Friday, January 05, 2007

Sacramental starlight

In the year 1750, a baby boy was born in Gambia in West Africa. On the eighth day after the birth, as was the custom, the villagers paused from their normal activities to celebrate, with feasting, music and prayer, the naming of the child - Kunta. Kunta Kinte.

That night, the father took his infant son to the edge of the village and completed the naming ritual by holding the child up to face the heavens -- a crescent moon, a sky streaked with stars. The father whispered to the child, in the language of the Mandinka tribe: "Behold -- the only thing greater than yourself."

You may recognize this episode from the first chapter of Alex Haley's family saga, "Roots," a semi-fictional re-creation of seven generations of the author's African-American family.

What a marvelous celebration of the sacredness of a human self and the infinite mystery of the universe -- the microcosm (the infant) and the macrocosm (the spangled heavens). At my own naming ceremony, a few drops of water were sprinkled on my head; Kunta Kinte's head was sprinkled with stars.

I have mentioned here before that a big condominium project of million-dollar holiday houses is going in next door, a project completely out of scale with the modest single-family homes scattered along our beach. I have spoken to the builder suggesting that outdoor lighting be kept to a minimum, and that what light is used be environmentally sensitive. But having seen what they have done to the dunes, the ridges, the flora and fauna -- all scraped flat and bare -- I have little hope they will care about dark skies.

We have lived here happily and securely in a relatively isolated corner of the island for a dozen years without a watt of outdoor illumination, enjoying a view of the universe that all the money in the world couldn't buy. But as the island develops, the orange glow rises up on every side. One more refuge of darkness surrenders to the thickening shell of artificial light that wraps the planet and cuts us off from the universe. Behold, there is nothing greater than ourselves.