A guest post from Jeff, you can find his thoughts on his blog From a Rocky Hillside.
Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (1985, Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1992), 209 pages, each chapter illustrated with a woodblock print.
This may go down as the best book I’ve read all year. Raymo describes himself as a “pilgrim of darkness.” The journey and the night sky provide him with joy. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to discover this fellow pilgrim, but a blogger friend suggested that I might like another of his books. When I looked him up, I saw this book and decided to read it first. After all, one of my favorite times to walk is at night. With a clear sky, it feels as if the stars accompany me on my travels.
The Soul of the Night is a collection of twenty essays. In each, the author begins with an observation that leads him deeper into the subject. It may be something on earth (he seems especially fond of birds) that lead him skyward. Or it could be an astronomical sighting that leads him back to earth. In these essays, he draws on his experience as a professor of physics and astronomy. Weaving his scientific knowledge with a keen sense of observation, the author draws on his vast background of knowledge. He quotes from mythology, the Bible, the natural world, world religions (especially Zen Buddhism), and literature (especially poetry) as he leads his reader on a journey of exploration.
In these pages, we ponder the beauty of the stars and the night from our perspective as well as the perspective of our ancient ancestors. We learn of how legends became constellations and how what we see as a vast flat canvas is a universe that’s spreading apart at an astonishing rate. He tells of illustrating our galaxy by spreading a box of salt in a swirl on the floor. But before his students take too much comfort in how close the “stars” are, he reminds them that to be precise, it would require a dozen boxes of salt and the positioning of each grain of salt would have to be thousands of feet from each other and would require a plane larger than a cross section of the earth (101-2). A grain of salt every 1000 feet is enough to bog the mind. He investigates the meaning of darkness. He explores the color of the stars (which we can barely make out with the naked eyes) as well as the color of the landscape. Quoting a friend, he notes that “walking in the woods in November is like walking in a black and white landscape.” He ponders the shadows of the earth and the moon and how they helped understand the distances between objects. Raymo packs so much knowledge within these pages.
This is a delightful book that has given me much to ponder.
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