Tuesday, July 14, 2009

smelling stars

I found them walking from Winchester High School one afternoon to meet Ginger at her church. A small handbill on the door of the Griffin Museum of Photography announced the showing of color pictures of the universe by David Malin. What I learned that afternoon, and in my subsequent trips with my English classes, was that Malin, who began as a micro-photographer (check out this book), had developed a way of photographing different levels of light, if you will, using different colored plates (I’m out of my league trying to describe this, you understand), such that he was able to give color and scape to what we can only see as small white lights or even darkness, if we can see them at all. This photograph, for instance, is the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion, the Hunter; I do well to find the stars that make up his belt on any given winter evening.

I thought about Malin on my way home from church because of a conversation I had during coffee hour. Brian, who would be able to understand what Malin was doing, told me – with great joy – about a recent discovery. It seems scientists have been able to isolate the largest molecule in the galaxy (so far) outside of our solar system. The cool thing is it is the same molecule that gives raspberries their flavor.

“So you see,” Brian said with a smile, “our galaxy has a raspberry filling. I love it. God has a sense of humor.”

They also found alcohol molecules. The Milky Way appears to be a giant raspberry daquiri. Now that will preach.

Though A Wrinkle in Time is the book that gets the most attention, my favorite volume in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet is A Wind in the Door. Before Malin started taking photographs, or scientists when berry picking, L’Engle was spinning a story of size and significance. Two siblings, Charles Wallace and Meg, face the same expanse of magnitude and minutiae as Charles Wallace has an infection in the smallest particles of his blood and Meg is fighting cosmic evil that is ripping stars out of the sky. (Did I mention it’s a science fiction story?) At one point in the book, Meg is taken to a planet where the mitochondria, the stars, and Meg are all the same size and she is told to remember everything matters and everything is connected.

In one of her nonfiction books, A Rock That is Higher Than I: Story as Truth, L’Engle wrote:

The secrets of the atom are not unlike Pandora's box, and what we must look for is not the destructive power but the vision of interrelatedness that is desperately needed on this fragmented planet. We are indeed part of a universe. We belong to each other; the fall of every sparrow is noted, every tear we shed is collected in the Creator's bottle.
That we are inextricably connected to one another is not a new idea. In fact, I think it borders on cliché, as often as we give lip service to it. (I’m not sure we are quite as accustomed to incarnating the connections.) Here is what has caught me with its freshness today: the imagination of God is so extravagant that God makes connections we can’t even begin to see, or smell. In the middle of the galaxy, in a place we cannot even recognize with our own eyes, are beams of light and gatherings of gas older than anything we can comprehend, and they smell like raspberries. The layers of the universe, from the indistinguishable micro particles we have yet to discover to the starscape whose oldest light has yet to even find us, are full of the love and limitlessness of our Creator.

The connections are as old as creation, and as fresh as our willingness to sharpen our senses and stretch our minds and hearts to find them. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
O, taste and see that the Lord is good. Smell, too.

Peace,
Milton