Monday, September 11, 2006

Let My Daughter See the Stars

I lived on the edge of a salt desert in a city called Dhrangadhra. The house had two rooms and a kitchen. All my roommates were social workers and engineers. They worked from ten in the morning until nine at night. I wrote reports about their work. Summaries of how many homes they helped rebuild after an earthquake. I told them I was a poet and they treated me that way. When my stomach could not hold food, they brought me yoghurt. They showed me the way along the shepherds’ paths to the temple of Sitala Ma. I was invited to dinner on a concrete rooftop.

I was told the name Dhrangadhra comes from the Sanskrit for stoney ground. When I say the name – Dhrangadhra – it feels like I’m rolling stones in my mouth. The local industry was the carving of statues. I saw women heaving rock out of the ground with pick axes. I saw men hammering out goddesses in the middle of the street.

In this city, on the edge of the salt desert, water flowed through the pipes once a day for half an hour. I was told we were lucky to have that much water. The year before water was driven in by truck. Every evening at about eight, the power went out. The whole city blacked out. At first, I had the generator outside the office fired up so I could keep typing up reports. Ultimately, I planned on the darkness. I left the office and walked to the house with two rooms. Though night had fallen, the social workers and engineers were still in the field. I waited alone for the black outs to come. And when they came, the earth disappeared beneath me and the stars emerged.

I had seen the stars – as in all of them – only once before. In rural Alabama, a field in the woods, just where you wouldn’t expect a brown boy to be. In Dhrangadhra, on the edge of a salt dessert, where the water flows through the pipes once per day for half an hour, where the lights black out at eight in the evening, I saw all the stars every night. That’s when I realized the gravity of the theft of the night sky.

I do not speak of stars metaphorically. When I speak of the stars, I do not mean an archaic worldview. I do not mean to evoke magic (although I am partial to the possibility of mysteries). I do not mean to bash science. My ancestors were skeptics and rationalists. When I speak of stars, I mean the stars themselves. Fusion. Plasma. Heat. Light. That throbbing area of methodical inquiry. I mean the spectacle of the universe, seeing it from our little corner. Considering. To put your self in perspective is the beginning of wisdom, well-being, poetry, ecological awareness, and the will to struggle. Seeing the stars is neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving this kind of perspective. But it sure helps. The most elegant poetry about stars I have read was written by our most eloquent voices for justice. Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardinal, Nazim Hikmet. Is this an accident?

Now I live under the perpetual glow of street lights. The sky in Houston is a giant emblem of our own opacity. Development as blindness. Dhrangadhra is so strange to me now. I’m afraid I might have made it up or read about it in a book. I have started this essay many times. I should have finished it years ago. But now I am a father. There is a new sense of urgency in me when I look up at the grand blankness of our nights.


Her Grace said...

Beautiful. And so true. My city is small, but still a city. Sometimes it almost feels like there's a roof over my head all the time.

In a busy life full of responsibilities, especially here in America where we are bombarded with stimulation every second, it's easy to lose perspective, to take ourselves too seriously.

Thanks for the reminder today.

MaGreen said...

i think about not seeing stars all the time, too. i was raised with stars! i'm okay with the idea lila have to travel to see snow...because i can say, but instead of snow, she sees lizards and toads living in the city, and flowers bloom almost all year long...but i have trouble thinking, oh, instead of stars she'll see the night sky's haze from a thousand polluting factories lit up from below...or if it's a clear light, she'll just see the sky, awash in lights.

i agree, too, about poets at stars. so many of my most incredible thoughts as a child were spurred on by looking up, seeing this giant community i'm a part of, wondering what's out there.

Fiddler said...

Stars are alive and well in the woods of Maine... We are about 1/2 hour from Augusta, not so far into the wild but we get good views of the constellations here without too much light pollution... They are heavenly :)

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I followed a blogroll link here from DaddyChip. What a lovely, lovely post...

I live in Central Oregon, in a desert; there are stars here. Until I moved here I never realized that satellites are visible at night. I mean man-made satellites of course... My dad was an amateur astronomer and we had a telescope and yet we never noticed satellites.

GreenDaddy said...

Thank you for the comments. Last night, in Houston, the sky was particularly opaque. I'm jealous of all you country living folks.

Now that I'm rereading my post, though, I'm not sure what I'm suggesting. I don't want my neighborhood to pitch black. I might be afraid of walking with Lila in the evening. And I don't want the power to go out like it did in Dhrangadhra. There's that World Social Forum mantra, "Another World is Possible." But I don't know what it is.

cake said...

it is a really beautiful post. thanks raj.