When I logged in to Facebook yesterday, the first news I saw wasn't about the Connecticut shootings... for which I'm grateful. No, the first news I saw was a post from the owner of the HF Bar Ranch in Saddlestring, WY, informing the ranch's aficionados (of which I'm one) that the ranch had been added to a conservation easement. It would, in perpetuity, be maintained just as it has been for the better part of the last century.
What does this have to do with the school shootings? you're wondering. Bear with me; I'll get to that.
The HF Bar is located at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains in central Wyoming, up near the Montana border. My family has been going there as visitors for the better part of the last century, ever since my great-grandfather, Henry Russell Platt, took a 3-month-long trip to China with my great-grandmother and decided he needed a place to park their 11 year old son (my grandfather) for the duration. He left my grandfather, Sherwood Platt (known to all as 'Que' for reasons I won't go into) with the ranch's owner, a friend and/or business acquaintance, who promptly put Que to work herding cattle. Que, by his own account, loved it. And years later, when the ranch had gone from cattle to dudes, he still went out for a month each summer to ride in the mountains, hike in the woods, and (to a lesser extent) hang out with old friends. As he grew older, he brought his children and grandchildren with him. One of my cousins grew so enamored of the place, he lives there to this day.
I spent most of my summers there, and if there's one thing about the ranch that I always take with me, it's the night sky. There is no light pollution out there, and you're at a fairly substantial elevation, so the stars look like they're just over your head. The Milky Way is a thick veil across the inky blackness, a veil sprinkled in glittering diamonds. You look up at that sky, and you get a real sense of your place in the universe. You're a speck atop another speck, hidden among a crowd of similar specks. Time is meaningless; your whole existence is but a minute flicker in all the brilliant sparks that you can see, as well as those you can't. And in early August, the most exciting time, you could watch the Perseid meteor shower shoot sparks across the sky late into the night. You never could get your fill of those bright lights, because they were a sign that every so often, a tiny spark of light in those light-filled heavens did DO something... something spectacular, something that made it shine brighter, something that attracted the eye, even if only for a moment.
Where I live in Maine, you can still see the night sky pretty well... but it's not THAT night sky. It's a faded, distant version of it. And travel just a little way toward Portland or Boston, and light pollution starts to drown pieces of it out. First the Milky Way itself fades out of sight, then various lesser constellations. You can see Orion, most of the time, but the Pleiades are sometimes iffy. Ursa Major, usually; likewise Casseiopeia. I can usually spot the brightest star in Taurus but not always the whole contellation.
It's ironic, really. The more light we emit, the more we try to make our own little sparks shine desperately brighter in the cacaphony of lights that is the night sky, the less we can see other lights. We are becoming divorced from all but our nearest neighbors, light-wise. And it some places, even they become invisible to our eyes.
My son said to me the other day that he looked up into the night sky and saw his grandpa (my father, whom he never met) sparkling and twinkling above us. A lot of people ascribe to the gentle myth that our dead become stars in heaven, and why not? God knows, there are ample stars to account for all of us up there. But we cannot SEE those stars, and therein lies part of the problem. We blind ourselves by turning on more lights, when the spirits of our ancestors and loved ones can only be seen in the absolute dark.
To a certain extent, these thoughts were part of the sorrow I felt when I first learned about the shootings in Connecticut. As individuals, we have become greatly disconnected from those around us, to the point of being separated from all but the brightest of our neighbors. What we see around us is a faded, distant version of the community ties that we used to have. We keep turning on more lights, looking for it, but we only make it fade further away.
I don't pretend to know what kind of anguish or illness would prompt a young man to kill his own mother and then coldly mow down innocent children. I don't comprehend the act of killing anyone, never mind killing the people we are called upon by instinct to protect and honor. But I wonder if a small part of the young man's rage was fueled by that disconnectedness, that solitude, that has come over the hearts of modern people. I wonder if he killed all of those people in order to make himself visible to them -- and killed himself once they became visible to him. I wonder if his madness blinded the sparks of the victims' lives from his sight the way light pollution blinds ours from seeing the Pleiades. I wonder if anyone had ever taken him out to view a meteor shower, and if his life would have ended differently if they had. Was he trying, in his insanity, to be one of those bright sparks that attracts the eye before flaming out? Having never seen one, did he fail to realize that his act of annihilation may have attracted the eye of all to him, but only in a response of horror and rejection, not in the appreciation for brilliance that accompanies a meteorite? Or maybe he had seen one, and just couldn't find a way to emulate it. I don't know. I shouldn't try to know. My heart goes out to his father and brother, survivors who have to try to make sense of it, yet who don't have the luxury of "innocent victim" status in their lost son and brother. Who will have to face the searing images of pain that their lost one caused, and wonder, in helpless useless guilt, whether they could have done something to prevent it.
We don't get to see the night sky often enough, nowadays. We don't get to view the profound message that the night sky holds for us. When we look up at the stars, we are made humble, yes; shown how small we are in the great vastness of the universe, yes; but we are also shown how many humble sparks there are besides us. We are small, but we are mighty in number, and every little spark is counted separately. And when one among us acts in a brilliant, shining, awe-inspiring flash of light, we marvel and count ourselves blessed to see it.
I grieve with the rest of this nation, but I will not be lighting a candle in vigil. There is so much light on this planet, it's blinding. We do not need more lights in order to see the ones that surround us. We have only to step out into the darkness, and look.