Milking the Galaxy

February 17, 2009

There is a “lick,” a quick index-thumb pick, that some clawhammer banjo players use. The Galax lick. It breaks the bum-titty, bump-a-ditty rhythm with a punctuated roll. It began with a handful of pickers living in or near Galax, a city of 6000 in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. The city took its name from a flower, the Galax urceolata, a small wild native with waxy heart-shaped leaves and elongated clusters of tiny white star-shaped flowerets, a six inch galaxy shining in the daytime, a hillside of galaxies arching up out of the old soil of Appalachia.

But whence Galax? Whence Galaxy? The star-studded stream of white that flows across the darkened heavens, visible on a clear moonless night, on a dark night far from city lights?

The Greeks called the great band of stars ‘O Kyklos Galaxias , The Circle of Milk (goats’ milk, no doubt). The Romans shortened it to Galaxia and translated it as Via Lactea, The Road of Milk. By the time the word lapped the shores of England it was The Galaxy and The Milky Way. Nutritious white stuff from the Greek family goat spilt wide across the sky. Think lactose, lactate, think lactic acid, all from the Greek root gala, meaning milk.
So Milky Way Galaxy is redundant. Milky Way Milky Way. Galactic Galaxy. Milky Milk. Or was, until 1925, the year that the astronomer Edwin Hubble peering through his new big telescope found proof that the swirly smudgy things in the night sky, called spiral nebulae (an astronomical term meaning “swirly smudgy things”), were not individual things, or clouds of dust and gas, but extremely distant “island universes,” vast stellar systems comprised of billions of stars.

Astronomers had long since expanded their understanding of The Galaxy, the Milky Way. They had surmised that all the stars in the night sky were a part of it, all part of one unfathomably huge system. The Galaxy was, indeed, the Universe, the “all-in-one-turning,” every luminous bit a part of a massive innumerable assortment.
But as the telescopes became more powerful, more and more attention was paid to those swirly smudges, especially the one in the Andromeda constellation. The closer they looked the more they saw, the more the smudges resolved, revealed themselves as dense, precisely shaped, brilliantly articulated swarms of stars. Stars not in the The Galaxy. Stars not in our Universe.

Imagine, staring at some tiny distant thing, something blurry, misty, looking closer and closer. Imagine, if you can, the moment of recognition, when Hubble and others realized that they were looking at another entire Universe, a twin of our own. Looking at another Galaxy, incredibly distant but not infinite, hemmed in by darkness all ‘round, which meant of course that so was ours. That our great Galaxy was nothing but a swirly smudge in some other Galaxy’s sky. Like looking in a distant mirror. And the Object looked back. And it was us. Or some version of us. The Other as catalyst of the Self. The other as vehicle of self-understanding.

Galaxy shifted. It lost its capital G, its “The.” The Universe expanded, galaxy arrived in dictionaries and galaxies appeared in the sky, five more were found during Hubble’s day and the well-named Hubble telescope is now finding billions. There are billions of these island universes, these all-in-one-turnings and they are all comparable to our own, all part of some larger universe. Unimaginably vast, yet entirely finite, bounded, precise, exactly what they are, each of them, shaped, moving, being born, collapsing, colliding. And reminding us, here in our own, on our own rocky outpost, of goat’s milk, of flowers on a hillside, and a lick, a darty lick of a roll on a banjo.


2 Responses to “Milking the Galaxy”

  1. Ozarkian D.L. Says:

    Incomprehensible Dan…esp. when u stop & think that at the moment we’re viewing our universe we see it as it WAS. How could anyone be an atheist ?

  2. Dan Wetmore Says:

    Well, actually, I think it very easy to be an atheist. It can be a difficult path but a very beautiful one, or beatific. One need not assume that this universe was created by a force or intelligence outside or above it. I don’t call myself an atheist since that label is essentially indicating what one does not believe in.
    “Belief” is not the issue to me.

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