The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Bright lights, big city

How strange it is that the sky, which by day is a stationary ground on which the clouds are seen to move, by night becomes the backdrop for Urth's own motion, so that we feel her rolling beneath us as a sailor feels the running of the tide. ... Strong too was the feeling that the sky was a bottomless pit into which the universe might drop forever. I had heard people say that when they looked at the stars too long they grew terrified by the sensation of being drawn away. My own fear -- and I felt fear -- was not centered on the remote suns, but rather on the yawning void; and at times I grew so frightened that I gripped the rock with my freezing fingers, for it seemed to me that I must fall off Urth. No doubt everyone feels some touch of this, since it is said that there exists no climate so mild that people will consent to sleep in unroofed houses.
- Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor

One of the most beautiful observatories in the world is located high in the mountains of Chile. Not for its architecture -- observatories the world over are functional outside, and traditionally very, very cold inside -- but for the clearest views possible from the surface of our planet: and for one thing the northern hemisphere can never know. The further south one goes, the more of the Milky Way is teased above the horizon: until, south of the equator, the heart of the galactic lens finally blazes forth brightly enough to cast midnight, moonless shadows.

Not that much of the northern hemisphere realises what it is missing. Once, only, in a beautiful mid-August night two years back: when a quick-thinking amateur astronomer took the picture south, toward Toronto, during the blackout ... and captured the sweeping galactic lens which had always been there, but us too blinded by bright city lights to see. For three generations now we have drowned out our skies, reduced the infinite to a few lonely stars in a sea of man-made light. For three generations now we have grown up outside wonder.

How can we learn to yearn for stars we have never truly seen? Is it sheer coincidence, I wonder, that this has also become an age of budget cuts, where the only valid measurement of value is either military or economic? where we seem to have ceased to yearn for the stars for their own sake, seeing only that no short- to medium-term economic value could be derived from the early exploration?

Is it any wonder we have forgotten how to dream?


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