Looking Up after Looking Down?

On Wednesday’s post, Louraine P. observed that people will always wonder about “what’s out there,” and will get curious. I’m . . . of two minds on this. First, I agree that yes, someone will always push to learn more, even if they can’t see something. In some cases, especially if they can’t see something. But second, I am observing less and less curiosity among younger people, meaning thirty and below.

I don’t know if it is because younger people have gotten used to “I’ll ask the internet” if they have a question, so they don’t ask questions. Or perhaps because they have been overloaded with “this is the Truth” only to be told a while later “No, no, this is the Truth and that never was true,” or because they are carefully protected from “out there” and they are sincerely worried that the unknown is all danger and hazard. Or a bit of yes. I’ve met a few teenagers who were so sheltered that I almost boggled. One or two of those became curious about “what’s out there?” The others rejected intellectual discomfort.

Many of the younger people (35 and below, give or take) seem to walk with their heads down literally or metaphorically, intent on a device in hand or in pocket, eyes on the ground. Now, older people can be inattentive, and I’m always surprised by the people who never see the hawks, or who are startled when I come huffing and puffing beside them as I walk. The screen has captured their attention, be it selecting music or reading and answering texts or browsing social media or watching a video. Granted, many on-line things are designed to keep people locked onto the screen. That’s a problem for others to sort out. My concern is that “what’s out there” turns into “look online and then move on” more more and more people.

One thing that impressed me when the great conjunction happened in the winter of 2020 was how many people were out in their yards, looking up at the sky, and talking to other people about the stars. It helped that two of our regional weather forecasters are astronomers, and they’d been happily geeking out about the conjunction for a week, so everyone knew it was coming, where to look, and why it was a Big Deal*. But it wasn’t teenagers out looking. It was 30+ for the most part, and younger kids.

I’m pretty sure that LP is right, that some people are always going to be curious about “What’s out there?” even if they never get to see stars before they are older teens. But what’s the effect of so many younger people living head-down for so long? I suspect that older people fussed when printing presses made books inexpensive. And I know that older people fussed that really cheap “penny dreadful” mass-market thrillers hit the newsstands in the late 1800s, because they were morally unsound and were rotting the brains of young people, and encouraged violence, and so on. Some things never change. That the same “corrupting trash” also pulled kids into wanting to learn more about the American West, and encouraged travel and exploration, well, no one could see that in the 1890s.

Are smart-phones and screens the same, and just a temporary blip that we will chuckle about later? Or is there something different that will keep people from wondering about the world and what lies beyond us? I have no idea.

*I know. They happen fairly often but they are not as visible as that one was. I remember several professional astronomers and so on mildly scolding people for getting so excited. Which strikes me as exactly the opposite of what you do if you want to encourage a Sense-o-Wonder!

“You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

Darkness, night, dark nights of the soul, following a star in the heavens, comets as portents . . . What does it mean if all of that goes away? Both in terms of astronomy and interesting people in star-gazing and studying the heavens, and in the sense of culture and religion? Those were some of the topics batted around at one of the FenCon panels.

The title phrase comes from one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s letters to a young poet, in which he (Rilke) muses about preferring darkness to firelight, because night includes everyone, while light shuts out those beyond the glow. I confess to having always been one “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost phrased it. I grew up star-gazing, taking walks after dark, going on Owl Prowls at the nature center, and so on. I prefer to keep lights dim, even as my aging eyes are less sensitive to light in general. I grew up understanding all the star references, and learning celestial navigation, and so on. But what about generations that can’t see stars, or anything dimmer than the quarter moon, because of city lights?

For astronomers, to lose the stars is both sad and a professional problem. Who will pick up the mantle after the current generation retires, if younger people don’t learn to look up, and are not fascinated by the wonder of “what’s out there? Why does it look like that?” Light pollution is a serious problem for migrating birds as well, in some cases. It can be a real pain for pilots, because finding the airport in a sea of lights is Not Easy if you don’t already know what to look for. Especially if you are not on an instrument approach with everything set to get the radio beacons or GPS fixes. There’s a runway down there. Somewhere. Or is that I-80?

Some people reply to the plaints with “There’s an ap for that!” You can point your phone or tablet at the sky, or ground, and get a star chart for whatever you are aimed at. Hubble and Webb telescope images are far more colorful and detailed than what you can see through a 6″ backyard telescope or binoculars. And some places still have a planetarium, to simulate going out at night without the bugs, traffic, light pollution, stiff neck, or risk of mugging. Who needs real stars?

We humans do. We need darkness to properly rest. We need to be reminded to things outside of our ken, of worlds greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement kids and adults get from seeing the stars and identifying the patterns and shapes, the nebula and galaxies and planets, that even a great planetarium can’t quite match. There’s no ap that will reveal the heavens in their glory on a cold October night in Yellowstone, when so many stars filled the sky that I couldn’t identify constellations or planets. The Milky Way cast shadows, it was so bright. Or out at Black Mesa, Oklahoma, as the summer stars marched across the peak of the heavens and a coyote or ten called back and forth.

Darkness stands for evil in many religions. Darkness is when bad people lurk, and thus when heroes do their thing. Humans generally don’t see as well at night as by daylight, although there are a lot of variations on “not as well.” We don’t see color, and discerning patterns and “is that a shadow or a hole” becomes a bit more challenging. Not that it stopped people from working, traveling, or doing things at night in the past. Today, we flood the night with artificial light to make travel (in vehicles) safer, to discourage footpads and robbers and other mischief makers. We fear darkness more than in the past. Which came first – not going out into the darkness, thus leaving it for evil to use for shelter, or evil growing in the shadows and chasing “good people” indoors when the sun sets? Yes?

St. John of the Cross reveled in night, in his extended poem and meditation “Dark Night of the Soul.” Night brought the lover (G-d) and the beloved one (the mystic) together. Night is for lovers, for philosophers, for socializing. Night holds sweet secrets, conceals private pain from those who would mock or minimize what is very personal and real. Night is greater than we are. Darkness and stars, the moon and planets, remind us that we are tiny creatures in a big, mysterious, wonder-full universe. Who made the moon and hung the stars? What are the stories of the shapes in the night sky?

Without stars, we humans lose both astronomy and spiritual wonder. At least, that’s what the panel and those present eventually drifted toward, although no one said it in those words.

Apple-Crisp Days

No, not for baking, although right now I’d really like a plop of apple-crisp with vanilla ice cream, or apple pie with vanilla ice cream. No, I’m thinking about the sort of day that starts chilly, turns crisp, and is full of smiles, laughter, kids doing kid stuff, and signs of the turning season. It might not be perfect, but it’s worth savoring.

Most days, I still can’t go out for a walk unless it is early morning, because the sun is still too intense, and the weather too warm. However, more and more strong cool fronts are coming through, dropping temperatures and warning that winter will ease in (or roar in) sooner than we’d like to think. The berries on the hawthorn are half-turned, green shifting to blazing orange. The leaves are also starting to shift color, soon to be crimson. The sweet gum trees are also turning, brown crisping the edges of the large green leaves. Acorns have begun to drop, to the delight of doves and other birds that wait until a car rolls over them, then feast at ease.

Soon, fireplace smoke will start to replace the perfume of smoking meat in the evenings, although not entirely. When the weather permits, grills and smokers remain in service all year around out here. Piñon firewood and other specialty woods are starting to pile up here and there with prices posted by the bundle, half-cord, and cord.

The Mississippi kites have gone south. Autumn is here.

Things No Longer Advertised

Or at least not on TV. Perfume, unless Macy’s is sponsoring the commercial. Doan’s Pills (who knew folding fitted sheets could be so painful, if not dangerous?) Ex-Lax (OK, but it’s descendants are advertised, far too often during meal times, in my opinion.). Calgon water softener (“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”). My first exposure to Edgar Allan Poe was through a commercial that used the cadences of “The Raven” to sell Roto-Rooter’s services. And I can still sing the jingle of the Runza Huts fast-food chain, although it’s been three decades since I lived in a place that had a Runza hut.

Perfume seems to have faded from public interest, at least the broad general public. I remember very romantic commercials with a woman standing above a wind-swept, cloudy sea-shore remembering her far-away lover, and he remembers her by her perfume. “Promise her everything, but give her Arpége.” That one aired during the classic movies on Saturday afternoon and evening, things like The Three Musketeers, or The Man in the Iron Mask, and so on.

Doan’s Pills ads were on during weekday afternoon shows, when women were likely to be at home with kids, doing chores, and so on. The Calgon water softener ad – it would make your whites whiter and all clothes cleaner! – aired then as well. Doan’s Pills were specifically for back ache, something that appeared to be caused by doing battle with a full-sized fitted sheet, according to the graphics on the commercial. I tended to hide under the fitted sheet, pretending to be a ghost or something until I wrestled it onto the bed, so I never had a back ache that required the use of the pills.

The commercials weren’t any better than they are today, although I’m not sure they were much worse. I don’t remember as many for prescription medications, or for financial products (retirement funds and so on). Car commercials, Coca-Cola™, dog food, Meow Mix™ cat food and Purina products (the miniature chuckwagon leading the dog to the food dish, anyone?), Schlitz, Pabst, and Busch beers, and Coors (this was in the Midwest). And local businesses and so on. IBM, too, although it was for office machines and copiers, not computers until after Apple exploded onto the scene, with Dell, Gateway, and others not long after.

Eras and Ends

The fall of the Berlin Wall and even more so the collapse of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. The death of Elizabeth II. The fall of Constantinople in 1453. 9/11. The coronation of Charlemagne. The first three all inspired people to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and say or think, “It’s the end of an era.” September 11, 2001 was sort of the end of an era for most people, not so much for those who had been paying attention to world events since the First Gulf War. The coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor was the start of a new historical period, at least according to historians. We use it as an easy start point for the Middle Ages. The fall of Constantinople is either the start of the Early Modern, or of the Renaissance, or both, depending on what you are looking at. I’d argue that it makes a better “Early Modern Era” touchstone, but I’m not a cultural historian.

Some events are so big that people at the time knew, when they heard about them, that something had shifted. Others took a while, or are just useful pegs upon which to hang names and dividing points. Until 9/11, the Challenger explosion was what a lot of people thought would be the touchstone event, the world changer for my generation. It wasn’t, not was the Columbia disaster, either, although that marked the end of the Space Shuttle program – NASA version. Pearl Harbor was a shock, but not a surprise, based on what I’ve read in newspapers from 1939-1940. By the end of ’40, I get the sense that Americans assumed the war would grow, and we would be dragged into it at some point.

For my age group, September 11, 2001 was a point of mental shift, I suspect. Again, not for people who in the business, or for those who had been watching Al Quaeda and other groups. I know one gent (and I wish I could remember who) said that when the Northern Lion was assassinated, he the academic knew that something big was about to happen. But he didn’t know what until the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I knew as soon as I turned on the radio and listened for a few minutes that the world had shifted. I strongly suspect that there were a few people in Europe for whom learning about the final fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II and the Ottomans was a world-shifting moment. The center of the Greek Christian world, the second Rome, was gone. Constantine’s city and one of the great holy sites of Christianity now vanished behind the green wall of Islam, and what could stop the Ottoman advance?

Queen Elizabeth II reigned for all of my life, and a goodly chunk of my parents’ lives. My great aunt, who had a TV, let my mother come over and watch Elizabeth’s coronation. I remember my aunt talking about it. Sort of like I got up terribly early to watch Diana marry Charles (loved the pomp. Not so sure about the 1980s shoulder poofs, but styles change.) Her passing is the loss of a touchstone, of a living link to a very different world. In some ways, it was a better world, in many ways it was a poorer world, but that connection no longer sits on the British throne. I admired her for sticking to her duty, for not following the latest fads and styles of dress or decorum. She maintained a decent reserve, and by decent I mean proper and fitting. She had a good sense of humor, kept her cool during interesting moments, and understood the big picture of priorities. She was a WWII veteran, serving her country and Commonwealth as best she saw.

And era has passed. The world has changed. Just like 21 years ago, just like in 1453, and at other times for other people.

Other People’s Minds

“How could they do that?!? Didn’t they know that it didn’t work/doesn’t work/is terrible and we don’t do that?” It’s a common reaction to some things in the past, or in other cultures still, and I understand it. From outside, it just does not make sense, it is dangerous, “it ended . . . poorly” as the Grail Knight would have phrased it (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), he really should have known better. Except . . . they didn’t or it had always worked, or their world-view was just that different.

Part of being a good historian, in my opinion, is being able to get inside other minds and suss out the logic and reasoning for things. Now, not every historical figure had what we would consider logical and rational reasons for things, especially later in their careers. And sometimes cultures just go nuts, usually because of a lot of external and internal stress. Things snap. Some of Henry VIII of England’s later actions seem insane, perhaps because he was suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury (and other things). But when you are looking at an entire culture that does something over and over for centuries, there has to be a good-to-them reason. Finding and understanding that reason is not always easy.

I love it when someone moves past, “They did that. Ick. Then this other thing,” and asks, “That’s really strange. It doesn’t make sense in my world. Why would people do that?” It means they really are chewing on the thing and haven’t found a good reason, so they ask someone. Or start digging for themselves into more specialized material to find out why. Why do the governments of Russia seem paranoid compared to other governments? Why did Ivan IV of Russia act as if everyone was out to get him? Why did [insert culture here] practice human sacrifice? Why did people think [toxic thing] was medicinal? We get more cool historical discoveries from questions like that.

“Why does this Scandinavian art from the early Bronze Age looks a lot like depictions of yoga? The Scandinavian culture was descended from the same culture as the Avestas and Vedas. Could there be a connection?” And so some people started digging and came up with some ideas that perhaps, yes, there might be links. We can’t tell without more evidence, but the possibilities are intriguing, and if true, suggest that either 1) there was a lot more long-distance exchange of ideas than we thought or 2) certain cultural practices lasted a lot longer than anyone had imagined. Or developed earlier.

What is the mind set that says a certain thing makes sense? It’s not easy to get into that mental world. In some cases, I really do not like making myself go there. That I can put myself into the world of a Vlad III or Mathias Corvinus, or an Aztec priestess, or certain cultures and figures, bugs the living daylights out of me. I’m not Ivan IV, or Timurlane. But I can sort of understand why they did what they did, even if it horrifies me.

Humans are amazing creatures who do beautiful and horrible things. We created Gothic cathedrals and symphonies and Chinese brush painting and Persian carpets and miniatures. We extirpated entire classes of people (end of Tang Dynasty China), eliminated entire tribes, had tens of thousands of people killed to eliminate opposition to our will. We’re a rather scary species and complicated as all get out. I love it and I fear it.

Now, if only we would stop re-interpreting it, and discovering complications, so I could stop being tempted to buy new books and go to re-worked museums and . . !

Fads and Angels

Does anyone else remember the fad for angels back in the late 1980s-early 1990s? It started, I think, when the “End Times are Nigh” strand of Christian thinking collided with the New Age “spirit guides and visitors,” with a dollop of free-market retail tossed in. Everyone was selling goodies with the two putti (cherubs) from the bottom of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”, despite multiple protests by the copyright holder. I recall angel tee-shirts, angel posters and mouse pads, and lots and lots of books about angelic spirits and summoning angelic spirits [!], and so on.

I read one or two of those books. First off, once they start presenting a list of names that goes beyond the four I’m used to – Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel – I start getting a touch curious. Meaning that my “I sense bunkum” detector goes off, along with a quiet alarm. Then the guided meditations and cautions and hints and so on make me itch. Not all of them, especially in books that start with two chapters of warnings about “if whatever shows up does this, this, or that, run,” but most. Too much New Age, too much woo. The book about how to get angelic spirits to make you rich didn’t quite make me back away and reach for the jar of crushed garlic, but it was close.

Angels seem to have fallen out of fashion in pop-culture. I don’t see random angel stuff in shops anymore. Occasionally I still see the decorative wall crosses (which don’t do anything for me, but that’s just me), but not angels, unless it is in a shop that markets to Christians, especially certain Protestant denominations. Angels appear to be Out as pop-culture goes. In a way I’m glad, because treacly-sweet winged children in white nightgowns have never really seemed angelic, aside from church Christmas plays and so on. All the angels in the Bible, when they appear as angels, say, “Fear Not” as their first words for a good reason, at least based on the reaction of the people they appear to.

(Interestingly, fluffy pop-Wicca seems to also have disappeared. Wicca-related accessories and general books are no longer common in the New Age-type shops around here.)

I’m not quite sure what’s trendy now in terms of small, decorative items and poster art. It might be all over the map, given the huge range of things available on-line. And perhaps I’m just not going into the right shops. But I don’t see books on angels in the local bookstores, again aside from the religious bookstores, and even those are sparser than they were in the 1980s-90s.

I suspect the general decline in clearly defined religion plays a role. And fear of someone at a workplace declaring that he or she is offended by anything obviously Christian of Jewish. The darker side of pop-occult stuff, however, I do see more of: divination tools, urban fantasy and paranormal romance with strong negative occult themes, very dark jewelry and fashions. I don’t think that’s a good replacement. In my experience, people can accidentally open doors they don’t intend to, even if those doors are only into their subconscious. If they are fortunate, they just spook themselves.

I’m sort of glad that I no longer have to run a gauntlet of overly-cute angel things as I shop for cards. On the other hand, they were generally harmless as long as I didn’t brush against one and knock it over. The same can’t be said for some other things.

Loving a Dry Land

I’m strange. My favorite places to live are all semi-arid, which means that most of the time, they are hard lands to make a living from. “A semi-desert with a desert heart” as Marc Reisner described it, wet years are followed by hard-scrabble half-centuries of dust, fire, and struggling to find water and to keep the wind from stealing that water. And when it does rain, mosquitoes fill the grass, low places become bogs, snakes move uphill and indoors, and people get snappish and moldy on the north side. We’re too used to the very sun we curse, grumble at, and hide from.

But I love this part of the world. I can see weather coming, even if I can’t get away from it. There’s nothing to hide behind once you get away from people and the trees we’ve planted. The Llano Estacado is one giant emergency runway, the few canyons excepted. At night, stars cover the world from here to there, making navigation easier once you know how to sort out which stars you need. Bison and cattle thrive here in wet years, growing fat on the short grasses of the prairie and the medium-height grasses of the playa lakes. The constant wind drives pumps and household wind-chargers, dries laundry, and keeps the mosquitoes at bay. Mold and mildew are uncommon, although turning into jerky and/or getting kidney stones are a constant concern.

In the mornings, meadowlarks and mocking birds, redwing blackbirds, and white-wing doves serenade the world. Wild sunflowers face east, welcoming the sun. In summer, Mississippi kites launch with the first thermals, soaring up and up to find bugs. Larger raptors also linger, Coopers hawks, a few golden eagles in the canyons, vultures (aka “the county hygiene society”) wherever they choose to congregate.

Foxes and coyotes trot among the grasses, blending in as they hunt rodents, grasshoppers, locusts, and anything else that looks edible. Mr. No-shoulders slithers here and there, bullsnakes and rattle snakes and other things that discourage you from putting you hand into holes. The occasional mountain lion and bobcat meander through, and pronghorn antelope race along, diving under fences to get away from the overly-curious.

When rains come, and winter fades, the land can look like knee-high velvet. The wind hisses and mutters over the flat land, bending the playa grasses as it passes. Cloud shadows flow as well, darker patches on greens and browns. Wildflowers appear in pockets, and wild sunflowers loom come late summer. As the days grow short and the rains fade away after the equinoctial storms, the grasses cure, brown, seed-heavy in all their forms. They are rich fodder for cattle, and for flame. March is fire month if the rains do not begin, or if snow has not fallen. Trees are rare and valued, those that can tolerate heat and cold, constant wind and hard sunlight on alkaline soil.

I love the high plains. It’s not an easy place. It’s not a “pretty” place. But it’s home. If I ever have to leave, I will miss the land and the people.

Fort of the Spear Shafts

Dunpelder was the old name, the Cumbric name. Later people call it Traprain Law, Trefpren or Trefbryn, “hill by the farm of the tree” or “hill by the farm of the hill.” The older name means “fort of the spear shafts,” which tells you exactly what held pride of place atop the isolated, flat-topped hill. The hill, situated on a ridge, dominates the valley and land around it. The instant I saw it from the highway, I knew exactly what it had to be. And I became excited.

The hill, like a few others scattered around the edges of the Firth of Forth, is a laccolith, a bubble of magma that didn’t quite become a volcano. The core of the hill is made of phonolite*, a rather unusual-for-Scotland igneous rock. Part of the hill has been quarried away, and although you can, in theory, hike or climb up and down that side of the hill. it’s not smart unless you have a friend or two, ropes, and rock-climbing gear. The magma intruded during the Carboniferous, 358 MYA to 298 MYA, or the start of the Permian. Come the Ice Ages, the lump eroded to a crag-and-tail formation, similar to Edinburgh Castle’s rock and the lump in Sterling now crowned with the Wallace monument. The Law is about 360 feet tall, 720 feet above sea level, so not enormous but quite respectable, with relatively steep sides. Keep that in mind . . .

Because it was so unusual, and has a truly commanding view of the mouth of the Firth as well as inland, it has been used by people for a very, very long time. The most famous layer is an Iron Age (pre-Roman) fort attributed to the Votadini tribe. Apparently they got along with the Romans, and a hoard of 44 pounds(!) of Roman “hack-silver” was found on the Law in 1919. This is silver that was broken up and given away by the pound in order to reward [bribe] tribes to be friends of the Romans. The hill was abandoned in the 500s or so, and there is some thought that the people moved to Dun Eiden, or the Burgh of Eiden. The local people still sometimes call the hill “Dunpelder.” Dun means fort, pelder is related to the Cyrmic (Welsh) word for “spear shaft.”

The hill today is out in the very rural countryside of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The weather was mild with good visibility below a broken overcast and a nice westerly wind. Great weather for climbing up a steep, grassy hill. I bounced out of the car, sorted out the gate’s complicated latch and three-step entry process, and strode west along the base of the hill. Everyone else followed at a more dignified pace. The trail starts pretty flat and gentle, winds back and forth up the west end of the Law, and then doubles back. That’s where it starts to get steep. I’d guess a 10-15% grade. If the grass had been damp, it would have been very entertaining for the people watching me. As it was I probably sounded like a small steam-engine, huffing and puffing.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

This is where the story gets odd. As you would expect on a week-day with school still in session, the place was not busy. A family with a 4-5 year old was coming down after a lunch picnic, and I met a very fit lady hiker once I reached the top. Otherwise? Just me, the ravens and other birds, and the wind. The rest of the group looked at the first really steep slope and decided that staying on more level terrain was the better part of valor. Two and a half weeks before, I would have agreed with them, because I was so out of shape it’s embarrassing. On that day? No. I charged up the slope.

Why the rush? Because something was calling me. For lack of a better word, I felt like something wonderful waited for me and wanted me to come up and look around. There was a sort of euphoria that got stronger and stronger as I trotted up the slope and passed the remains of the prehistoric turf wall that formed one of the defenses of the hill-fort proper. Everything was right – the wind, the birds, the land around me. I didn’t get the mild to strong negative sensations I encountered at the Varus battlefield in Germany, or at the neolithic sites in the Kilmartin Glen. No, the Law liked me. Which sounds terribly strange, and doesn’t really get the feelings across, but it’s as close as I can come.

Half-way up or so, looking north. Did I mention that the Law dominates the landscape?

I’m sure some of it was the sheer pleasure of actually being physically able to climb the Law. I didn’t gasp or ache like I had back at Hadrian’s Wall, even though the slope was almost as steep. I literally trotted up the 360 feet or so of vertical elevation. I’d plodded, with multiple stops, up the Sill. The adrenaline was running, and had been since I launched from the car. Which, again, had not happened before.

The wind gusted around the hill, stirring the pony-cropped grasses and making the wild-flowers dance. Ravens glided below me, catching the wind as they launched from nests in the quarry face at the east end of the Law. Unseen songbirds chirped and warbled as well. To the west, I could see the blue-distant hills beyond Edinburgh, a dark, rumpled line separating the lush, grassy landscape around me from the blue and white sky. To the north, another Law stood between Traprain and the Firth, with more uplands lumping in an indigo line just beyond the shimmering, pale blue line of the Firth of Forth. The sky blended into the water as I looked east, the North Sea swallowing the horizon, quiet and mild for the moment. I smelled grass, and “clean,” no dust or smoke or other things. Bird song, raven caws, and the rush of the wind alone filled my ears. I walked above traffic noise, and soon above the ravens as well. My breathing, the birds, and the wind were the only sounds in the world.

Just outside the ghost of the old turf wall.

And so I reached the crest.

For someone expecting to find a reconstruction of a fort or something like that, the top would be a disappointment. I was thrilled. The foundations of the Iron Age fort are just visible through the grass, not far from a “wind cairn.” If you don’t know what you are looking at, it would be easy to mistake the ring of dry-stone wall**, not quite waist high on me, for the ruins. Instead, the lower, grass and woody-shrub covered oval of dirt and white rocks marks the ancient fort. Here, people feasted and planned for war, here chieftains received embassies and raised families, here people fled to for protection in times of danger, perhaps. The semi-wild ponies that crop the grasses and mug visitors for treats remained elsewhere that day, so I roamed unpestered. The wind made the plants and grasses dance, bowing to the east. It felt good, happy, welcoming. As if I belonged there.

The Iron Age fort, looking west toward Edinburgh.
The wind cairn and the North Sea.
The fort, and the Firth of Forth.

When I got ready to hike down, nothing urged me to linger. Whatever I sensed, it didn’t try to lure me or bother me, it didn’t whisper to me to stay. I stayed very happy, content, full of delight and joy . . . And wary of turning an ankle, because I wasn’t wearing proper hiking boots, and did NOT want to misstep on the way down. Down is always more of a challenge than up, at least for me. Gravity has never been my friend.

Of all the places I went, monuments I visited, ancient ruins and remnants I circled, Traprain Law . . . It moved me, touched me in a way I feel a bit sheepish trying to explain. That afternoon . . . was the happiest, most joy-full I felt on the entire trip. I’ve not had that sensation in a very long time. Wonder, excitement, mild awe, all the feelings that blend together into joy, a deep joy that lingered well into the evening. It almost felt . . . Almost as if that hike, and staring around from the top of the hill, was the whole point of the trip. Which makes absolutely no sense at all, but that’s the closest I can come to explaining what went through me as I stood atop that wind-washed hill, staring out at the North Sea as ravens and hooded crows glided below me.

*The name comes from the fact that some forms of it making a ringing sound when tapped with a rock hammer. It’s rare because you need a mantle plume or other hard-core hotspot to create. It has no crystals in it per se because of the lack of silica.

** Wind-cairns are to protect hikers caught in storms and so on. I can well believe that being atop the Law in any sort of rough weather could become dangerous very quickly.

Storms and Promises

At six AM, the forecast promised rain within the hour. It all went west of town. I live in a heat island, and the effect has been notable this year. Shining storm towers build to the east, grey walls amass to the north and west, and the city gets three drops and a spitter, or at most half an inch while everyone around us is wading. Unless we get a big, juicy, tropical air mass, or a cold-front strong enough to overcome the hot spot, the city is drier than the surrounding area. So I was not surprised when the morning storm skirted past. I walked dry headed and dry footed, under rippled clouds that turned into undershot pink waves. Kites called and soared, and a few doves and other birds voiced their opinion of the morning. The morning cats slunk their way along the houses. Two joggers panted past, intent on their mileage. Without wind, any scent of rain remained under the distant showers. Town smelled like town.

However, come seven thirty, lower clouds began filling in over town. I shrugged and finished skimming e-mail and getting ready to go to work. I needed to grab a few things before my first meeting and to go through books and review papers and so on. It’s that time of year. I heard rain on the leaves outside my office, and rain on the skylights, but just light pit-a-pats, not steady rain or the pounding of a storm’s deluge. The pavement gleamed, but that was it. Another shrug, and I patted the cat and set out.

A brilliant double rainbow filled the sky to the west and slightly south! Black rain hid what lay beyond it as the sun undershot the showers to the east. The inner bow arced completely across the sky, from ground to ground, while the outer one only made it a third of the way, from the southwest up toward the northwest. Both were clearly visible, and glowed. I’ve not seen a rainbow that solid in ages. It was amazing. Enough so that I gave in and sang “Rainbow Connection,” because why not?

When I pulled into my errand, I noticed workers coming out, looking at the sky, then going back in. It turned out that the manager was sending folks out in batches so everyone could see. I trotted in, got what I needed, and trotted out. Both rainbows still gleamed. Traffic moved a bit slower than usual, especially westbound, and I suspect the colors in the sky played a large role. The sky remained blue-black to the west. I almost pulled over to get my camera out of my bag, but decided to wait until I got out in the country on the way to Day Job. Alas, the storm continued at Day Job, so no rainbows.

“Rainbows are visions/ They’re only illusions/ and rainbows have nothing to hide,” says the song. So why was everyone watching, and pointing, and smiling? Well, we need beauty. Rainbows are rare here, especially ones that bright, and doubles rarer still. They began the day on a good note – rain, cooler weather, and colors that sang against the dark background. Even if you are not a follower of Judaism or Christianity, the idea that rainbows are a gift and a promise still has some appeal.