There’s a Question in the Sky

The large maple tree in our neighbours’ yard that looms over our garage — I call it “ghost tree.” It’s mostly because I have taken many night time photos of it and the starry skies around it over the past few years of living here. The “ghost” is simply because the long exposures that capture starlight also twist and smudge the tree into a spectral figure. Benign and without fear.

Ghost tree, November 2023

Since we moved here from the city, the relatively dark skies here on the edge of town have meant seeing more stars plainly visible than almost any other time in my life.

There was one particularly long bus trip at night along the winding roads of Mexico from Oaxaca City to the Pacific coast — we were delirious from heat, travel, and hunger but the stars I saw in that sky with silhouettes of barrel cacti and spikes of agave have stayed with me.

In the picture, above the mostly bare November branches of the ghost tree, hangs a question mark formed from starlight. That is what I first saw at least. A true rub your eyes and look again moment. The question mark cluster is the Pleiades, an asterism of hot blue stars that illuminate the interstellar gas and dust around them.

I think about the age of star light whenever I look up at night. Each tiny pinhole of light in the velvet curtain of space travelling between a few and hundreds of years to our eyes. The star cluster Pleiades is roughly 444 light years from our solar system. So every twinkle of light we might see this year from the stars in that strange floating question left that system in 1580.

A particularly moody ghost tree.
September 2023.

We name the stars
to look at them
and see something
of ourselves.

The stars are old
light that looks
towards us
without recognition.

We have no names
to them.

Old Light, February 2023

September 2022

I think of stars as an infinite archipelago — islands scattered in an impossibly vast ocean of space. It’s funny how from our vantage, the depth of space becomes a surface like Earth’s oceans seem from space not showing their own unexplored deep places.

Ghosts at Sea, digital drawing, 2020
Magnetic Sea, digital drawing, 2020
Cresting, digital drawing, 2020

The drawings above are “finger paintings” made on my phone.

I have drawn and photographed oceans, seas, lakes, bodies of water in a variety of ways. Water, like the night and day sky, is infinitely watchable and indescribable.

Storms at land and sea, brush fires and burning skies, mixed media on paper, 2020
Ocean Redux, drawing on photo print, 2022

It’s the motion even in the most placid water. That same infinity of space and life in a droplet — all the same forces swirling the surface of a dew drop with a microscopic ocean inside.

It’s all so big and small. Beyond our lifetimes away and still visible for a moment looking up at night.