Thursday, September 22, 2005

A stretch of river IV: migrations and slow time

Today is the autumnal equinox. As I was reminding myself of that fact yesterday on my afternoon walk with the Scruffmeister, I thought about the monument to equinoxes and solstices in the park across the river: a ring of monolithic stones about 20 feet in diameter that functions as a working solar calendar. On the ground inside the ring are glass half-domes with the dates of the solstices and equinoxes so placed as to be illuminated by the sun's rays at noon when the light passes through a hole in one of the south-side monoliths at local noon (the sun's apogee) on the appropriate day. Meanwhile, two other stones, about 30 feet beyond the ring's south-eastern and -western quadrants, are positioned so that, when one sights along them toward the horizon, they mark the points of the respective sunrises and sunsets for each of those days. It is a smaller, funkier Stonehenge.

But the plaque there that explains how the site functions makes clear that its purpose is not to turn the good people of Wichita into sun-worshippers. It is, at least in part, a monument as well to the human patience required to discover and graph, over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the movements of the sun and Earth. And, of course, it is a testament to the human need and desire to find order in the cosmos as a first step in beginning to make sense of it and of our meaning as part of that cosmos.

So, those larger movements, a space dance of huge objects tens of millions of miles apart from each other that nevertheless offers evidence of that dance that people, over years and years and years of time, learned to see the evidence of in sun and shadow and fixed points on horizons. But yesterday I was also reminded of other dances, easier to see but, paradoxically, harder to explain. By the river, we passed a tree whose dense overarching branches created a dark, cool shade right next to the path, and in that shade were maybe a dozen or so monarch butterflies fluttering about. That small gathering reminded me of the spectacular pictures I've seen from Michoacan, in Mexico, of the monarchs' annual winter migration from Canada and this country to that place, in which hundreds of thousands of the butterflies can occupy a tree, their cumulative weight so heavy they can break branches off. And sure enough, this story from NPR today confirmed that the fall migration has just begun.

The park, today, is a small waystation for something all the more grand for the fragility of its participants. And, though most days--even today, when I went by a little before sunset--the monoliths aren't visited much, their very presence provides a place that is both observation post and reminder of something akin to what the ancients called the music of the spheres. Orders, cycles, rhythms, all so much grander than we who nevertheless can bear witness to them if we only choose to.

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these preachers of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.--Emerson, "Nature"

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