The Boundary Waters – A Cosmic Perspective

Art & Science, People By Jason Kaufman

A jack pine, and the sun over a hazy horizon in the BWCA.
Photo: Jay Harris

There is a small lake on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area that I have visited numerous times. Its shores are lined with pine, cedar, and spruce and remain almost entirely undeveloped save for a collection of several unassuming cabins grouped near its more accessible end. Set well back from the water, each cabin has a narrow trail that meanders down to its own little dock barely the length of a canoe. A mere couple of miles from the border with Canada, the region is unique in its offer of a glaciated landscape of endless lakes, fecund wildlife, and famously dark night skies. It is a special place to my family, a sacred place where I have found myself in possession of a far broader perspective than readily afforded by daily life in the city. Every summer, we make it a point to travel north for a week to paddle, hike, and most importantly relax. More often than not, this involves spending time on one of those little docks to simply gaze at the wonder around, immersing ourselves in the sights, sounds, and scents of the natural world.

Time and again, I have become privy to a shift in perspective that results from spending time on that little dock and gazing across the water to the opposite shore. The morning sun hanging low in the east, I will stand there with a cup of coffee in hand to enjoy the symphony of birdsong intermingling with the scent of healing phytoncides carried on the wind from the trees lining the shore behind me. If lucky, the surface of the lake will be smooth as glass, occasional ripples here and there betraying where a fish has jumped to catch its breakfast or a loon has lazily passed by before diving for the same. Sometimes, this stillness affords an opportunity to see below the surface of the water down to the shallow lake bed. Illuminated for a brief period of time in the morning (and then again in the evening) is another world below. It is an environment of sand, rocks, reeds, with the occasional fish swimming past to warm itself in the rays of sunlight refracted through the water’s surface.

A yellow canoe on a lake in the boundary waters.
Photo: Christopher Brink

I often find myself called to spend time in a canoe as the air warms and the morning passes into day. There are few things more elegant than a canoe, the way it glides upon the water, its bow casting ripples upon the surface of the water as one takes paddle in hand. This is a time when attention is drawn to the felt stroke of the paddle, to the feeling of the canoe gliding through the water’s surface seemingly between two worlds. The call of a loon is often heard from a distant lake and complemented by the distinct hum of a dragonfly’s wings as it hunts for lunch above the canoe’s gunwale. These serve for me as subtle reminders that there is more in the world than what might be readily apparent.

With the setting of the sun below the horizon many hours later, the colors of dusk indicate the arrival of evening. Periodically, there will be a partial Moon hanging low over the trees, its mottled surface yet illuminated by the fading blue of the sky. In these moments it seems as if our nearest celestial neighbor is so close that I could reach out from the shore of the lake and touch it. Indeed, Humanity has visited this not entirely foreign place a total of six times. We have looked back from its surface and marveled at the beauty and finiteness of our home planet, at the entirety of our history located right here on a gloriously hued sphere. Back on the dock by the water’s edge, I notice the first stars come out as the sky continues to darken, hints that the lunar surface is really just a first step beyond our little dock orbiting amidst an inconceivably vast cosmic shore.

On late moonless nights, the sky above the lake so far north has the potential to display the indescribable. As the waning twilight settles from civic to nautical to astronomical, the stars become so numerous as to obfuscate the easy recognition of familiar constellations. The Milky Way becomes so bright and variegated in detail that it becomes apparent why the ancient Greeks gave it that name. The ambient temperature has cooled to the point of requiring long sleeves even though it might be the height of summer, and the lake is so calm that its surface reflects countless points of starlight. Indeed, there have been nights so deeply dark that I have seen my own shadow cast on the dock by the starlight from above. I look up to the sky and notice how my perspective begins to shift away from daily concerns toward a quiet contentment.

Words are inadequate to express the sense that has often come over me standing out there under the raiment of the Cosmos. In the moment, my sense of self diminishes and my perception expands across a conceptual continuum of space so broad that for a moment time seems to stop. Looking overhead at the innumerable stars, an awareness dawns on me that the vast majority of those stars are likely to host planets of their own. On some of those planets must be life, potentially sentient life. This begs of the question of whether we as a species might think bigger. How many shores are to be found similar yet different than the one upon which I stand and gaze? How many opportunities for expanding our understanding of the Cosmos and our place within it remain to be encountered in that night sky? Whom is there to meet on those other shores hanging overhead in the night sky possibly looking down at us?

Photo: Dani Saterlee

In 1977, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were launched in order to expand our knowledge of the Solar System and continue outward to interstellar space. Cognizant of this plan, then president Jimmy Carter wrote a statement carried by these twin emissaries on behalf of our species:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survey our time so that we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER

Such a message seems especially apropos of the cosmic perspective that invariably develops every summer as I stand upon that little dock under the multitude of stars and clearly detailed dust lanes of our home galaxy. It is here that I am connected to my place in the Cosmos.

The power of such wondrous nights under the stars in such a remote locale is the potential surfacing to conscious awareness, however finite in duration, of that cosmic perspective. We are each connected to every other part of the Cosmos. This awareness necessarily embodies scientific as well as spiritual elements. It is most powerful when experienced by the mind and simultaneously within the heart. This cosmic perspective helps me to step beyond the confines of my own needs and concerns to better recognize that we are all connected to one another and to the vastness of all that lies overhead. Importantly, it offers the potential to help us recognize the inherent beauty in the world around us, to fix what we have broken, and to set our sites beyond the limitations of societal ego toward an inevitable expansion across the Solar System and far beyond.

Standing on that little dock looking up from my tiny corner of the seemingly infinite cosmic shore, I have lost track of time.  The arc of the Milky Way moves across the deep, dark night sky. The water is perfectly still, the air has become cold, and eventually the necessity for sleep becomes apparent. It is time to walk back up to the cabin. This is no great loss when this far north. A cosmic perspective is not overly difficult to maintain when I am faced day after day with the promise of natural splendor and time to think. Instead, what is difficult is learning to maintain such a perspective when returning to the pace of modern life.

It is our shared challenge to evolve as a species with a cosmic perspective. It is our responsibility to recognize our connections and our obligations. How are we to become, and remain, cognizant of our place in the Cosmos when the mundane events of the workaday life saturate our attention? For me, it begins with a night under the stars on the edge of the BWCA, and perchance good company with whom to discuss it.

Jason A. Kaufman, Ph.D., Ed.D., is a professor of educational leadership and director of the institutional review board at Minnesota State University, Mankato and a licensed psychologist. His research explores mind-body and nature-based interventions, humble leadership, and the promotion of human functioning.

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