Eye in the Sky: Paint your celestial palette in Vincent’s hues

Eye in the Sky: Paint your celestial palette in Vincent’s hues
What Vincent van Gogh saw. (Image: Prawny on Pixabay)

The Starry Starry Night over the Karoo shone more brightly this week. We felt as if every eye in every dorp could see what the James Webb Telescope had seen; had shown us. Not only the eyes of the rich and pampered or the educated and privileged. Every eye. We even got the pots out to celebrate.

To minds that can scarcely fathom a year from a light year or a million seconds from a billion hours, let alone 13.8 billion years – the distance the telescope dubbed a “cosmic time machine” has been able to see back into the distant past – how far away is forever?

Yet, under our magical “skies”, by which we mean the speckled black mysteries above us at night, wonder upon wonder appeared last week in space far beyond where any human eye has been before; seen before. We couldn’t just step outside, look up and, voila, but we knew it was there because the cleverest among us had put their intellect to useful purpose, an uncommonly wonderful thing in a world in which too many minds spend their intelligence on all the wrong things.

The numbers are befogging. The James Webb Telescope had been dispatched like a giant eye to a point a million miles away from Earth to watch and wait for the moment to photograph the unknowable in a mission to unfold the infrared universe. It had pointed and clicked (in fact, the complexity of capturing the images is a massive feat of its own) and, caught in its focus like a rhinestone deer in headlights, were a stellar nursery, cosmic “cliffs”, emerging galaxies and dying stars, and Stephan’s Quintet performing a scintillating cosmic dance. Stephan’s Quintet is a mere 290 million light years away. And more, so much more, into infinity and whatever lies beyond. Wonder upon incomprehensible wonder. And far below on the plains of Camdeboo and the foothills of ancient Karoo mountains, we took a collective deep breath and thought of greater things than our mere selves.

One image, countless dots; one dot, countless galaxies. All in a pin prick if you or I look up at the sky at night. If one pin prick of seeming nothingness reveals world upon world, galaxy upon galaxy, mystery upon mystery, how even smaller we are than we were only last week.

(Image: iStock / elements of the image furnished by NASA)

In the Karoo, we’re blessed to have skies seemingly “bigger” than in the cities, only because we have far less light around us. It’s one of the things about the Karoo night: we traipse out of doors, turn the house lights off and look up.

On the farm werf and the townhouse back yard, coats were pulled on, scarves were wrapped around necks, and potjies were dusted off while meat marinated in the kitchen. Fires were lit and tended and beers were cracked open and poured as they huddled together to gaze upward and consider how small yet blessed they were. Wine was added to meat and potatoes in pots on stoves and hearths and every manly braai wrought of iron and muscle, rivet and sweat, lids put on and the patient wait for the gaar, the tender, the shisa nyama, the meat burn, the smoke and aroma familiar to every nostril as far back in time as the human has ever walked and breathed; since timber first cracked together to create fire. As far back as any man, woman or child was ever able to look upward and wonder, and imagine, and puzzle, at the eternal quest to comprehend the incomprehensible.

The rheumy eye of the petrol attendant in Hobhouse looked heavenward after filling up the tank of a Gauteng-registered 4×4 and waited for the rumble to roll away towards Wepener so the stillness could fall again; so he could once again find that spiritual connection with infinity, as free as the sea. Just me and the sky, me and the stars, my God must be there, he may have thought to himself in the private space between man and universe.

No one can enter that space; the private world between the humble eye and infinity. Not the bank manager or the white madam, not the road-raging driver or the condescending tourist. The stockbroker who thinks it’s all about money, the developer who thinks it’s all about how many bedrooms and bucks in the bank, the estate agent who thinks it’s all about the view, the price, the commission, location, location; they cannot enter this space between pauper and forever. The debt collector cannot enter here, nor the angry lawyer, the irate neighbour or the unbidden nemesis. It is an invisible sanctuary, an oasis of serenity, sacrosanct and impenetrable to eyes blinded by the inane and the pointless.

The eye of the smous clattering his cart to his shack at the end of the day looked up and saw that the stars were showing themselves earlier than they usually would. The cattle herder on the slopes of the Malutis slapping the rumps of his charges, the stick-and-carrot gentling to keep them close and safe, held a winter’s hand on the side of the beast and felt its warmth while his head tilted backward and his ancient, canny eyes saw what Vincent saw, what Galileo saw, what every thinking mind ever saw and wondered at; yet the humble herdsman knows what they knew too; that the unknowable captivates all of us equally, and station and possession, learning and financial portfolio mean nought when you’re standing beneath infinity, in the tiny space between you and the eternal.

Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens. (Image by Darkmoon_Art on Pixabay)

The mogul’s eye, even when looking up at the same star-spangled black night, blinded by his eternal quest for yet more wealth, may see less of its glory than the vagabond for whom that starry treasure is his everything. The oligarch may count the stars like Fagin, in this life, one thing counts, in the bank, large amounts; but the starscape warms not the pocket but the heart, soothing the soul of the beggar as the tycoon walks past unnoticing of either the poorling or the glory above. Begging, dare one add, the question: who is richer?

While puny men waged war on others with the misfortune to be their neighbours, giants among us were using their minds for a far greater goal. To open our eyes to the greatness that lies and always has lain far beyond the imaginable, and show it to us. 

As night fell on a world in which the great scientists and space explorers had engineered a way for us to see much further than we had ever seen, one of the first things to dawn on us all was that, though we can now “see” further than ever before, all the way back to time before time, beginnings before beginnings, and that we were seeing light emitted even in Biblical times, the worlds beyond worlds and galaxies beyond galaxies were only the tiniest shaft of light into the vastness of it all. The greater the universe seems to be, the smaller we feel or know we are.

And in the giant puzzle of the space/time continuum, the quest to understand and unravel the interplay between past and present, where we were and might be going, we wonder: are we looking at the light of our ancestors, and do they suddenly seem not as far away, not so distant, less remote, somehow closer, as the giant eye brought light from the past into our present. Are we in someone else’s past, or in their future… Light, moving; and now we see it. What will the scientists make of it and what new wonders lie ahead of us just as they are behind us. It makes you want to stay alive for longer, to be around to find out.

The Great Sky judges not the potjie or the barrel braai, the tandoor or the tagine; knows not and cares not whether we’re braaing chops and steak at the braai or shisa nyama. The infinity of infinities cannot tell us apart whether we’re Hindu or Jain, saman or sangoma, southern Baptist or High Church of England. We’re eyes and souls beneath the endless mystery. We’re the tiny unknown, beyond the reach of the most distant eye, beyond the realm of anything worth comprehending or seeing by whatever and whoever may be standing in the night of their own mysterious planet, gazing up and seeing that speck there, that tiny one, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t one, the one that may be something or nothing; our Earth. Our world. Everything we know and have known. Yet, on it, we stand looking back, wondering what or who may exist. Somewhere.

I wonder when I look up into that night: is there someone far away in that endlessness looking into the starry void and wondering whether we are here; imagine if our minds could connect in the ether; two points of wonder and hope, thoughts colliding somewhere in infinity. Memories of our world and their worlds, our history and theirs, tumbling and floating together, touching sides, sharing our collective stories. Maybe all the music floats there, and all the written words. All the bitter tears of grief and war, all the laughter and joy of things that went right. We would hope that the memories of their worlds are kinder, sweeter ones, and might be a balm for the pain and cruelty of too many of ours.

We were dust and will return to it; but infinity will still be there and visible as surely as light travels forever.

And there’s the rub: the more we see of the endless everywhere, the less significant we are, yet the more we’re inspired to be better, do better, try harder, be kinder, and to use our intellect and talents to better purpose. Is it possible that the more is revealed as the James Webb Telescope does its work, the more our human brothers and sisters of every race and hue will look up, then look at one another and think, we really are all in this together; let’s be better. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options