O F  S T A R S  A N D  P O E M S

One starry night many years ago, while driving alone up the wild and rocky Big Sur coast of California, I pulled over and stopped mycar for a break. Stepping out into the starlight, I walked a few feet to the edge of the cliff and looked down. From somewhere farbelow came a growl of surf. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I looked with awe at the brilliant Milky Way stretching overhead and down the sky to the southwest, out over the sea. Then I did a double-take—and thought I was going to fall off the cliff.

What I thought I was seeing was the Milky Way continuing down, down, below what must have been the horizon and deep into the sea itself. The dizzying impression was that I was standing on a flat earth and seeing stars beyond and below its edge. What I was really seeing was the Milky Way reflected on the ocean hundreds of feet below me—but I was not immediately aware of that, and so startling was the impression on my senses that I panicked. Feeling lost, disoriented and frightened under that vast sky, I turned and ran for my car! I only felt safe again when I had the engine running, lights on, and the car in motion.

As other recollections of that trip faded, that single moment of bedazzled stellar awe and panic remained with me as one of my most cherished memories. Later, when I began to read Japanese haiku poetry, I realized that my Big Sur night was exactly the kind of experience that the best haiku poems are able to record and transmit to others. The great haiku-master Matsuo Basho perhaps summed it up best. His own experience on the cold, lonely coast of northern Japan, on a dark night in the 1600s, must have been much like mine.
He wrote:

                       How wild the sea!
                       And, stretching over Sado's isle,
                       The Galaxy!

The poignant sense of space, of loneliness, felt in Basho's encounter with the night sky becomes all the more intense when you know that, in his time, Sado's isle was a penal colony.

A poem can intensify, compress, and store our experiences and emotions, just as a painting intensifies and preserves an artist's vision—or as a capacitor stores and holds an electric charge. This is a book of experiences under the sky, most often the sky of night. In recording such moments, I frequently have used the compact, 17-syllable haiku form of poetry, borrowed from the Japanese. This form seems especially suited to encapsulate and preserve meaningful encounters with nature, to “call forth in 17 syllables the limitless nuances of earth and sky,” as the classic haiku poet Masaoka Shiki put it.

When I was a child, it was my good fortune to grow up on the grounds of Yerkes Observatory, a major astronomical observatory in southern Wisconsin, where my grandfather was employed for many years as a photographer and lecturer. No doubt the seeds for these poems were sown in those early years when, as a six-year-old, I would sometimes be roused out of sleep by my mother at midnight to go outside and watch a display of the aurora borealis or a shower of meteors. Over the years, while pursuing other careers, I have learned a few things about astronomy, but always as an amateur—in the original meaning of that word: a lover. The naturalist John Burroughs said it so well: “To know is not all, it is only half. To love is the other half.”

A word about the organization of this book may be useful. I have endeavored to so blend science and art that readers may gain unexpected insights in the twin realms of the mind and the heart. The book is structured as an encounter with a starry night—from nightfall through moonlight and starlight and on to bedtime—with excursions, along the way, into both outer and inner space.

You may find it helpful to refer to the “Endnotes” section (starting on page 205) while reading this book. The comments there, keyed to the book’s page numbers, add perspective to the main text and provide resources for further learning.

Basho wrote: “Before the light that things give off dies in the heart, it must be expressed.” My hope is that this book may inspire readers to go out, observe the “limitless nuances of earth and sky,” and then express, in their own words, “the light that things give off.”

I write for all who love the starry sky, the setting sun, the full moon rising, and even the stormy night full of raindrops and snowflakes. The beauty of these things is never far from us.

— Robert L. Eklund




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