This time last year, I was walking a trail in Hocking Hills State Park when I came upon a child no older than 6 or 7 staring at a rush of water passing under a tree.
Its roots were clearly visible. The dirt underneath had been worn away, but the tree survived and even prospered because its roots were deep in the soil.
The child tugged at her mother’s pant leg. She wanted her parents to see what, to her, was a sort of miracle. But their smartphones enraptured the parents.
Everything that made me what I am wanted to talk to the child. However, for several obvious reasons, I kept my distance.
That night, I ruminated about the experience as I stared at the stars of Scorpius, the Scorpion, now setting in the southwest.
Americans are, if nothing else, well-entertained. We stare with rapt attention at our screens. We satisfy ourselves with virtual relationships, virtual experience, a virtual life lived in a virtual world.
As a result, we have lost our sense of slack-jawed wonder spiced with a dash of disquiet. We must know in our guts that the universe is infinitely more powerful than anything that mere humans can produce. We must, in short, stand in awe of a larger world.
In the sky, no constellation is quite so awesome and awful as Scorpius, the Scorpion. Go to some dark, rural location and feel the Scorpion’s sting.
Before you go, look at an image of a scorpion. Read about the tiny, bug-like creature. Learn about its deadly, poisonous barb.
Pick a crystal-clear, moonless night. Look south, low on the southwestern horizon around 10 p.m. after the sky has gotten completely dark. Look for the fishhook-shaped collection of stars.
Scorpius is the Godzilla of scorpions, a titanic, rapacious beast. At its center, you will see the bright star Antares, red and flickering, the Scorpion’s beating heart.
At the end of any scorpion’s tail is a deadly surprise. According to the old myths, the stellar Scorpion defeated the greatest ancient hero, Orion, the mighty Hunter, using its poisonous stinger.
However, the constellation Orion is nowhere to be found in the summer sky. You’ll have to wait until winter to see him, and therein resides the sting of the Scorpion’s tale.
Orion was prideful of his prowess as a hunter. One fateful day, he boasted aloud that he could vanquish any of Earth’s creatures.
Unfortunately for our hapless Hunter, Earth was listening. She existed in those days in the form of Gaea, or Mother Earth, out of whose great bounty arose all the creatures on the planet.
Out of a tiny crack in herself, she allowed to scuttle a tiny scorpion, small by Orion’s standards but lethal nonetheless. The Scorpion stung Orion on the heel, and thus he died an ignominious death.
Vainglorious Orion did not fall victim to a ferocious tiger or a raging bull. He was slain by a larger-than-average bug.
The gods saw Orion’s demise as an object lesson for humanity, so they put the Hunter and the Scorpion in the heavens.
That lesson is simple enough. Mother Nature is the most significant power on Earth because she is Earth. Above all, you don’t mess with Mom.
At first, Orion balked at stellar immortality. His reluctance arose from fear, not shame. He was simply scared silly of the Scorpion.
He finally agreed to be transformed into stars and be elevated skyward, but only if he and the Scorpion never appeared in the sky simultaneously. Consequently, Orion will not rise in the southeast until Scorpius sets in the southwest.
Look to the left of Scorpius and you will see the beginning of the Milky Way, that great, unresolved river of billions of stars. It starts there on the southern horizon and stretches like the backbone of God across the entire sky.
Perhaps then you will feel the awe. You will see our natural world for what it truly is — enormous and often inexplicable, beautiful beyond words and sometimes deadly beyond terror.
If you’re lucky, it will knock you right back on your glutes. You will be changed in a way that no human creation — no special-effects spectacular — can ever accomplish.
And maybe you will realize this:
As a culture, we are worried that our children are obsessed with simple sensory experiences. We tell them not to do drugs, forgo computer games, and turn off the TV. Yet, we deal with the devil by making learning as cute and “spectacular” as its competition. We add lasers to our planetarium shows. We build giant scale models of dinosaurs. We blow up giant asteroids on giant movie screens.
It won’t work. We’re trying to prove that science is as good as PlayStation by making it look as good as PlayStation, but science is much better than that.
Have you ever wondered why some people brave the math and sleepless nights to pursue the rigors of the intellectual life?
You’ll know if you have seen the Milky Way from a dark, rural site or if you have examined the subtle mysteries of a garden-variety rock.
Most “intellectuals” had some great moment of revelation, usually as a child, often unremembered. Perhaps they saw the beautiful symmetry in the subtle structure of a leaf. Perhaps it was the ineffable expression on a baby’s face. Or it might have been that indescribable moment when they stood with their parents on a rocky point and saw the universe spread so beautifully — and terribly — around them. Perhaps in one of those experiences, they felt the joy of raw experience tinged with the fear of unknowing.
Their hunger does not rise from a fireworks display or a laser-light show. It does not come from a desire for money, fame, or a comfortable life. Deep in their hearts, in some secret place where sometimes even they cannot find it, is that unquenchable desire to experience for a single moment that child-like awe they felt so long ago.
I wanted to approach that child. I wanted to tell her that the tree survived because life struggles to endure against all the travails the world pushes against it.
Something exists in all life that wills its struggle to survive. It is the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas put it. Lacking a better term, let’s call it the force of life.
I wanted to ask her to look for the force of life in everything she sees and everything she does. I wanted to say,
“Look for it in the roots of trees and a dandelion straining toward the light. Look for it in your baby’s first cry and your parent’s halting last breath.
Look for it in the shimmering stars of summer and the last flower as winter comes.
Look for it on land and sea. Look for it on the Earth and in the sky. Look for it in every human face you see. Most of all, look for it in yourself.
It doesn’t matter if you see the force of life as a gift from God or an inevitable byproduct of natural forces. “It doesn’t matter if you see it as ‘soul’ or as a particular arrangement of subatomic particles. It doesn’t matter if you think it is strictly biological or ‘merely’ metaphorical.
If you see it as biological, perhaps you will become a scientist. If you see it as metaphorical, perhaps you will become a poet. If you are exceptionally fortunate, perhaps you will become both.”
And then I would say, “Keep tugging at your parents’ sleeves. The urge to share your vision of the world is the greatest gift that God or nature can bestow. Perhaps then you will become a teacher.”
And then I would say, “The road to that vision is sometimes fraught with pain and anxiety. You will suffer more than a few dark nights of the soul. You can survive those difficulties and even be the better because of them. But like the tree, you must sink our roots deep into the soil.
“Love your parents, even if they cannot always give you the support you need. Love your neighbor, even if your neighbor doesn’t love you.
Think of every human as your neighbor. Love your planet and all its parts, even if some of those parts bring death and destruction. Those parts make up a single, living organism we have come to call Earth.
Love your Universe and all its parts, even if that Universe sometimes seems cold and unforgiving. Through that love, you will come to understand your place in the larger world.
Plant a tree. Notice that the sapling doesn’t seem to grow much for the first few years, but it grows nonetheless. It spends that time spreading its roots below the ground where you cannot see them.
Sink your roots into the soil of life, child. Sink your roots deep.”
I didn’t say anything on that warm summer afternoon last year. She probably wouldn’t have understood a word of it anyway. But the joyful look on her face told me that someday she would, and she won’t need me to speak the words.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.