really puts our circumstances in perspective, doesn’t it?
And that poem… wow, that was almost eerie in its timeliness. But perhaps such lying in the grass is archetypal? It’s too bad that usually in Tokyo you can barely make out the stars. Makes you wonder how the kids who grew up here and never saw the Milky Way can possibly make a connection between what is up there and what they are taught in the classes. It must seem so abstract to them…
Butuki-san another well written post. You are a gifted painter and words are your brush.
The picture remind one of how small we are in this place we think is so large, but is really so small.
Thanks for dropping by my site. I had to smile at your confussion on the “zens”
here a quick code:
I am: Zen
my wife: Lady Zen
my son: Son of Zen
my boat: s/v Zen ( sailing vessel Zen)
â€œWhat if this is not here tomorrow?â€ I murmured. â€œWho will remember me, in this moment?â€
I would. Don’t go off the grid without leaving some way of keeping in touch, M. Send me an email; make plans to travel â€” India, Africa, Aotearoa. I have an ever increasing list of places to meet up with friends, and Japan is high on the list. I was only there briefly, but I will return.
Those photos … your words do them justice.
Wow. What a great post. I’ve used that 2nd photo to teach people about the hydrologic cycle, and our connections to each other. But that first shot is unbelievable. The earth was the only dust speck on my monitor that moved as I rolled the scroll wheel of my mouse. I always thought that the views from space would help people of the world unite, and would reduce our chances of self destruction. But it doesn’t seem to have worked that way. Maybe we all need to see Sagan’s picture to understand just how precious life on this earth is. That we don’t get a second chance if we screw this one up. Thanks for your words and for sharing these pictures.
I wrote a comment to an interesting post of yours which title was, I think, “Glint” (I don’t even know what it means) and it was rejected as SPAM. Perhaps it wasn’t really interesting but it was not SPAM.
Sorry everyone for not answering your comments right away. I just moved to a new place (temporary housing) out in the country west of Tokyo (Chiba) and a new job at a university. It was quite a harrowing experience and I will write about it soon, but for now just wanted to check in with you all. (I’m sitting in my first ever office, having just figured out how to connect to the internet from here) Going through the Japanese system really tries your faith in what you would have assumed was logic, teaching you that whenever you get too comfortable, there are always other points of view out there.
Pohanginapete… I definitely want to stay in touch, wherever we both end up wandering! Our blogs seem to have found a common voice and introduced us to one another, like quite a few other people whom I also want to get to know. I will be making plans to travel, though not right now as I go through this new job and try to finish paying off debts and perhaps get a book or two published, so it would be a settling of serendipity if we could meet up in one of those faroff places. And you are always welcome to come stay here (once I get my own place, of course). Your journey is almost upon you, isn’t it? I hope it starts off with a fortuitous sunrise!
Kent… isn’t that first shot amazing? When I first saw it I felt almost sad. And to think that the Earth is only at the outer edge of our galaxy, not a member of the inner circle! (though that does make our sun among the older stars in our galaxy, doesn’t it? Or am I getting the progression wrong?). It’s amazing how much we think of ourselves. We just might possibly have the most inflated egos in the universe.
May… sorry about the spam tagging. The WordPress spam software “Akismet” does a fantastic job of culling all that unwanted garbage, but this is the first time it made a mistake. I’ve freed your comment to its rightful placed among the initiated!
Thank you for taking me out of the recycle bin.
So you just started a new adventure! Lucky you! It is only at the beginning that everything seems difficult and hostile. Let us know how it goes. We’ll support you.
Wish me luck for my conference, today in the afternoon. Like a naughty girl, I have studied very little and I am scared…
we canâ€™t even fly between two of those dust-like specks at the edge of the galaxy
I’ll state it that way next time I get to teach physics. (I’m stuck in Biology this year…)
Butuki, what a beautiful post. I was grabbed by the first sentence and carried along on your journey to the end, and sorry the end came at all! The photos are amazing, especially the white speck, which like Dave I never would have seen except for your explanation. Sorry to be reading this so late – I hope you can post more often now, but whenever I find your writing, I feel that I’ve been given something special.
Beth, so good to see you here again. I’ve missed you.
Can you just imagine what it must be like for non-terrestrial beings who are searching for life on other worlds? Here we are this insignificant dust particle in an ocean of gravel and only a few billion kilometers away we are invisible even on our own computer screens! Why would anyone ever bother to find us? And how have we ever come to be so sure of who we are?