LETTER TO THE CRAB NEBULA
Dear Crab Nebula:
There are many ways to turn our eyes to the sky. I was once told of a man who built a house at the base of a giant stone. It was an unusual stone for engraved into its top was a petroglyph of an eye. The man was an amateur astronomer, and on clear nights would go to the top of the stone and set up his tripod and telescope over the ancient oculus. The eye of stone found its extension in an eye of glass. To look through the telescope he would have to lean over to place his eye to the eyepiece—simultaneously bowing to the stone and casting his own eyes to the heavens. I imagine him one night, seeing you, seeing you seeing him, a giant eye caught in the horns of Taurus.
I am making a book out of a meteorite, a piece of iron fallen from the sky. I held the meteorite in my hand, felt its tremendous weight, the paths carved across its surface by air. I sliced it into thin slabs, which I polished and etched. Through this iron I cast my eye back through unknowable space. Through this iron I glimpse something from the time when I more closely resembled you. In this act, I revealed an archaic language filled with echoes of an even older language spoken by a nebula. And so I decided to bind the sliced iron meteorite, present it in the form of a codex, endow it with an invitation to read its patterns, to ask that it be understood as an agent for dreaming, provide it with a new form of flight.
There are times when it appears that we may call things into being—each language carrying its own forms of precision and its own character of calling. Yesterday, I began my day by researching the terms used to describe meteorites in Chinese. To my delight I found a single character, 隕, pronounced yun, which means “to fall from the sky.” There is a similar word, 落, pronounced luo, which means to fall through the air, but in this case more to float through the air—as a leaf, or a feather, or the petal of a flower. In contrast, yun seems to suggest a momentous plummet from unknown heights. What were the circumstances that required a single word for this category of experience? I called a friend of mine who collects meteorites and told him of the word. I wrote to a poet, I told my daughter.
Setting aside my new word yun, I then turned to the design of my meteorite book—looking at the pages as wings, as paddles, as hands. Near the end of the afternoon, I called a machinist. A cold front was blasting across the valley, bringing with it the first snow, and our conversation turned from stainless steel bearings to birds. One day years ago, when he was a young man in Louisiana, he witnessed something extraordinary at the edge of a cold front. “I was standing outside, when suddenly hummingbirds began to fall from the sky. I picked up fifteen or twenty from around the yard, so small you could hardly feel their weight. They would wake up in my hand, and look at me with their tiny black eyes, but they were too stunned to fly. I carried them to a little greenhouse and took care of them for a couple of days. When the weather had warmed back up, I opened the door and they flew away.”
A crucial difference between luo and yun is their relationship to expectation, the effect they have on our understanding of reality. Rain, a maple seed, the scintillating light from distant stars—we expect these from the sky, they constitute a great field, constant and seemingly understood. We do not expect a bird in torpor, even less a piece of stone or iron. In the first case, the objects seamlessly align with our inner selves. In the second case, the event is so unusual, that we must work, often with great difficulty, to forge an alignment. Thus, it seems that the unexpected, the unaligned, leads us to the act of reading. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans were a class of augurs known as auspicium, which means “one who observes birds.” Through practice, they were able to detect the subtle variations in flight and song, and “read” these variations as communications from the gods.
On July 3, 1054, Chinese astronomers looked up to see a sky with little or nothing usual. It is possible that one looked at you that evening still in the form of a star, not knowing that you were on the verge of collapse. The next night, however, all of them witnessed your birth—a blinding light that filled the sky, visible even during the day for close to a month. You were declared a guest star and, like the flight of a bird or a fallen stone, read as an omen, read in the great field of the sky. I don't know what the machinist read into the fall of hummingbirds. But I think of him releasing the hummingbirds—letting his eyes rest where those minute jewels disappeared into the sky—and then devoting his life to the precise turning of metal. I cannot tell you what will be read in the pages of my meteorite book, or in what language, but on the next clear night, I will hold them up for you to see.
Walla Walla, WA
October 27, 2009