Since we live and die by metaphors around here, indulge me in pursuing this one.
During a break in the schedule in John Watson’s visit to Minnesota last week, we were chatting about another of his projects: an eco-adventure travel outfit called Aventouras. They specialize in active trips to Latin America with an emphasis on authenticity and local culture.
John told about the wonders of kayaking Lake Titicaca in Peru, the world’s highest navigable lake at an elevation of nearly 13,000 feet. At such high elevation and in such thin air, the night sky is clearer, closer, and brighter than we can imagine, used as we are to seeing a starfield polluted by light and distorted by atmosphere.
John talked about how the Inca saw the night sky differently than we do. The Milky Way, thick with stars, was seen as a celestial river; in the sky, a mirror image of the local terrestrial watershed. Against the sharpness and clarity of this backdrop, the Inca could see dark clouds of interstellar dust and matter—astronomical features that are invisible to us. These dark shapes floating against the bright Milky Way background were to Inca eyes like star constellations to ours—in the contours of the dark clouds, they identified animals and mythological figures. Hence, dark constellations. There’s a whole field of archaeoastronomy dedicated to studying how ancient cultures viewed the night sky.
Constellations seem to be a way of making meaning, connecting the dots. There’s something captivating about the idea of reversal, of upending our notion of what’s important in the visual field. Or maybe it’s the notion of shadow and eclipse; our view is masked, so rather than worry about what’s behind it, we integrate its contours into a larger gestalt. Then there’s the connection between culture and perception—or is it opportunity for perception? By literally being higher than the rest of the world, the Inca had access to a singular experience of the world, and by extension the universe. Maybe the metaphor here is about differences in experience, and the resulting ability to perceive patterns the rest of us can’t see. Call it Celestial River 2.0. Ranks of nebulous shapes, policies, and trends are floating around at the intersection of technology and education, obscuring our field of vision. The challenge may not be to simply see around or through them, but to meaningfully fit their contours into the larger picture.