Writing about the night sky

When I stare up at the Milky Way on a dark night, I experience an overwhelming sense of awe, which is close to a primordial fear. And when I think about what might be out there - what beings might exist out there - the fear becomes tinged with fascination at the resilience of life.

It was these dual responses that I focused on when writing two poems for the Sophia Conference of the Sky in July 2021.

The conference had originally been scheduled for 2020 but cancelled because of the pandemic, which gave me plenty of time to reflect, look up, and think about what the night sky means to me, and how I could possibly convey that to readers - or in this case, listeners.

star trails, astronomy, wallpaper-2234343.jpg

In 'The Terror of Night' I tried to directly capture the awe and fear that the night sky evokes. It's a rational fear, given the vastness and deadliness of the cosmos compared with our own fragility, but it feels more like a primordial instinct, something hardwired into our DNA. In telling stories about the sky, we are of course echoing the earliest cave paintings; and I suspect that the visceral terror I experience when I take out the rubbish on a dark night is a direct descendant of the existential shiver experienced by earlier humans, who looked up at the night sky and understood its power.

The sight of the universe also prompts thoughts and emotions around the possibility of life on other planets. I grew up in the 1960s and remember reading a series of contemporary children's books by Hugh Walters, which told of journeys to planets in our solar system. The astronauts in the stories frequently met aliens, and although this was science fiction, it didn’t seem impossible at the time.

I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who said there are only two possibilities: we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone; and both are equally terrifying.

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So, in approaching this subject, it seemed likely that I would write another poem with terror as its theme. However, I decided to tell a different kind of aliens story: one about survival in space by inhabitants of our own planet.

tardigrades in space

I have always been fascinated by the story of the tardigrades, the extremophiles who were sent into space to test the theory (among others) that Earth could have been seeded from elsewhere in the universe. As you may remember, in 2019 an Israeli lander crashed and left a colony of them on the moon, and although recent high velocity experiments suggest they didn't survive the landing, I like to dream that they are still dormant up there.

I also read personal responses to the night sky from two of my favourite poets, 'Astronomy for Beginners' by Simon Armitage and 'Vocation' by Billy Collins.

As well as being stories in themselves, both poems touch on the challenge and responsibility of the story teller: in Armitage's words, the challenge of: 'calling down deep space onto a blank page', or what Billy Collins describes as his true vocation: 'keeping an eye on things’, whether they exist or not, ‘recumbent under the random stars'.

My own two poems, along with those written by my colleagues Ros Hudis, Jeni Williams, Jane Manley and Jo Lambert, will be published in the Anthology of the 2021 Sophia Centre conference later this year.

For now, though, I leave you with some video footage of the fascinating and hugely resilient tardigrades, alive and well in the grout of your bathroom, if not on the moon...