A Long Time Ago From Now

I spent most of the day cleaning up the property, cutting the grass, moving furniture around the porch for a better spot to sit and do my work, and contemplating cutting back branches, and even removing one apple tree entirely. It is slowly dying and is starting to kill others in the area, so tomorrow, the diseased monster must go. I’ll plant some new ones, maybe a couple of fig trees, though their fruit most likely will only start to be enjoyed by some future generation of kids cutting through the yard on their way to the river.

But I did work today on the property and I grew tired, the elements in the air compressing my skull as they tend to do this time of year until I hosed down my head and felt better.

And tonight I sat at my new spot on the porch with an angle under the roof toward the half-moon, and in the north I could hear geese circling about the field, preparing to land, or perhaps glide another few hundred yards to the duck pond of the river. It is dusk now, and that’s when they seem to look for respite.

But the moon…

That’s Jupiter and Saturn just to the right, and clear to the west, leaving tonight’s party in a short bit, is Venus. But it’s the Milky Way I wanted to see tonight. I’ve had the chance on a few occasions in my life, but not nearly often enough could I see the heart of our galaxy from this lazy arm of ours. I’ve never seen it from here at Aerie.

It is on my mind because today I learned scientists have been tracking radio type signals coming from the very center of the galaxy. This reception is not new in and of itself, but today I listened to two scientists discuss the significant difference this time: the pulsating sounds have no pattern, do not follow a rhythmic scheme as is common and expected in pulsars and other sound-emitting bodies out there. Normally, and, well, for absolutely every time until now, the signals came like clockwork, so they could predict what and when the sound will be x moments away, like knowing the 100th number in Pi—they can see it coming because they know the pattern.

But this time, for the first time, the signal is absolutely unpredictable, not following any repetitive pattern and sounding more like a child playing with a Morse code machine than a natural phenomenon sent out by a block of ice or rock or cloud of gas.

“But it is a natural object, right? I mean, it is something like a disturbance in the transmission of a signal from something like a pulsar, perhaps interrupted by some other planetary body, correct?” asked Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday.   

His guest was succinct: “No clue. It if is natural, no scientist has ever, anywhere, heard anything like it before. So there’s a chance it is, in fact, not natural.”

Honestly, it was hard to pay attention at that point.

I do not have a scientific mind. That sort of information simply refused to enter my brain. What I do have, however, is some sort of child-like mentality for Space and Hope. I’ve always thought of those two things as twins—Hope and Space; Hope was born first, of course, and pulled us all out into Space to get to know her better. It is hard to not listen to this information and think about another reality, another group of hopeful (for truly if they are trying to reach out as well there must be some ambition or hope out there) whatever’s reaching into Space.

Of course, Science does tell us that sound might have left the source a billion years ago and is just getting to us, sound travel being what it is. Hell, even two hundred yards from my son hitting a golf ball I see his complete swing before I hear him make contact with the ball. So whatever tried calling might not even exist anymore, which kind of throws a wet blanket on the Hope thing.

But not completely.

Somewhere at some point, just like we do here in various locations around the planet, it is possible that something is doing exactly what we are doing—sending out signals Hoping to make contact, even though the ones doing it know perfectly well even if the call is received, the return will most likely occur dozens of lifetimes from now.

Isn’t it possible that this is exactly what’s missing from this world today? The very notion of doing something now knowing you’ll never live to see the fruits of your labor. That is how humans improved through the millennia; they kept setting goals they could not reach, setting things right for some posterity to pick up the ball and keep running. But lately it seems humans are focused too close to the now, we’ve lost sight of sacrifice, of investment.

In Halberstadt, Germany, a John Cage composition, ORGAN2/ASLSP, was started on September 5, 2001 (Cage’s birthday), and his musical composition will not be completed for—no kidding—639 years. Some notes are held for years on this specially built (still building) organ, and then released. The piece will be completed on September 6th, 2640.

This might be the best example I know of in the arts to tie together the perception of art with the perception of time. The first performance of a Mozart composition must have been phenomenal to attend with Amadeus himself at the podium. But here, the very first performance of this work will still be experienced, assuming the world still exists then, six centuries from now. The art, the contribution, the love of music is exhibited in the participation in something of which we will never know or experience the results.

It is the artist’s equivalent of “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”

And I sit on the porch knowing there are sounds coming from some distant place probably a billion years ago, and I will never know what they are, who sent them, or what it means. This is both exciting and dreadfully depressing.

But a billion years, or 639 years, is a mere example of what we are missing in some simpler fashion. That we don’t think enough about what’s next, even when, especially when, we’re not going to be part of it.

And this place we are part of now? Someone set it right, participated in some battle, some treaty, some deed or landgrab or labor that cultivated the soil, that cleansed the bay of toxins, that insured the air is breathable. Just as the Constitution was composed with just enough vagueness to allow generations times generations to stand upon its foundation, despite their departure from this earth merely decades after the document’s creation, we need to tend to our democracy not with “winning” as a goal, but longevity. We need to tend to this land, this beautiful, inspiring land as mere holders of a lease someone else will inherit.

Because, well, because we’re going to die, and “nothing survives but the way we live our lives.

“We all become forefathers by and by”

–Dan Fogelberg

Plant and Care for Your Oak Tree Sapling | Mr. Tree, Inc.

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