By Karis Kazuko Taylor
I work at an outdoor science school. 5th and 6th graders from the Los Angelus area come to the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest and it is my job to teach them about photosynthesis, the water cycle, and astronomy. During the early fall months and late spring, astronomy is taught while the sky is still a dusky blue and constellations are mentioned in theory. However, in the wintertime the children step outside of their cabins for evening classes and are greeted by a host of “fire-folk sitting in the air” (poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wondrous way of describing stars).
Before I start my astronomy class I always have them lie down on their backs and look, unmoving and silent, up at the stars. For some of them, this is the first time they have seen a night sky unpolluted by city lights.
During the daylight hours we have all kinds of fun exploring the forest: unearthing bugs, hugging trees, etc. I am actively trying to get these children to engage with their environment; I am mediator between small-human and Nature. But in the darkness, when my students are taking-in this canopy of “old light”—I explain to them that the light from the nearest star traveled about four years to get to our eyes here on earth and, that some starlight has journeyed billions of years to reach our retinas, hence the expression, “old light.” Then there is a moment when it is just them, and something more.
That “something more” is something that I do not try to define for them. The impulse to define and dictate the wonders of this strange world so often lead us to push our conclusions upon others, especially children. I try to avoid that. I would rather them feel the mysteries of existence on the skin of their face. I want it to flood their eyes from a billion light years away.
I look at the stars too, during those few moments of quiet and beauty. No one defines or dictates to me either, and I find myself in awe all over again at the time and distance that it took for old light to reach us in this moment. I feel myself small and fragile, and yet somehow miraculously alive and a part of something more than what I can fathom. This world with its beauty and brokenness is not easily explained. I have stopped looking for an explanation. Instead, I am keeping my eyes open for lights in the darkness, and my soul open to something more.