Regaining Contact With the Heavens

I put everything aside to watch the BBC's coverage of the Rosetta's mission to place a robot probe on the comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko 320 million miles into space. When the good folks at the European Space Agency announced that Philae had safely landed on the comet's rocky surface, I felt a little bounce of joy. Perhaps even a tinge of (probably unmerited) pride.
We had done it.

The good ol' human race had reached beyond the disease and war and fear and pain that infest our planet and touched a heavenly body in far outer space.

It is an extraordinary achievement. The ESA's Rosetta mission has traveled 4 billion miles over the past decade, slinging around Earth three times and Mars once to gain the necessary speed to catch 67P. It has been likened to a fly trying to land on a baseball. What Philae may find could have profound meaning to those who bravely try to make sense of the universe.

I have done more sky-watching in recent months than I have in a long, long time. The recent spate of "Supermoons" that filled the skies over South Texas were glorious. A few days before Rosetta made its contact with 67P, a massive meteor lit the skies of San Antonio ... and I was immediately sorry I missed it. Even the Space Station has made a pass or two over the Alamo recently.

As an Air Force brat living on Fairchild Air Force Base near the Canadian border, I still can remember the thrill of seeing the Northern Lights for the first time. And, while on a camping trip to Mount Spokane, the clouds parted long enough for our scout leader to wave his hands at the suddenly revealed Milky Way. We talked about the sight of it for a long time that night, snug in our sleeping bags, our eyes to the stars.

And yet, for the most part, we have lost contact with the heavens. The stars that gave our ancestors comfort and -- sometimes -- direction are nearly lost to us now. It is not just the light pollution of our cities, it is the blue-lit, seductive attraction of our digital devices that block us from looking to the night sky.

It's our loss, I believe. The sense of wonder, the sense of majesty that the night sky imparts is hard-wired into our DNA. We need to replenish our capacity to be awed.

The African-American slaves certainly got it. And in their appreciation, I think, is direction for us today. For a people who spent much of their waking lives out of doors, the slaves forged a special relationship with the heavens.

One of my favorite spirituals is "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow," where the Star of Bethlehem is more than a signal, it is a call to action:

There's a star in the East on Christmas morn,
Rise up shepherd and follow.
It will go to the place the Savior's born,
Rise up shepherd and follow.

Follow, follow, rise up shepherd and follow.
Follow the star of Bethlehem, rise up shepherd and follow.

One of the most intriguing spirituals is also concerned with the stars, "Foller the Drinkin' Gourd." On the surface it sounds almost nonsensical, but when an elderly former slave explained its hidden meaning to a historian nearly a hundred years ago, it suddenly made perfect sense:

Follow the drinking gourd!
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.

The riverbank makes a very good road,
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,
Follow the drinking gourd.

Think about that for a moment. Living at a time when possession of a map was punishable by death, the slave poets created a song from what they knew best -- the world around them and the stars above them. "The drinking gourd" is the Big Dipper -- follow the way the "handle" points and it'll lead you to freedom. The other verses (and only three are listed above) provide a roadmap -- natural landmark by natural landmark -- for slaves in Alabama to find their way to freedom.

Perhaps the most beautiful spiritual of all was collected by John Lovell Jr.:

O graveyard, o graveyard,
I'm walkin' troo de graveyard:
Lay dis body down.

I know moonlight, I know starlight,
I'm walkin' troo de starlight;
Lay dis body down.

I go to de judgment in de evenin' of the day,
Lay dis body down.

And my soul an' your soul will meet in de day,
When we lay dis body down.

There is a reverence here, a quiet passion for the beauty of the unknowable. It is a reverence we would do well to admire and emulate. It's when we get too full ourselves that we repeat the sins of the past. It's when we lose that wonder for the glory of creation that we tend to dismiss, denigrate and -- too often -- despoil it.

The writers of the Psalms got it, too: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork." (Psalm 19:1)

Perhaps we should pay a little more attention to the skies, the stars, the cosmos, and remember creation ... and our part in it.

My father, the late Col. Robert F. Darden Jr., was a pilot and he loved to fly. His favorite poem was "High Flight," written by a young American pilot flying for the Canadian Air Force just before the United States entered World War II. The poem has been used many times and in many places since John Gillespie Magee Jr. wrote it in 1941. He was only 19 when he died in a mid-air collision in England. These are the final three lines and they always brought a tear to my father's eyes -- as they do mine, even today:

And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

So, for the singular event of November 12, 2014, when Rosetta's robot probe Philae landed on the impossibly alien surface of 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko, let us pause for a moment and reflect ...

... and wonder.


Robert Darden is the author of Nothing Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).