The dark so close and the heavens so distant

The heavens are telling of the glory of God, and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there word their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; it rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them; and there is nothing hidden from its heat. Psalm 19.1-16 NASB.

The psalm was in my mind as I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s lovely short editorial, “Planetary Matters” in the New York Times (30 Sep 09).

Not long ago, I found myself driving east across Kansas at dawn, cutting across the north/south band of the Flint Hills. Venus was riding bright above the horizon. And as I drove, I began to think about the morning star’s orbit around the sun.

Everything felt oddly stationary-the stars fixed overhead-except for my car humming along the blacktop and the grasses on the stone outcrops bending under a southern wind. Yet Venus was roaring along in its path, rotating clockwise on its axis while orbiting counterclockwise around the sun. Earth was roaring around the sun, too, except that our planet happens to rotate clockwise on its axis. In the grand scheme of astronomical motions-imagine, too, the rotation of the Milky Way and the overall expansion of the universe—my car had come to a virtual standstill, though I was doing 80.

I cannot do the calculations to sum up all those motions, to figure out how fast and in what direction I was really moving as I drove across the prairie. It’s no easier sitting at my desk, watching October roll across the landscape, a bright day following a warm, wet night when the falling leaves adhere to every surface. Somehow, I can’t help imagining my life as a vector with a velocity and direction I cannot calculate.

A day isn’t just a standard measure, all the same size so each fits on a calendar page. A day is a period of light, an astronomical event. I felt that on the road that Kansas dawn. The broad swath of the sun’s light rolls upward from the darkness, morning after morning, and then we roll outward into the ocean of stars at night. It seems extravagant, a glorious squandering of motion to give light, and life, to the grasses bending under the breeze, slowly retracting their shadows as the sun begins to climb.

I’ve felt much the same, driving at night across the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, with the dark so close and the heavens so distant, completely alone in a universe of motion.