“Only Connect”

We are driving through the New Mexican desert, occasionally spying a river valley of green to the left, though the rocks and sands to the right are invariably dry—dun, umber, ocher, tan. And as different as this landscape is from that of England, I find myself thinking about the Salisbury Plain, and about driving toward Stonehenge.

I am feeling the same tingle of anticipation that I felt when we made that drive a few years ago, feel alive with the sense that we’re about to behold something incredible. And since I’m not sure how far away it is, I stay alert, imagining it could be around each next curve or rise.

Rob and I have been quiet, each pursuing our own thoughts, for many minutes and miles. I’ve been trying to parse out the connections I am feeling between today’s foray and our visit to Stonehenge when Rob unexpectedly speaks, says “just like Salisbury.” Even after all these years, such moments of being in each other’s head can still startle. This one seems especially wonderful and quirky, for we are traveling toward the Plains of San Agustin to see the Very Large Array.

The VLA is a radio telescope. Comprised of 27 big (okay, very large) dish antennae, it is used to explore the galaxy. VLA antenna near railbed And while Jodi Foster used it in the movie Contact to find intelligent life in Vega, in real life SETI has only used it a couple times—in ’95 and ’96—with considerably less luck. Still, the VLA has enabled scientists to discover much, including important things about black holes and the heart of the Milky Way, as well as letting them observe lots of astronomical objects like quasars and pulsars.

On the summer and winter solstices, a significant set of the stones that comprise Stonehenge are aligned with the rising or setting sun—making it, too, an astronomical instrument of sorts (though its overall use remains a subject of some debate). Antenna puffing clouds

I think the real connection goes deeper. Both Stonehenge and the VLA are monumental efforts, technological feats that allow humans a glimpse that exceeds ordinary space-time. And that glimpse is one we yearn for, letting us make contact with something greater than ourselves. Or at least different than ourselves. No, scratch that effort at precision. I do mean greater—greater than our everyday selves, greater than a single self.

Our trip to the VLA was shoe-horned in between a visit to Santa Fe to celebrate the power of art with the fine folks at Radius Press and a visit to see Rob’s sister in Albuquerque. Both were lovely, human-scaled moments of connectedness, of locating ourselves in relation to others, via images and words and shared memories. But Stonehenge and the VLA are sacramental, outward signs that endure, odd, mammoth proof of our inner yearnings to find ourselves at home in the universe.