Ken Lamberton’s first book, Wilderness and Razor Wire, won the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. He has published five books and hundreds of articles and essays in places like Orion, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Highways, Gettysburg Review, Puerto Del Sol, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000. In 2007, he won a Soros Justice Fellowship for his fourth book, Time of Grace (University of Arizona Press). His latest book, Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2011. This essay is from his next book, Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Obsession with the Grand Canyon State, forthcoming by UA Press in 2014. Visit his website at www.kenlamberton.com.
Kitt Peak National Observatory. Elevation: 6880 feet. Founded: 1958. Population: two dormitories of sleeping astronomers on any given day.
On the afternoon of June 5, 2012, I wait on the rugged desert peak which the indigenous O’odham people call “Ioligam,” or “Red Stick,” for the twisted, iron-stemmed manzanita shrubs that grow here. A raven tips her dark wings to the white temples of the mountain, riding the wind with the effort of outstretched limbs. Raven is “curocu” in the tongue of my Native American friend, Phoenix Eagleshadow.
I look south toward the lifted thumb of Baboquivari, sacred peak of the people who have lived in its shadow for 2000 years, and think about the last time I visited there with Phoenix. She had wanted to offer her hunting bow to I’itoi, creator spirit and elder brother of the O’odham, and I agreed to be her companion for the long, sun-blasted day of hiking and ceremony. She said that she chose me because of my dusty smell. “You remind me of a hill I like to sit on where I can sing to the wind.” That was exactly nine years ago, and proper bathing practices still mystify me.
We left Tucson at 5 a.m. and drove to Sells, then south on Indian Route 19. Phoenix – whose middle name is Psyche – chatted with her brother, who rode along in the back seat. I couldn’t see him because he was a spirit. I couldn’t see many of Phoenix’s relatives and acquaintances. Around this time, she was seriously involved with someone named Gabriel. “Psyche,” I asked her, “is this a person I can see with my eyes?” It was a question I asked her often, and this time I wanted to know because she said they’d recently gotten married. “Probably not,” she said. “He’s one of the warrior angels, the sexy dark one. Gabriel, the archangel.”
We had just graduated from the MFA in creative writing nonfiction program at the University of Arizona. Phoenix’s writing often included these kinds of stories, for which some of her professors and fellow students criticized her. They thought she should switch to the fiction program. They couldn’t understand that for Phoenix, there was no line between nonfiction and fiction, between reality and myth. I learned to never doubt her stories. Too often she showed me the truth in them.
We climbed a trail among blooming coral bean, skyrocket red against the chlorophyll-wrung grasses and oaks. At I’itoi’s cave, the smoke from votive candles blackened the rock ledge above them. People had left other offerings: photographs, prayer sticks, colored beads, silver trinkets. Phoenix collected mugwort, which grew around the cave entrance, bundling together the gray leaves. Under the pediment of Baboquivari Peak, she strung her bow, then took out an abalone shell holding cornmeal and pollen, shaking the fine mixture to the four cardinal points.
I watched in silence as she handed me a feathery sprig of mugwort. “In thanks for strength,” she said, her dark eyes shining, and then sat quietly facing south and burned the remaining herb with dry sage, the smoke clinging to her skin and smelling of High Mass (some might say ‘high school’). Next, she used a rounded rock to knap an obsidian point, placing it in a black medicine bag tied around her neck. After rubbing the bow with mugwort and sage, and casting more cornmeal and pollen to the wind, she laid the bow on the ground, sprinkled it with water, and began to sing.
Ravens answered from the mountain. Phoenix greeted them in her language as they winged around us, sending love and blessings to someone she called Grandfather Raven. Listening to her that afternoon, I thought: I have no ceremonies in my life. I have no faith in anything.
“I’itoi’s got himself a very fine bow,” she said, after placing it in a juniper tree (only the dead leave bows on the ground). “That is, if a raven doesn’t come and steal it first.”
Near the center of the O’odham world, Kitt Peak rises into the thin blue air at the center of the astronomical world. Here, the planet’s largest collection of telescopes – twenty-three optical and two radio – tug at, unravel, and follow the singular threads of the universe’s story. Today I’m participating in an event the tale of which has been told only six times in history – an event that has ended the careers and lives of astronomers who’ve sacrificed everything for the chance of witnessing it, a story that established the very shape of our solar system – the Transit of Venus.
In her book, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, Andrea Wulf follows the adventures and misadventures of a score of eighteenth-century scientists from six countries as they travel to remote places on the globe to measure the passage of Venus across the face of the sun as predicted by Edmond Halley in 1716. The British astronomer calculated that on two dates, June 6, 1761, and June 3, 1769 (transits always occur in pairs), Venus would appear as a black circle moving across the sun’s disk. Knowing he wouldn’t be alive then—unless he lived to be 104—he called on future scientists to join in an endeavor to record from both of earth’s hemispheres the exact time and duration of the transit, achieving, Wulf writes, “what had hitherto been almost unimaginable: a precise mathematical understanding of the dimensions of the solar system, the holy grail of astronomy.”
Andrea Wulf’s book explores the personalities, rivalries and obsessive passions of men in knee-britches and powdered wigs – scientists like Sweden’s Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin, France’s Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, and America’s Benjamin Franklin. It’s quite a tale. Catherine the Great, wanting to recast Russia as an enlightened nation, ordered eight expeditions to cover the second transit and included naturalists, taxonomists, hunters and painters along with her astronomers. James Cook sailed all the way to Tahiti, only to have his telescopes stolen while building his observatories. The British Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, whose two countries were at war, sent their astronomers into the path of cannon fire.
My favorite story of Wulf’s is the one about a “not very well-to-do” Frenchman with a very long name that I’ll shorten to Guillaume Le Gentil. A member of the Paris Académie, the thirty-four-year-old minister-turned-star-gazer was the first in the transit race and the last to return from it. His destination was Pondicherry, India, but after more than a year of trying to reach it, monsoon winds and the Seven Years’ War left Le Gentil to attempt measurements in the Indian Ocean on the deck of a rolling ship. It didn’t go well.
Undaunted by the failure, Le Gentil decided to stayin India and wait eight years for the second transit. A true naturalist, during the interim he studied the region’s geography, flora and fauna, stars, winds, and tides. He built an observatory at Pondicherry. Then, when June 3, 1769 finally arrived, so did the clouds. That day, Le Gentil wrote in his journal that he had risked everything “only to be a spectator of a fatal cloud which came to place itself before the sun at the precise moment of my observation…”
Deeply depressed and suffering from dysentery, he returned to Paris empty-handed, only to find that his heirs had declared him legally dead. They had “enthusiastically” plundered his estate, his wife had remarried, and he’d lost his seat at the academy of science.
“That is the fate that often awaits astronomers,” Le Gentil said at the end of his eleven-year odyssey chasing Venus. It could’ve been worse. Another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Chappe D’Auteroche, observed the first transit in Siberia but never returned from seeing the second in Baja, California. Only one member of his party survived an outbreak of yellow fever. It’s no wonder astronomers don’t sleep at night.
“Great title,” I tell Andrea Wulf when I catch up with her at the visitor center where she will be speaking about her book. “I’ve been chasing a few things myself – I just caught the solar eclipse at Grand Canyon.”
“I’ve never been there,” she says with an English accent. “I have a few days in Arizona. Where should I go?”
“North Rim, if you have time. But the South Rim is amazing, too. Everyone hikes the Bright Angel Trail, but I like the Hermit Trail for a day hike.”
Andrea was born in India but grew up in Germany before moving to Britain, where she studied history at the Royal College of Art. “I don’t own a telescope. I’m a historian,” she says as we step outside to where observatory staff has set up filtered binoculars and telescopes.
We’re minutes away from the start of the transit, and dozens of people have gathered at the viewing stations on the patio outside the visitor center. “We’ve set up a hydrogen-alpha telescope at the McMath-Pierce Solar Observatory,” a docent tells us. “There’s a prominence right where Venus will appear – be cool to see that!”
I leave Andrea with the group, and take off toward the McMath with a guy from New York named Elias. Baboquivari Peak rises at my right shoulder. Three people stand inside the white dome housing the Meade Solar Telescope Array, and as we arrive one of them calls, “First contact!” I look into the eyepiece and see a black fingernail notch in a boiling red field at the two o’clock position. Fifteen minutes later, Venus slips completely inside the disk, a black pea against the sun’s glowing softball. I’m watching an event that won’t recur until 2117 – not in my or any currently living person’s lifetime.
“I’m very excited to be here during the transit of Venus,” Andrea Wulf says at the beginning of her presentation, pushing a long strand of blonde hair behind one ear. “Normally, I have to explain what the transit of Venus is…but I don’t think I have to do that here…” I settle into my chair to listen to her talk about men in knickers who, for the love of science, chased the only planet named for a female, the goddess of love and beauty.
Later, our group crowds a spit of rock called Sunset Hill to catch the last images of the sun as it sets over O’odham lands with Venus in transit. Some peer through scopes while others cluster to talk about the region’s geology or the clear view from here to Mexico. Nine visitors find seats on a rocky outcrop, each wearing solar glasses, the reddening sun on their faces. Sweatshirts appear from backpacks.
“Oh, look,” a green-shirted staff member named Geronimo announces, and points to a swiveling dome. “SARA is waking up. Some professor is working from his laptop.” SARA, Geronimo explains, stands for Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy, a consortium of institutions that remotely operates the .9-meter telescope and its sister telescope in Chile. With a depth perception gained by having two eyes separated by thousands of miles, the SARA telescopes allow astronomers to accurately measure the orbits of asteroids, including and especially those that cross the orbit of earth. “In my opinion,” Geronimo adds, “SARA is the most important telescope on the mountain.”
After showing us the Belt of Venus, a rosy band above the eastern horizon with the curving shadow of the earth beneath it, Geronimo gives us a walk-in-the-dark tour of Kitt Peak’s observatories. We wander from the most prominent, the 4-meter Mayall, a 200-foot observatory that I can practically see from my home in Bisbee one hundred miles away, to the RGT, what Geronimo calls the “Rich Guy Telescope,” the only privately owned telescope on the mountain. I hear a string of superlatives – the “sharpest,” the “world’s largest,” the “greatest,” the “most,” and several claims of “the first ever to…”. Kitt Peak really is the hub of the astronomical world.
Finally, Geronimo’s radio comes to life. “Where are our guests?” a voice asks. We’re overdue to report to the visitor center.
In the gathering darkness, observatory domes brighten like moons breaching the peaks. Motors pull on steel cables and metal gears moan – Pythagoras’ new music of the spheres. Like the nine-headed Hydra opening its many slitted eyes, the mountain is awakening.
Kitt Peak is named for Philippa Roskruge Kitt, the sister of George J. Roskruge, our first Pima County Supervisor. I had driven past Roskruge School in Tucson earlier today on my way to Kitt Peak. The marquee out front had caught my attention:
In Loving Memory
Ray Bradbury died today. On the day of the transit of Venus – on the day of a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime celestial event, the man who, for me, brought the mythical heavens to earth, passed on at the age of 91.
I grew up with Ray Bradbury. Not in person, but with his books. Bradbury’s first book was a sequel he wrote to Burroughs’ Gods of Mars. He was twelve years old and a student at Roskruge Grammar School. Burroughs liked to end his John Carter books with cliff-hangers, so it’s easy to see why a budding science fiction writer might be inspired to complete a favorite story. I did the same in grade school – stories about the first people to visit Saturn who discover that the rings are composed of previous space travelers, or about a misfit geek who builds a spaceship out of schoolyard trashcans and stolen plumbing and launches himself into space to escape his tormenting peers. Mrs. Tream, my eighth-grade English teacher at Canyon Del Oro Junior High, once wrote on one of my compositions: “This is the way Ray Bradbury got started.” I like to think that Ray Bradbury had a Mrs. Tream – maybe the same Mrs. Tream; she seemed ancient to me! – who wrote on one of his early stories, “This is the way Edgar Rice Burroughs got started.”
As a boy, I imagined a future when the entire human race would one day look like Ylla, the golden-skinned Martian with eyes like yellow coins. Only yesterday I read in The New Yorker how he said The Martian Chronicles wouldn’t exist except for the impact the John Carter of Mars books had on his boyhood life. Bradbury was influenced by the science fiction stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had been influenced by Percival Lowell, drawing his Martian canals while staring through his Clark telescope on Mars Hill. “I would go out to the lawn on summer nights,” Ray Bradbury writes about his childhood in Tucson, “and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, ‘Take me home!’”
Welcome home, Ray.
This place is the navel of the world, according to the O’odham. Near here is the opening in the earth from where the people emerged, wide-eyed like John Carter, into an inconceivable world. The heavens feature prominently in O’odham cosmology. Elder Brother gave them spectacular desert sunsets simply for their enjoyment. First Born made the sun to light the darkness and the moon and stars for the people to follow. Coyote created the stars of the Milky Way galaxy after stealing a bag of white tepary beans and scattering them across the sky.
One thing universal among humans is that we create stories to explain our existence and the nature of our reality. Out of dust we are made, says the book of Genesis. From the mud of the earth, Elder Brother formed the first people. Philosophers and poets say we are stardust, recalling what scientists say about the elements in our bodies having been forged inside a long-dead star. Some call this myth-telling, others – scientific theory. And still others choose not to draw lines.
Geronimo showed us a telescope that first revealed the spiral shape of our home galaxy, the Milky Way – Coyote, apparently, liked to chase his tail. Geronimo then pointed out another telescope which astronomers Vera Rubin and Kent Ford used to discover firm evidence of dark matter. The Dutch astronomer Jan Oort had suggested in 1932 that only unseen “dark matter” could account for the orbital velocities of stars in our galaxy. A year later, Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky came up with the same idea of a dark theoretical substance to explain the missing mass in the orbital velocities of galaxy clusters.
Dark theoretical stuff. Matter and energy. Mystery that shapes our world. Ninety-five percent of what fills the universe is invisible. We can’t see it or measure it except for its effect on what we can see and measure. The theory of dark matter explains why the universe behaves the way it does. In the same way, people use story to explain the unexplainable. Myth sometimes is reality. My friend Phoenix would say that what Rubin and Ford discovered on this mountain more than thirty years ago was the handiwork of I’itoi.
Tonight, Kitt Peak astronomers traverse holy ground to gaze upon the handiwork of awe. And awe, writes the poet James Galvin, is the only thing that makes life worth living. This high mountain allows us multifaceted glimpses of the same mystery – and perhaps an answer to the oldest question asked by humankind: Where do we come from?