The Kid Who Can’t Grow Up and Doesn’t Want To by Von Del Chamberlain

“The better I know the cosmos, the more I love the Earth.”

This is the story of a boy who was born on the Colorado Plateau more than eight decades ago. It is a story about love of darkness that allows us to see distant light.

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Image courtesy Zion National Park, Photographer Carl E. Jepson, Museum Catalog Number ZION 9439. The roadside signs in Springdale, ‘Kanab – the Little Hollywood of Utah’ – rear view of sign.

The kid grew up in the town of Kanab, Utah. Well, he tried to “grow up” but never could get the hang of it. His decade older sister calls him “The mean widdle kid” – a reference to a roll played by comedian Red Skelton.

The sky was pretty dark in Kanab in those long-ago days; just a few streetlights on a few corners and lights at a few businesses. In one respect the kid did not like darkness. At night he would run from streetlight to streetlight because of some innate fear of darkness inherited through generations.

His love affair with darkness probably began when he occasionally slept overnight on the lawn beside his home. He looked up at the beauty apparent overhead and began to wonder, as all of us do, about himself existing in all this beauty that surrounds us; not just beauty at night; beauty of those red hills, of the rocks, plants, animals and all the rest. He sensed that he was literally in the presence of the Sun when he felt its warmth upon his skin.

At home and at school the boy became obsessed with science more than with girls – oh yes, eventually he did fall in love with one woman and they began to have a family of boys. He went away to Universities to study physics, and then astronomy and that carried him into the field of astronomy education. This began with a job at the Robert T. Longway planetarium in Flint, Michigan. From there he migrated to Michigan State University working at Abrams Planetarium.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota Dale Bohlke/Flickr

“What is the vertical boundary of a park?”

Jumping way ahead to when the boy was about three-and-one-half decades old, while traveling back west with his family to visit relatives, they stopped for the night at Badlands National Park where they attended a campfire program. Not many trees to obstruct the sky at that NPS location! His family just wandered over to where the “ranger” was building a campfire for the evening program. He greeted them with the question, “Where are you from?”

As the ranger continued working he greeted all the other attendees with the same question. He also inquired about what people had been doing that day. It was interesting to hear the replies and learn that most of us were from fair-sized cities around the U.S.A., with a few from other countries. Finally, with the fire burning and the audience in place, the ranger looked at the group and began his presentation. Employing a small screen and slide projector he discussed the special features of the Badlands, talking about what he hoped people had noticed that day or should look for the next.

While the ranger did his work and it got darker, the kid, who used a planetarium to motivate people for enjoying and learning about the cosmos, became excited by the stark beauty of the canvas overhead. He wanted to call out “Look – look at the sky – just look at that wonderful vista, that exquisite beauty that encases us.” But he restrained himself throughout the presentation.

Back at camp, lying under the stars, he could not sleep; he never slept in a tent unless rain or insects made it necessary. Looking at the spectacular starscape of heaven he thought about what he had just experienced in context with his own profession of using a domed projection screen to simulate what he now saw with such clarity. He whispered to himself, “That ranger was very skilled at his job. He knew his audience when he began the program and he expertly covered what he was supposed to tell them about the park. But wait! He missed one grand opportunity. Those people were experiencing something many of them had not likely known before. They came from lighted cities and here they were in silent darkness under those beautiful stars that seemed so close that one might reach up and pull them down to earth. Wasn’t that celestial vista something the interrupter might have used in his presentation?”

Next morning the sleepy man who still felt like a kid went over to the park office – just a small trailer-house building – and asked if he might speak with the “Naturalist”. When the “Interpreter,” as he learned they called themselves, came out the boy from the planetarium tried his best to tactfully ask if the park had considered the opportunity to include the wondrous starry sky in its presentations. The reply was, “our job is to interpret the things that are unique to THIS Park and that is primarily geology, paleontology, wildlife and ecology, not astronomy.”

Driving on the way west again with family, perhaps only a mile or so from the park, the boy nearly stopped to turn around. “But, that starry sky last night WAS a unique feature of THAT Park for most of THAT audience. What is the vertical boundary of a park?”

Sunset over the park, Mesa Verde National Park, 2014.

He encountered that same rationale in other places as well as a cleaver story that illustrates the situation. Picture the scene of a small group gathered on a hilltop with a ranger pointing out special features of a national park when he is interrupted by one of the group – “Ranger, what is that beautiful bright star up there?” Ranger: “Sorry, I do not know.” Visitor: “I thought rangers were supposed to know about everything in the park.” Ranger: “That isn’t in the park!”

Later on his first visit to Mesa Verde National Park with family, he pulled up to the Visitor Center overlooking Spruce Tree House about the same time that a man, woman and little boy arrived. The boy tugged at his father’s legs, jumping up and down, “can we go down there?” he asked. The man replied, “what for, we can see it better from up here than from down there.”

Going into the Visitor Center the Kanab kid and family explored the nice museum. When he asked to see the “interpreter” who soon appeared, he asked the now-familiar question; “Have you considered using the night sky in any of your programs,” and he received the familiar answer. “Our mission is to interpret what is unique to this particular park and that mostly concerns the people who lived here long ago.”

Of course, that is what they did and should do. Back home he went to Michigan State University library thinking that surely he could find some interesting bits about Native American astronomical beliefs and practices. He was overwhelmed at the abundance and variety of what he found, concluding that American Indian traditions of the sky were just as engaging and profound as those found anywhere else in the world. “Why aren’t they better known here in America,” he asked himself. Thus began one of the most important and interesting quests of his life. Exploring what has been known as archaeoastronomy, ethnoastronomy and cultural astronomy, our boy ended up attending lots of conferences at which he presented and published papers. His primary researches concerned Diné (Navajo), Pawnee and later Zuni sky traditions.

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