It’s the time of year for gift giving. Sometimes, the best gifts are the ones that arise spontaneously. You can look for hours for something special and you may still come up short. There are other times, though, that the magic breaks through, when the receiver’s face lights up, when words come tumbling out from the heart. Those are the gifts that go way beyond money spent and mean more than can ever be expressed.
I accidentally gave – and received – such a gift a few weeks ago. Friends had come to Patagonia for a few days to visit, hike and get away from the city lights. We had a clear night for stargazing, so we headed outside to look at the sky for an hour of relaxation and serendipity. What would be confirmed was that while gifts can bring great joy to the receiver, they often bring greater joy to the giver. I don’t think I can take credit for what we saw, but the simple act of pointing my telescope in a specific direction let me in on the prize.
We started with Jupiter, well up in the South. Its bright Galilean moons were visible, as were the dark bands of clouds that circle the planet. Jupiter has, at last count, 79 moons, but Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto grab all the attention. Ganymede is the largest moon in our solar system, while Callisto comes in third, just behind Saturn’s Titan.
Just looking at Jupiter is enough. It’s like walking along the rim of Grand Canyon. There’s so much to see. But, step under the canyon rim and a new world opens. So it is with the giant planets. As I stepped back to the eyepiece I knew what was next on our viewing list. Rather than announce it, I centered Saturn in the view finder and said something like, “Here, take a look at this” as calmly as I could.
My friend of 40 years switched places with me. Maybe a full second passed. Maybe not. He pulled back his head. “Dude,” he yelled out, “that’s fantastic. I see it. I see the rings!” Even in the darkness his face was glowing, in awe of something he’d seen countless times in magazines, but never through a telescope. He looked again, and then again and repeated himself, struggling to speak through a smile that would not relax.
There are times, due to our orbits, that Saturn’s rings are better angled to give us a glorious view. On this night, that was the case. Though appearing like a solid halo, there are actually seven major rings that spectacularly evoke wonder in all of us, despite our differences, perceived, imagined or real. And, while they appear stationary, these rings of rocks and dust are spinning around the planet at speeds over 30,000 mph.
I’m sure my friend thought that would be it. But, I said, there was one more thing we should take a stab at. Partially hidden by a tree, I wasn’t sure if my telescope would be able to capture it. Now, it was my turn to be flabbergasted. It was a gift for me. I knew I was looking at Venus, but didn’t expect to see it in one of its phases. It had been many years since I’d seen it this way. Looking like a baby half-moon, it shone brightly and proudly, determined not to let any leaves or branches get in its way.
Venus orbits nearer to the sun than Earth. When it is closest to us, we are only able to see the part of it that is reflecting the sun’s light toward us. At its furthest, there’s a full reflection so it appears as a solid disk, similar to a full moon.
We finally headed inside, content that we’d shared gifts that could not be topped. One leaves a lot unspoken at times like this. I guess words can’t carry the thoughts, the emotion one feels when gazing into the enormity of space. Where does one begin? For me, I just tilt my head a bit and whisper “thanks.”