The upward abyss

Illustration for Upward Abyss: a hand clings to the ground with trees, mountains, stars, and the moon visible on the tilted horizon.

One night I wandered outside and lay down in the grass. This was awhile back; I think I was in high school at the time. I can’t remember why I found myself out there on that particular evening. Maybe I needed the fresh air, maybe the solitude, or maybe it was another long summer night in the country with nothing much to do.

There was a hill in our back yard that rose above the house and offered a pretty good view of the rolling fields across the road. Laying on my back, the sloping ground fell away on all sides and the sky stretched across my field of vision. My eyes wandered. As they adjusted, I could discern more and more stars and, eventually, the Milky Way — a very faint band across the middle of the dome surrounding me.

Laying in my yard that night, I gradually lost my sense of up and down, figure and ground.

I noticed something peculiar. I could pick out more stars, more “depth” in the sky, just outside the center of my vision. If I looked at one star, dozens more would appear around it. But when I moved my eyes to focus on the new stars I’d glimpsed, they disappeared. I tried it a few more times with the same result. Eventually I began to concentrate on what I could see just outside the center of my vision, in these sharper “peripheral halos”. I tried to keep my eyes still and take in the wider view. An interesting game of optical peek-a-boo for a bored teenager.

The sharpest point of our vision, it turns out, is not in the center of our retina but just outside it, in a small area densely packed with cone cells called the fovea. In her fantastic book, A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman noted,

Almost every cone in a fovea has its own direct line to higher centers in the brain; elsewhere on the retina, rods and cones may serve many cells, and vision is vaguer. The eyeball moves subtly, continuously, to keep an object in front of the fovea. In dim light, the fovea’s cones are almost useless; instead we must look just “off” of an object to see it clearly with the surrounding rods, not directly at it because the fovea would fail us and the object appear invisible.

Another quirk of our brains is that our depth perception fails at great distances. While it’s easy for us to discern the space between trees and buildings and even mountains, we cannot do the same for stars and planets, despite the fact that the distances are much greater. Think about it: in the night sky, Alpha-Centauri is many light-years farther away than Mars, but to us they appear as two bright specks in a dark blue dome. Pieces of glitter scattered in a ceramic bowl.

We are equipped to handle distances like feet and mile, numbers like dozen and hundred and thousand and maybe even million. But not billion. Our senses and our minds just trail off into the realm of abstraction. Our neurological equivalent of kernel panic. The math insists that such things are true, but our minds can only take its word for it.

Laying in my yard that night, I gradually lost my sense of up and down, figure and ground. I was thinking — as I suppose people are wont to do when they stare at the stars — of the fact that I was looking into fathomless depths. That the glitter scattered across the upturned bowl was actually a vast array of objects, fiery and frozen, gaseous and rocky, billions and trillions and quadrillions of miles away. That I was looking into an endless expanse, in which the Earth itself was a precarious speck of dust, a pale blue dot, drifting along in the flotsam.

I thought about the fact that the Earth orbits the sun with its polar axis at about a 23 degree tilt. Here on the coast of North America, in summer, at roughly 38 degrees latitude, I was actually on the “side” of the planet relative to the sun. From that point of view, I was not really looking “up” at the sky “above,” I was looking “out” more or less along the plane of the ecliptic, at the rest of the solar system and the universe beyond.

I imagined myself clinging to the ground on the side of the planet like a free-solo climber on a rock face. I imagined myself letting go, falling into the bottomless depths. An intense, almost overwhelming sense of vertigo overtook me. I could feel the ground spinning underneath me, the sky pulling at me, the black space beyond the stars an abyss. I grabbed handfuls of grass, dug in my heels. I could feel the dirt bunching under my fingernails. Something close to panic rose in my throat.

Olaf Stapleton’s 1937 novel Starmaker beautifully describes this experience. Here’s how it opens:

One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill. Dark heather checked my feet. Below marched the suburban street lamps. Windows, their curtains drawn, were shut eyes, inwardly watching the lives of dreams. Beyond the sea’s level darkness a lighthouse pulsed. Overhead, obscurity.

I sat down in the heather… From horizon to horizon the sky was an unbroken spread of stars. Two planets stared, unwinking. The more obtrusive of the constellations asserted their individuality. Orion’s foursquare shoulders and feet, his belt and sword, the Plough, the zigzag of Cassiopeia, the intimate Pleiades, all were duly patterned on the dark. The Milky Way, a vague hoop of light, spanned the sky.

Imagination completed what mere sight could not achieve. Looking down, I seemed to see through a transparent plant, through heather and solid rock, through the buried graveyards of vanished species, down through the molten flow of basalt, and on into the Earth’s core of iron; then on again, still seemingly downwards, through the southern strata to the southern ocean and lands, past the roots of gum trees and the feet of the inverted antipodeans, through their blue, sun-pierced awning of day, and out into the eternal night, where sun and stars are together. For there, dizzyingly far below me, like fishes in the depth of a lake, lay the nether constellations. The two domes of the sky were fused into one hollow sphere, star-peopled, black, even beside the blinding sun. The young moon was a curve of incandescent wire. The completed hoop of the Milky Way encircled the universe.

Imagination was now stimulated to a new, strange mode of perception. Looking from star to star, I saw the heaven no longer as a jewelled ceiling and floor, but as depth beyond flashing depth of suns. And though for the most part the great and familiar lights of the sky stood forth as our near neighbours, some brilliant stars were seen to be in fact remote and mighty, while some dim lamps were visible only because they were so near. On every side the middle distance was crowded with swarms and streams of stars. But even these now seemed near; for the Milky Way had receded into an incomparably greater distance. And through gaps in its nearer parts appeared vista beyond vista of luminous mists, and deep perspectives of stellar populations.

I noticed that the obscurity which had taken the place of the ground was shrinking and condensing. The nether stars were no longer visible through it. Soon the earth below me was like a huge circular table-top, a broad disc of darkness surrounded by stars.

The unnamed protagonist finds themselves in an out-of-body experience, rising into the sky, traveling the universe as consciousness untethered to time or space. They continue on many adventures, discovering distant planets and alien civilizations. I love this book for several reasons. The first is that those lines I quoted have got to be the most lovely description ever written of that feeling we get when contemplating the night sky, a feeling I’ll call the “vertigo of insignificance.” The second reason is that Stapleton follows that thread — for hundreds of pages! — to its wildest conclusion, that we can only truly experience and comprehend the night sky, all of it, by literally falling out of our own bodies. By abandoning our senses.

That night I shook myself out of my momentary trance by glancing at the trees along the horizon. I did not, regrettably, spirit-voyage to another galaxy. I blinked my eyes and the spell was broken. I looked at the silhouetted oaks, at the edge of the field nearby, and the world flipped back around. Up was leaves, down was roots. As Diane Ackerman said, “Trees conduct the eye from the ground up to the heavens, link the detailed temporariness of life with the bulging blue abstraction overhead.”

And so, back in my body again — re-oriented as a Figure on the Ground, a diurnal ape with a wristwatch and car keys — I staggered to my feet, massaged the crick in my neck, and wandered back inside for bed.