Ways of Seeing by Laurie Cox: Stars put Earth's fate into context

This late summer there have been so many nights when the sky was filled with stars. They are always there, of course, but not always so visible. We sat outside this August, looking up with hopes of seeing shooting stars but really just reveling in the firmament. Some out-of-town guests marveled to see the Milky Way for the first time after years of city life, excited to spot constellations.

I was in awe of the people who centuries ago, without even the aid of telescopes, studied the heavens and figured out so much about their patterns of change over the course of a year and how to navigate using these bits of distant light. Living in the mountains gives us a front row seat to this spectacle, and so, a couple of weeks ago, Mac and I sat around a small fire ring, leaning back in our chairs and looking upward. It was an especially clear night, so many stars visible that it was difficult to find a space that was truly black.

Sitting like that with my eyes focused on the huge expanse, I felt myself almost floating among all those stars, until Mac remarked, “Some of them could be disappearing every day and we would never even know.” I quite literally felt my heart clutch. I looked out into that vastness and thought about us on our small but important-to-us planet. Other worlds like us might be disappearing, perhaps due to cosmic events, but what about us?

The rock that makes up Earth would not soon disappear, but what about humans and the other life that makes their home here? Many scientists are identifying an extremely small amount of time for us to get our environmental act together, or we will be facing extinction.

I am old enough to not be worried for myself, but it was the real, direct thought of the end of existence for our living world that made my heart clutch. Staring up at the starry expanse, I felt so very, very small. I felt the similar smallness of our world, which has so much importance to us.

Humans are very self-centered. It is so natural in a small child, and I even remember at around the age of twelve thinking some difficulties I had survived at birth might mean that I was destined for greatness — perhaps to bring about world peace or the cure for cancer. It is unsurprising that people thought that the universe revolved around the earth; of course we were the center of it all!

A mere 400 years ago Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for writing his proofs that Earth actually moves around the sun. Our self-centeredness makes it difficult for us to imagine that we could disappear. Especially people with power and money believe that those assets can protect them from the effects of climate change. They think they can just move to the new, better location when necessary, and move their affluent lifestyle along with them. They can build walls and hire guards to protect themselves from the climate refugees.

They forget, however, that money can only buy food if the food exists. Air conditioning only works until you need new parts. There is no way to buy yourself existence on a dying planet.

If we do disappear, just like those bits of light in the sky that we no longer see, and probably never did see, we will be gone. It will be the end for our self-centered selves. Maybe you believe you will somehow be saved religiously. Myself, I have a hard time imagining any God would want to save the people who destroyed an incredibly beautiful world.

We do have this wonderful world filled with everything we need. It may be tiny within the vastness of the universe. It may be unnoticed if it were to disappear. It is the only world we have and we are not just kidding ourselves — we are killing ourselves — if we think we have any choice but to take immediate action to save it, to save us. I would love my grandchildren, my great-great-great-grandchildren, to be able to sit outside on a beautiful summer evening and stare with wonder at the stars, surrounded by an environment that still has trees and bees, deer and running rivers. I would love them to know of this time, and be glad we took action.

“The fault … is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” (Wm. Shakespeare)

Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.

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