When the stars shine bright

If a tree falls in the forest with nobody there to hear it, does the crash still shake the land beneath and wake the sleeping bears? And if Jupiter passes Saturn behind a veil of clouds, do the stars still shine as brilliantly for nobody to see?

Last week, the tilted Earth swung out farther, farther, farthest from the sun before (we hope) it gracefully rounded its orbit to bring us back to light and warmth. Though, somehow in a year like 2020, I find myself imagining that the rubber band might finally snap and we’ll float off quietly into the universe, too distracted by our daily tasks and arguments to even notice.

When the Dyerville Giant – a 370-foot tall coastal redwood tree – crashed to the ground in 1991, the impact was indeed so magnificent that it registered like an earthquake on a nearby seismograph and sounded to people in the nearest town like a giant train crashing off the track. Most Minnesotans were blocked from viewing the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last Monday night due to heavy cloud cover, but we know from the reports of others here on earth that the two planets shone as brightly as they did in 1223.

When a tree falls in the forest, it creates space and nourishment for new life, whether or not people are near to note the transformation.

In this time of winter solstice, Christmas and Kwanzaa, we approach the end of a long, strange year with a mix of sadness, hope and tangled up holiday lights. “And so the Shortest Day came and the year died; And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world; Came people singing, dancing; To drive the dark away (From The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper).”

Almost every day, I give thanks that I live in such a beautiful place, full of rivers, lakes, woods and prairies for me to escape to when the anxiety, sorrow and loneliness of this year grow in my heart. I wish that every corner of our world offered places of refuge as beautiful as these for weary inhabitants.

Winter hiking at Afton State Park

I’ve been thinking, too, about the magic of the universe that happens when no one is around to see – the smaller trees that fall, farther from town and more quietly, or the countless movements of planets and stars that we never thought to look for. When Brown’s Creek Watershed District set up a trail camera to monitor wildlife in its new 13-acre conservation area in Grant, it was as though the property suddenly came to life. Whereas people walking through the wetlands near the creek might be lucky to see a passing deer or turkey, the motion-activated camera recorded a parade of fox and fawn, skunks, coyotes, and other creatures.

On islands in the St. Croix River, I’ve paused to admire curving lines drawn in the sand by freshwater mussels slowly moving, one millimeter at a time. In the woods, we find fallen trees, covered in soft green moss and little pillows of fungus that pop like balloons and release spores into the wind. Next spring, these toppled giants may shelter wildflowers with pale pink petals and heart-shaped leaves. The universe keeps happening, whether or not we notice.

In the coming week, I hope you find time to rest and enjoy the beauty of the St. Croix Valley. Hike the trails at a State or County Park, explore a nearby nature center, hang seed outside for the birds, or order trees to plant next spring. Then, when the clouds finally pass and the stars shine bright, bundle up and head to a quiet field to enjoy the beauty of the night.