Invisibles

Morning coffee never tastes better than on Saturday, on my deck, savoring the early light as it slants, golden through the trees and the mist lifting from perennials and vegetables, blossoms back-lit in the eastern glow. At these times, occasionally, for brief moments, I see the invisible.

I sat there one recent Saturday, nursing my coffee. Dark clouds dotted the sky (what the meteorologists call partly cloudy, or maybe mostly cloudy, I really can never quite tell which is which.) The dew hung heavily on everything. As the sun winked through the slit between the horizon and the clouds, the mist caught it, and I saw a hidden world.

A taught, bright line first caught my eye, ten feet of shimmering spider silk stretched like a steel cable from the garden fence to a branch of the red oak reaching down.

I imagined the spider climbing from tree to fence or fence to tree. Although, I knew the spider drifted down from the tree, nudged by a breeze to the fence, but I couldn’t help thinking that its purpose was to climb into the green canopy of the tree, away from the man-made.

My eye followed the fence to where I knew it turned a corner, but the wire fence I knew was there was not. The dark wire of the fence receded as the sunlight called out more and more shimmering webs hanging in the gaps, hundreds of webs each carving out its space along our garden fence.


For a few years, I inhabited a desert city. Like most cities, its lights blocked the night sky. The moon could compete, but stars could not. I was a student. A hairdresser and a Culligan Man lived across the hall. She would cut my hair in their apartment for $10. He had a passion for guns and astronomy. He had a Garand M-1 for target shooting, subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine, and owned a used reflector telescope.

crab_nebula

Crab Nebula, visible light courtesy of NASA

I had never seen a telescope like this, so he set it up one night in the parking lot, right downstairs from our apartments. It was four or five feet long and looked to me like it was made of black Sonotube, a heavy duty cardboard tube used as a form for concrete columns. The tube sat on a tripod, and it had special mounts for eyepieces. The whole thing had a motor that plugged into his truck’s cigarette lighter. The motor compensated for the earth’s rotation and kept the view in view.

Within five minutes, I stood looking through the telescope, feet solidly on asphalt smelling faintly of gasoline with the soft hum of the tracking motor barely audible above the jet engines and the adjacent six-lane street. I looked through the light pollution and air pollution at the Crab Nebula and back in time more than 6,000 years, seeing light that left 20 centuries or more before Gilgamesh met Enkidu or Moses walked in Ur. It remains among the most arresting things I have ever seen— made even more so by how I saw it, not in a laboratory or a college observatory, but standing next to a white Toyota pickup on a hot summer evening with a guy who delivered water for a living.

I inhabit a small, personal universe in the near field. If I look away only briefly, my life vanishes into nothing, becoming smaller and smaller until I disappear. In a parking lot or seated with a cup of coffee, I can be suddenly displaced by the infinite. I can’t quite decide if I like that feeling or not.