Arc to Arcturus


At 8:37 p.m. on July 13, 1977, a lightning strike at the Buchanan South substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers in Westchester County.  At Buchanan South, which converted  345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant the breaker wasn’t able to reclose and allow power to resume flowing.

A second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, with only one reclosing properly.  That meant loss of power from Indian Point.  As a result, two other major transmission lines became over-loaded. When Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

That’s when the lights went out in a Morningside Gardens apartment at 123rd and Broadway, along with the lights in the rest of New York City.  I just had returned from four years in Liberia, and was visiting friends for a few days before heading to California.  We’d finished dinner and were enjoying the twin pleasures of good conversation and the view from their 12th floor apartment, when New York simply disappeared.

It’s common enough for storms to start lights flickering and dimming, and not unusual for power to go out in a neighborhood even without a storm.  Transformers explode, winds bring down powerlines, squirrels play tag, and people sigh as they wonder how long it will be until they can make coffee, or turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort again.

But that night in New York, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the starting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different.  Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety.  Looking off toward the horizon, there was no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss.

The night was one of the longest of my life.  The vibrato of the sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of merchandise looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal, surrounded as they were by the orange glow of flames and smoke from burning cars.

Eventually, as the fires in our neighborhood began to be extinguished and the crowds seemed to be losing their enthusiasm for mayhem, we began to rest – two people sleeping as one person watched, and all of us wondering what might be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to wrap themselves around buildings and climb down into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable.  Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night – not only because of the arson, looting and general rioting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself.  As we plunged inexplicably into that abyss, our candles and flashlights did nothing to allay a fear so primitive it was only the rising of the sun that brought release.

In the morning brilliance, an entire city seemed to stretch and heave a vast sigh of relief. In the street outside our apartment, someone had opened a fire hydrant just enough for a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign.  Suddenly filled with good humor and ready to trade stories, a city lined up at its hydrants with soap and towels, toothbrushes, wash basins and razors, and prepared to become human again.

As I think back to that amazing New York night, I remember my response with absolute clarity.  I wanted to go back to Liberia.  Looking down into the chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to “civilization” in any number of ways, not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.

I first experienced darkness as a blessing during childhood.   Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my Dad, and off we’d go.  Traveling country roads, we’d roam as far from the lights of our little town as we could.  If it was summer, we’d pull out a blanket and lie on the ground, amazed at the bright river of stars streaming across the sky.  If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap the blankets around us for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate and admire Orion, my favorite winter constellation. 

I learned the constellations first - Orion,  the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio.   Later, I began to learn stars -Antares, Aldebaran, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius – and little verses that helped find them in the sky.  “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica”, the verse went, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing over and again into mysteries that seemed close enough to touch.

Eventually, I began to grow up.  Trips to the country with Dad weren’t as much fun, and adventure became measured in lumens.  We hadn’t heard of light pollution, and we were seekers of light, real or metaphorical.  The bright lights of Broadway, the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, even Paris, the City of Light, drew us out of our darkness toward their flames like a great, fluttering cloud of moths.  If we sometimes had to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah or Evansville, no matter.  Our lives began to arc in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.

Forgotten that, is until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into the darkness, amazing me with the realization that “star” light is real.  Even without a moon in the sky, starlit paths cross land and sea; night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows and ribbons of spume stream across the waves, hardly distinguishable from milky rivers in the sky and lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars. 

There is darkness that is an absence – an absence of the neon, incandescent and fluorescent lights that mark the presence of humans and their activity.  When that darkness comes, as it did in the New York City blackout, it can be unnerving and awkward, occasionally frightening and quite capable of releasing all the darkness in the human soul. 

But there is another darkness which is all presence: velvets folds of night sprinkled with tiny bits of light and time that testify to our presence within a reality far older than human life.  Wrapped in that darkness, secure and at home as child with parent, our souls begin to arc to Arcturus and beyond, toward the galaxies beyond our heavens and into a more compassionate understanding of our own place in the universe.  Arcturus is already there, waiting at our vision’s edge.  We need only lift our eyes.


Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach


 I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,

I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water -
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.

From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet

the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (more than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)

As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet

when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be -
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.

~ Eavan Boland  



© Text copyright Linda Leinen 2008

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Beautiful blog in every way.

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Oh. I very much enjoyed thinking and writing about the experiences, and was delighted to find Eavan Boland, a contemporary Irish poet. I intend to do more exploring of her work.

    Best wishes to you on this Memorial Day.

  2. ‘I wanted to go back to Liberia. Looking down into the chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to “civilization” in any number of ways, not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.’

    I understand the feeling. It seems there are two conflicting drives in our human nature. One is a desperate anxiety to ward off the darkness. The other is the profound awe to be found under a sky illuminated only by starlight — in the connection with a beautiful and seemingly serene universe so much vaster than our daily concerns and struggles.


    I’ve received so much pleasure and knowledge from your WU postings – I’m pleased to have your response to my quite non-scientific approach to such things!
    Many thanks for your insightful comment

  3. Civilization sure is but a veneer…thank you for your eloquent recall of your experience.

    Speaking of Africa, one of my favorite movie directors just passed away. I know a movie is nothing compared to the real experience, but for someone who hasn’t been there, the movie “Out of Africa” has powerfully evoked some poignant sentiments in me with its images and music.

    Thank you again for such an inspiring piece of writing…and photos as well.

    Hi, Arti,

    I thought Sydney Pollack might be one of your favorites; I was sorry to hear of his passing.

    Just a gentle quibble re: “Out of Africa” – please don’t say it’s “nothing” compared to the real experience. Even – or especially – for those who have “been there” a movie like Pollock’s can help to sort through experiences and assess their significance. And, for those who say the movie wasn’t true to the facts of life on the African continent, there’s always that wonderful quotation from Faulker: “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

    Thanks so much for the kind words – I’ll pop over later to see what you have to say about Mr. Pollack.


  4. Lovely.

  5. Good afternoon, Barb,

    Thank you, Ma’am! Happy to have you peek in!


  6. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the various forms of darkness itself, and yet I’ve been aware of the different forms of darkness that you describe. It’s interesting and instructive to explore these ideas, and I appreciate how vividly you have presented each idea of darkness.

    Evening, NumberWise,

    I was just thinking today about how my own attitude toward darkness has changed over the years. I love it now – I enjoy dusk, and sunrise, and even the heat of the afternoon. But there is nothing quite like 2 a.m. – quiet, and filled with night voices I love to write about.

    The poet’s line just came to mind – “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Perhaps we should rage against the dying of the light, but the night is still good!

  7. Another fascinating read. It is interesting how some choose the cover of night to become beasts and others choose it to become poets.

    Hi, Nanette,

    There are a couple of things I really like about Luther, and one is his insistence that anything in the world just “is” – how it is used, for good or for evil, is left to individual choice. As I mentioned elsewhere, the same hammer that pounds the nail can split a skull. A bit of a graphic illustration, perhaps, but the point is clear. We are given the gift of darkness, and how we acknowledge and make use of it is up to us!


  8. Thanks for the brilliant Faulkner quote…I’ll remember it always.


    It is a wonderful quotation – nearly as wonderful as the line from “Requiem for a Nun”: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

    Many thanks for stopping by!


  9. It is extraordinary how many people are afraid of the dark. Even where I live, halfway to the middle of nowhere, I can count seven dusk-to-dawn lights. If you ask ‘why the light?’, the answer is always ‘for security.’ But I’ve never understood how lighting up the countryside makes it more secure. And secure from what? An errant skunk or possibly a bear?

    I suppose it’s all in the mind. And if having enough surrounding light to read by makes people feel better, so be it. But my lights are on switches or are small and recessed, just enough illuminiation to navigate the stairs. For most nights, if I’m out, my gaze is upward and starward.

    Sometimes I wonder if we simply haven’t become so accustomed to light we don’t know how to live without it. There was a time when people navigated a darkened world as easily as I walk around my house in the dark. They knew what they were going to “bump into” and weren’t frightened by it.
    Of course, they had the same sensitivity to gradations of light, and could distinguish seasons and hours by the position of the sun. I’ve developed a bit of that working outdoors all day, every day – haven’t worn a watch in years, and really have trouble with daylight savings time. I’m “off” for at least two or three weeks until I “reposition” my inner sun according to clock hours!

  10. Hi there, I love astronomy. Unfortunatly i dont have time to go thru your blog fully or ask me few things (though i have n numbers to ask :) )I would get back here soon. Good day.


  11. Periodically I make time to peruse your archives. Clicking on tags brought me here today.

    Extraordinary that you, who are not otherwise a New York kind of person, should be in Manhattan on that of all nights. Intriguing to think how the fates have woven that thread together with all your other life’s experiences to result, eventually, in this marvelous blog entry.


    It is amazing, isn’t it? Of course, I might argue that if the Fates placed me there, I nevertheless did the weaving, but that’s a small quibble. ;-)
    What your comment does remind me is that “being there” is only the beginning. The significance of what we experience, its deeper relevance for our lives comes later.

    I’ve used the image of the kaleidoscope before, and still think it’s one of the best analogies for the creative process. We’re given the bits of experience, but it’s up to us to give them a twist and see what new patterns emerge. Sometimes, we get very, very lucky, indeed!

    I enjoyed re-reading this, too – thanks for bringing me back here!


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