Universal wonder

Our feet firmly planted on the ground, we struggle sometimes to explain the heavens.

Spring is the sweetest and most hopeful season everywhere. The Sonoran Desert spring is no different. The mild desert winter is winter just the same, and even in a drought year, nature stays busy from February through May. Everyone has to attend to the business of life, and be quick about it, hurrying to get the next generation established in the short, smiling months between winter dark and the waterless blast of June.

This April seemed especially lovely, in spite of the failure of the winter rains, or perhaps because of it. (Opinions vary about what caused the drought. The most likely is that San Juan Bautista was offended when the monsoons started last summer before his feast day, June 24. It makes as much sense as any other explanation.) With the hills brown and dry, the animal optimism all around is just that much more striking. Here in midtown, the goings on in the big fairy duster outside the door have been gorgeous, with hummers tearing around like enraged special effects and verdins pouring forth their stratospheric songs of real estate and love. And there's been the show on high every evening.

Neither spring nor fall is normally much for casual stargazing--the big constellations wheel by in summer and winter--but even in town, even with a waxing moon bleaching out the stars, the lineup of planets to the west has been a nightly wonder. The sun goes down over the Tucsons, and there are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, stretching up in a vast, jeweled slant along the ecliptic. Unlike most of the once-in-a-lifetime astronomical spectacles we're regularly promised, this one has not been hard to see--in fact, Venus, brilliant, golden and generous, has been just about impossible to ignore.

We're told that the bright planets were last visibly grouped like this in 1940--which, from a portent point of view, isn't encouraging. Fortunately, we don't believe any longer that events above predict those below; we believe in a heliocentric solar system involving lots of circles and balls of various sizes and colors.

The great string of planets now on view presents us with an opportunity to review Our Amazing Solar System, and personally experience one of the time-out-of-mind human brain-benders: What are those big, non-twinkling stars doing pretty much in a line with the sun and moon? Not only are the planets strung like pearls along an invisible string, but that string is pulled along the band of the zodiac.

Quick: Explain this largish fact in 50 words or less.

Humbling, yes? We hip, post-Copernican, millennial-type folk tend to think we were born with a rational understanding of the universe implanted in our brains--as opposed to poor historical schmucks like, say, Ptolemy or Ferdinand and Isabella, we exist in a general swirl of enlightenment. Until, that is, we actually think about it.

I ran headlong into my own astronomic helplessness last summer at the beach in Maryland. I was standing in the surf gassing about high tide and low tide to my husband's two oldest grandsons and their nice cousin, Sadie, when Seth, the younger of the two boys, looked at me and asked, "What's all this about tides? What are they? What makes them?" (Seth, I should say, is also a lifelong inland-dweller. Otherwise, he wouldn't have had to ask.)

"The moon rules the sea," I said, stunning all three of them. (They were, admittedly, stunned in the first place after a full day of boogie-boarding and burying one another, or they wouldn't have been wasting time in conversation.)

Just saying this was profoundly satisfying, as was the effect. All six eyes widened. My triumph was momentary, however. Skinny, empirical, 9-year-old Seth wanted more. What exactly did I mean by rules?

I began making reference to gravity and orbits and the size of the oceans. Ben and Sadie soon ran off into the waves, but Seth, years from adolescence and undistractable, was still letting his brain spin. He didn't understand: If we couldn't see the moon's gravitational pull on water in, say, a sink, then how did we know about it?

Good question, kid. I could see the diagram in my mind--earth-ball with hump of bulging ocean, moon-ball and orbit-circle, arrows--but damned if I could read the caption.

The next day, I visited the bookstore in the little seaside town down the shore, where the owner instantly knew what I needed. She had lots of copies: My guess is that a version of my conversation with Seth takes place dozens of times a day along every stretch of beach. And there in The Child's Illustrated Guide to the Seashore, or whatever, was the diagram: ocean-bulge, orbit, missing caption and all. I got him the book, he was pleased and after an hour was intensely informed and communicative about that dread monster of the deep, the horseshoe crab.

Moral: You should look up tonight. You should, ideally, take a kid or two out to Gates Pass and show them something stupendous that they won't see again until they're older than you are now. But study up before you go.