For minds that can barely comprehend a year from a light year or a million seconds from a billion hours, let alone 13.8 billion years – the distance the telescope dubbed a “cosmic time machine” was able to see into the distant past – how far away is forever?
Yet beneath our magical “heavens,” that is, the speckled black mysteries above us at night, wonder upon wonder appeared last week in space far beyond any human eye before; Déjà vu. We couldn’t just walk out, look up and, voila, but we knew it was there because the smartest of us had put our intellects to good use, an exceptionally wonderful thing in a world where too many minds spend their intelligence on everything. the bad things.
The numbers are confusing. The James Webb Telescope had been sent like a giant eye to a point a million miles from Earth to observe and await the moment of photograph the unknowable on a mission to unveil the infrared universe. It had pointed and clicked (in fact, the complexity of capturing the images is a huge feat in itself) and, caught in its focus like a rhinestone deer in the headlights, was a stellar nursery, cosmic “cliffs” , emerging galaxies and dying stars, and Stephan’s Quintet performing a shimmering cosmic dance. Stephan’s Quintet is only 290 million light-years away. And more, so much more, into infinity and everything beyond. Wonder upon incomprehensible wonder. And far below, in the plains of Camdeboo and the foothills of the ancient Karoo mountains, we took a collective deep breath and thought of things bigger than ourselves.
One image, countless stitches; one point, countless galaxies. All within a pinprick if you or I are looking at the sky at night. If a pinprick of apparent nothingness reveals world after world, galaxy after galaxy, mystery after mystery, how much smaller we are than we were last week.
In the Karoo we are fortunate to have seemingly “bigger” skies than in the cities, only because we have much less light around us. That’s one of the things about Karoo night: we walk outside, turn off the house lights and look up.
On the farm and in the backyard of the townhouse, coats were put on, scarves were wrapped around necks, and pots were dusted as meat marinated in the kitchen. Fires were lit and tended and beers opened and poured as they huddled to look up and consider how small but blessed they were. Wine was added to meat and potatoes in pots over stoves and hearths and every manly braai made of iron and muscle and rivet and sweat, lids put on and the patient waiting for the watchthe call for tenders, the shisa nyama, the charred meat, smoke and aroma familiar to every nostril as far back in time as man has ever walked and breathed; since the wood cracked to create the fire. As far as a man, woman or child has ever been able to look up and wonder, imagine and wonder about the eternal quest to understand the incomprehensible.
The Hobhouse gas station attendant’s grim eye looked skyward after filling the tank of a Gauteng-registered 4×4 and waiting for the rumble to head towards Wepener so that the quiet could settle; so he can rediscover that spiritual connection with the infinite, as free as the sea. Just me and the sky, me and the stars, my God must be there, he thought perhaps in the private space between man and the universe.
No one can enter this space; the private world between the humble eye and the infinite. Not the bank manager or the white madam, not the raging driver or the condescending tourist. The stockbroker who thinks it’s all about the money, the developer who thinks it’s all about the number of rooms and money in the bank, the realtor who thinks it’s all about the view, the price , commission, location, location; they cannot enter that space between the poor and eternity. The debt collector cannot enter here, nor the angry lawyer, the angry neighbor or the sworn enemy. It is an invisible sanctuary, an oasis of serenity, sacrosanct and impenetrable to eyes blinded by the senseless and the useless.
The eye of smous slamming his cart back to his cabin at the end of the day, looked up and saw that the stars were showing up earlier than they usually would. The shepherd on the slopes of the Malutis slapping the rumps of his proteges, the stick and the carrot kindly to keep them close and safe, held a winter hand to the side of the beast and felt its warmth while its head bowed back and his ancient and cunning eyes saw what Vincent saw, what Galileo saw, what every thinking mind ever saw and wondered; yet the humble shepherd also knows what he knew; that the unknowable captivates us all equally, and that position and possession, learning and financial portfolio mean nothing when you stand beneath the infinite, in the tiny space between you and the eternal.
The tycoon’s eye, even when gazing at the same dark starry night, blinded by his eternal quest for still more riches, can see less his glory than the wanderer for whom that starry treasure is his all. The oligarch can count the stars like Fagin, In this life, one thing counts, in the bank, large sums; but the starscape warms not the pocket but the heart, soothing the beggar’s soul as the tycoon passes by not noticing either the pauper or the glory above. Beggar, dare we add, the question: who is the richest?
While puny men waged war on others with the misfortune of being neighbors, giants among us used their minds for a much greater purpose. To open our eyes to the greatness that lies and has always lied far beyond the imaginable, and show it to us.
As night fell over a world in which great space scientists and explorers had devised a way for us to see much farther than we had ever seen, one of the first things that came to us The spirit was that although we can now “see” farther than ever before, all the way from time before time, from beginnings before beginnings, and see light emitted even in biblical times, the worlds beyond worlds and galaxies beyond galaxies were but the tiniest ray of light in the vastness of it all. The bigger the universe seems, the smaller we feel or know we are.
And in the giant puzzle of the space/time continuum, the quest to understand and unravel the interplay between past and present, where we were and could go, we ask ourselves: are we looking at the light of our ancestors, and are- they suddenly don’t seem as far away, not so distant, less distant, somehow closer, like the giant eye brought the light of the past into our present. Are we in someone else’s past, or in their future… Light, moving; and now we see it. What will scientists do with it and what new wonders await us as they are behind us. It makes you want to stay alive longer, to be there to find out.
The Great Sky does not judge the potjie or the barrel braai, the tandoor or the tagine; don’t know and don’t care if we are braising braai chops and steak or shisa nyama. The infinity of infinities cannot differentiate us whether we are Hindu or Jayne, saman or sangoma, Southern Baptist or High Church of England. We are eyes and souls under the endless mystery. We are the little unknown, beyond the reach of the farthest eye, beyond the realm of anything worth understanding or seeing by anything and anyone who can standing in the night of their own mysterious planet, looking up and seeing that dot there, that tiny little one, the now-you-see-now-you-don’t-see-it, the one that can be something thing or nothing; our earth. Our world. Everything we know and have known. Yet, on her, we remain to look back, wondering what or who can exist. Somewhere.
I wonder when I look up to this night: is there someone far away in this infinity staring into the starry void and wondering if we are there; imagine if our minds could connect in the ether; two points of wonder and hope, thoughts colliding somewhere in infinity. Memories of our world and their worlds, our history and theirs, tumbling and floating together, touching sides, sharing our collective stories. Maybe all the music floats there, and all the written words. All the bitter tears of grief and war, all the laughter and joy of things that went well. We hope the memories of their worlds are kinder, sweeter, and might be a balm for the pain and cruelty of too many of us.
We were dust and we will return; but infinity will always be there and visible as surely as light travels forever.
And here’s the rub: the more we see infinity everywhere, the less significant we are, but the more we are inspired to be better, to do better, to try harder, to be kinder, and to use our intellect and talents for better purposes. . Is it possible that the more the James Webb Telescope reveals, the more our human brothers and sisters of all races and hues will look up and then look at each other and think, we really are all in this together; let’s be better. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM store. Buy it here.
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