Carbon Circles

I’m driving around in a new (used) car – a silver cream puff that I bought from CarMax.  It’s a Hyundai Elantra.  (Hyundai is approximately pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with June and the second syllable like the English word day. The word means “modernity” in Korean.)

It replaced my previous car – a noble Accord coupe stricken when the bayou across the street overflowed its banks during Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Houston.

 

Harvey’s intensity was in part due to the climate disruption brought about by humankind’s profligate consumption of energy, so say the scientists. One of the most significant sources of the atmospheric carbon dioxide is our collective use of automobiles.

So with cars as it is with people and ideas, my old car played a role, however small, in engendering its own destruction—and rebirth.

Totality

“The very hottest stars are a few tens of thousands of degrees. But when you see a total solar eclipse, that corona you witness is millions of degrees hot;  it is the hottest thing the human eye will ever see in nature.” – Sun Moon Earth, The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets, by Tyler Nordgren

Triassic Dark

 

To see the 2017 eclipse of the sun, I went to Wyoming. This is where our group was:  off Bridger Creek Road near Badwater Creek Road outside of Lysite WY – more or less the American outback.  Our fearless leader, a geologist, identified these red rock bands as Triassic deposits with pale limestone layers that include fossils.  There may be Eohippus fossils in there – stony remains of the dawn horse.

As the Moon began to cover the Sun, the air definitely got cool and the light weaker.  Shadows looked oddly fuzzy on one side and sharp on the other side.  The sunlight streaming through a woven straw pith helmet threw little crescents on a piece of paper.

Totality looked like sunset on every horizon.  Security lights in various directions, and a refinery that lit up like a Christmas tree, made  the point there this really wasn’t nowhere.  There were human-made structures out there. Meanwhile the Sun was a black hole in the darkened sky, surrounded by the bright, pale, corona.  The corona had structure.

The eclipse was the single most incredible astronomical sight I’ve ever seen.

It’s incredibly temporary:  a few minutes of daylight darkness in a shadow that raced across the US in 90 minutes. And total eclipses will only last for a few geological eons while the Moon exactly covers the Sun.  Long ago the Moon was nearer and covered more than the  Sun’s  disk. The glassy eyes of ancient trilobites may have seen eclipses without much corona.  Long in the future, the Moon will spiral away and cover less of the Sun.  There will be no more perfectly awesome eclipses with the bright pale crown of the sun so visible.

Eclipses seen by human eyes portended disaster to old civilizations.  Now they’re wonders without terror and signs of orbital mechanics, not the end of the world.

Right?

Well.

I returned home to Houston and then came Harvey.  By the time it hit Houston it was Tropical Storm Harvey, and wreaked great havoc.  I was lucky that all I personally lost was my car (sob!). Some people in my condo complex had two or three feet of water in their homes.  I spent the storm snug in my third-floor condo with power, water, Internet, and plenty of good food to eat.

Storm Harvey was an infinitely small disturbance in the astronomical universe.  It unfolded in less than a flicker in geological time even though it made a lasting impact crater in this city and in human lifespans. It strangely ties us to some of those Triassic fossils, I think.  A lot of the world’s fossil beds seem to have happened when a flood drowned a large number of creatures.  Floodwaters washed  them into expanses of mud where their bones fossilized and their softer body parts left impressions in sedimentary stone.

In the days after Harvey, the resurrection fern on the oaks on the Rice University campus flourished greatly.  Ferns, by the way, date back to the Devonian  period, even earlier than the Triassic.

I took these pictures while the Library was open limited hours and for Rice ID holders.  The University and the city of Houston were still reeling.  May all the other communities hit by Harvey have their own resurrection.

 

 

Back to the Nest

Last weekend I rode Amtrak’s California Zephyr across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the decommissioning ceremony of the lovely hilltop campus of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, where I studied many years ago.  In the end, I earned an M.A. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, not an M. Div from PLTS. But the time I spent in and around PLTS was formative in my life and in my imagination.
I remember days when  silent fog enveloped the campus and ice water trickled down the trees in this holy hill.  There are three towering redwoods planted here almost six decades ago by eminent Lutherans.  These redwoods were taller than I remembered: now, they tower.
One of three redwoods
“Planted by Hanns Lilje 1959”
With a welter of buildings and a lot of grounds, the campus had high maintenance costs and a decreased number of students studying for the ministry.  A move downhill had been discussed for years. The decommissioning was bittersweet for everyone – current students, long-absent alums, staff, faculty, and Board members.  It was wonderful to walk one last time the shaded paths between the buildings, to worship in the chapel where so many seminarians learned how to do liturgy.  On the other hand, knowing it was the end of an era and that this spectacular location was going to to be forever lost to us cast a somber shade over the day.
Me looking out over the San Francisco Bay from the tower in Sawyer Hall.
Following the last worship service in the PLTS chapel, the altar was stripped and the school banner, processional cross, and other liturgical items carried by hand to the new PLTS downtown Berkeley campus – a downhill walk of 3.7 miles, less than that for some of us who set out later but caught up by the expedient of going straight down incredibly steep Marin Avenue.  The procession looped along a less steep way lest anybody trip and arrive too soon downhill!
The procession in the Berkeley Hills
Procession in downtown Berkeley
The Seminary is now housed on the second floor of an up-to-date office building in downtown Berkeley across the street from City Hall.  Here it is near the center of gravity of the Graduate Theological Union consortium of seminaries, and close to urban challenges and opportunities and the front lines of social justice.  The new space has been thoughtfully designed and appointed.
New multi-use space for worship, lectures or receptions
Encountering the new space after, we found each office and functional space, including the sacristy, the kitchen, the fire escape stairs, and a window facing City Hall, adorned with a heartfelt and quirky blessing.  Like this one:
Areas of Potential Protest
Oh God of all activity,
bless those citizens
     who exercise their rights of free speech
      by protesting around city hall.
May they be as peaceful as possible
and may law enforcement officials
     be as expeditious and as prudent as possible
     in the carrying out of their duties.
 Oh, and protect the glass windows of this building
     and other adjacent buildings.
Amen.

Pets From Space

Pets in Space!  Science fiction—so far.  Someday. . . .

But how about pets FROM space?  Not fiction, but historical fact.

In August, 1960, two dogs, Belka and Strelka, were launched into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 5.  They were the first animals to successfully orbit the Earth and survive their adventures.  They did more than merely survive:  Strelka (the name translates to “Little Arrow”) later gave birth to five puppies.

The successful space flight of Belka and Strelka did more than enable Strelka to start a family; the two dogs also served as tangible—indeed, pettable—evidence of Soviet superiority in developing space technology.  In fact, it was the event that motivated President John F. Kennedy to commit to sending human beings to the Earth’s Moon by the end of the decade.  (Kennedy made his announcement on the Rice University campus, my alma mater and just a few blocks from where I am right now.)

At a state dinner in Vienna, early in June, 1961, Jackie Kennedy, seated next to Nikita Khrushchev and at a loss for innocuous dinner-table subjects, thought to ask about Strelka and her puppies.  Some time later, a mysterious package arrived at the White House.  Inside was one of the litter—a puppy, Pushinka.

Pushinka was cute and fluffy, but that only made sense:  the name Pushinka actually translates to “Fluffy.”

In October 1962 the world held its breath as what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.  Nuclear war was averted, and the personal relationship between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev is often credited with making this possible.  Perhaps, too, the world’s first Pet FROM Space had a paw in this.

We’ll never know, but we can wonder.

In this photo, Pushinka in the middle is flanked by parents Strelka (left) and Pushok (right).

Pushinka thrived in White House care and eventually gave birth to her own litter, which JFK referred to as “pupniks.”


 

Pets in Space 2

There’s going to be another anthology of science fiction romance with cute, helpful and/or valiant pets!  The authors in Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2 are S.E. Smith, M.K. Eidem, Susan Grant, Michelle Howard, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Sabine Priestley, Jessica E. Subject, Carol Van Natta, and me.

Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love