Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two Astronomers and the Forest of the Iroquois

I had a hard week at work last week. It was nothing particularly epochal or even unusual -- just a confluence of typical trials, round budget pegs to be pounded into square bureaucratic holes and the like. Friday's afternoon wasn't so much like a liberation as it was like a temporary reprieve, knowing, as I do, that Monday comes soon after, and verbal cheese like "Student Learning Outcomes" will, again, become hash to be taken seriously.

I stopped by the grocery store on my way home, depleted and stone-brained dull. As I pushed my cart into line, something in the soundtrack of the audio pablum of Safeway's muzak caught my attention. By the time I reached the front of the line, my skin was all a-goosebump, and I had to concentrate on stopping tears lest the checker judge me to be dangerous.

"Sailing to Philadelphia" was playing as I waited to pay for my wheat chex.

The song is a hauntingly beautiful duet by Mark Knopfler and James Taylor. In it, they reprise an imaginary discussion between two Englishmen in the 18th century who took on a surveying job in the new world: surveyor Jeremiah Dixon and journeyman astronomer Charles Mason. Their "Mason-Dixon Line" marking the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, between America's South and North, even today has a greater societal impact than a geographic one -- but Jeremiah and Charlie couldn't have known what their line would demark in the larger world of future politics. They only knew that they were headed into a wilderness.

I am, personally, a product of their divide. My father's family is from the North, my mother's from the South, and both sides go back several generations, and both sides sacrificed sons in battles with the other's sons.

I am also, like Charlie, an astronomer of little note but with great appreciation for the science and its beauty. The roots of that appreciation lie in my younger eyes' view of dark, sparkling, starry skies in upstate New York, afforded by breaks between the trees in its forest, the forest of the Iroquois.

So this verse, sung by Taylor as I fumbled for my Safeway Discount Card at checkout, damn near broke me to tears:

You're a good surveyor, Dixon,
But I swear you'll make me mad.
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad.
You talk of liberty --
How can America be free?
A Geordie and a baker's boy
In the forest of the Iroquois?

I grew up in the Forest of the Iroquois, and might not have without Jeremiah's and Charlie's efforts. And then I went on to be an astronomer.

Sherwood in the Forest of the Iroquois, 1961. Photo by Lynn Harrington.

The Safeway checker wouldn't have understood that I was fumbling for a card with Charles Mason's name on it, so I didn't tell her. I just paid cash for my wheat chex, and then drove off toward my home in the Forest of the Ohlone.



Saturday, October 1, 2011


Doug Harrington (1 October, 1966 - 14 November, 2006) stalking crayfish at his great-aunts' house in Upstate New York, summer, 1975.

That's his brother Adam's hair, fuzzy in the left foreground. Adam has put together a celebration of his brother's life in video-slide form and posted it on YouTube today. Please go visit, if you have a few minutes to spare.