A Comfortable Space at the Bottom of the Sky

By Bob Grindle

There is a certain beauty to the grey, damp, chill and almost claustral organic richness of an early spring rainfall in our small New England corner of the planet, and the mesmeric patter of raindrops falling a few thousand feet creates a magical, rhythmic, almost musical backdrop to even the most basic of our human efforts…the sky plays with one’s senses and a simple walk becomes an adventure as the shapeshifting landscape droops and sheds and drips and pools, as if the very air around us has been torn open and this spill of atmospheric plasma that brings and sustains life as surely as it brings flooding simply will not be staved…the same sky that just a few days ago treated us to an achingly beautiful, crisp blue canvas filled with towering cumulus proof that water is truly Nature’s most gifted architect…the same sky that surrendered its Sun-fueled day-lit clarity to a crescent Moonscape gem of a night with brilliant Jupiter just a whisper away from the Moon, that sky now rains down with a drenching persistence born of seasonal changes that span the epochs of Earth’s tortuous relationship with life. A small wet rabbit darts across the path in front and I recall reading that after only three weeks wild bunnies leave the nest to strike out on their own. A rabbit’s tortuous relationship with life!

While my comfort with a rainy day unwinds back more than 6 decades to memories of playing around and exploring the lakes, streams, rivers, woodlands and even the alleyways and empty lots of my youth, I can’t recall when I realized that even during the darkest, gloomiest and rainiest of mid-days the Sun, and with it a clear sky, were somewhere up there, just above the clouds. Some years later, as an airborne technician in the US Air Force, after studying the science of meteorology, it seemed obvious and easy to understand. But there are still times when it is easy to get lost in our limited tropospheric world at the bottom of the sky and feel the need to take a walk in the rain and rinse away the complications of, as William Wordsworth noted more than 200 years ago, a world that is too much with us.

In about a week one of the Cosmos’ more poetic events will unfold, whether there are clouds overhead or not, but if the sky is clear as the Moon slides slowly, soundlessly between the Earth and the Sun and this mid-day eclipse unfolds in the early afternoon of Monday, April 8th, bunnies will pause, bees will be momentarily stranded, Venus will shine in the early afternoon and many millions of human beings will mind the endless cautionary reminders not to look directly at the Sun. Imagine, for a moment that we were part of an ancient culture with no sense of the scientific explanation for why the Sun slowly disappears, or perhaps even more alarming on a cloudy afternoon the sky suddenly grows dim then black as night.

Throughout history eclipses have been wrongly accused of being a disruption of the natural order and most ancient societies developed spiritual explanations to help them understand the inexplicable. Chinese records going back more than 4000 years suggest that a celestial dragon devoured the Sun from time to time and only loud and raucous celebrations with lots of drum beating and people yelling would scare away the dragon and save the Sun. Since the loud ruckus always worked and the Sun returned, the legend stood the test of time. Though cultures varied and their geographic locations spanned the globe, the legends all bore resemblance to one another…Indian, Central Asian, West African, Native American, Pacific Islander, Egyptian, Greek, Incan, it made no difference…something was eating or stealing or hiding the Sun and only a society-wide festival effort of noise and music and sometimes sacrifice could save us all. According to Native American Choctaw legend, a mischievous black squirrel gnawing on the Sun is the cause of eclipses. Like the Chinese dragon, the squirrel must be frightened away by the clamor and yells of the event›s human witnesses. Ojibwa and Cree peoples have a story that a boy named Tcikabis sought revenge on the Sun for burning him, and despite the protestations of his sister, he caught the Sun in a snare trap, causing an eclipse. Various animals tried to release the Sun from the trap, but only the lowly mouse could chew through the ropes and set the Sun back on its path. 

Interestingly, from the Native American Navajo, perspective, eclipses are thought to be a time of renewal and a manifestation of the cyclical relationship between the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth. The old traditional knowledge of the Navajo people recognizes that it is dangerous to look directly at the Sun. Navajo elders strongly instruct their community to go inside the hogan (their traditional dwelling) during an eclipse to ensure people don’t look up at the Sun. Traditional Navajo people sit quietly and in reverence, a practice that is grounded on their deeply held respect for the cosmic order. Obviously, this was a culture that felt comfortable in their corner of the world…so much has been lost.

Hopefully, good weather will prevail on April 8th, between 2 pm and about 4 pm and we will all get the chance to enjoy one of our Solar system’s more audacious moments. Be well, seek comfort in your surroundings and enjoy the delightful colors and amazing smells that arrive on April’s wings.

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