Our Universe

Mary on the cliffs of Monhegan Island

The Hardy Boat leaves New Harbor at nine in the morning all summer long. Mary and I arrive at the parking lot up the hill from Shaw’s at eight thirty as instructed, hand a teenager the twenty dollars needed to park for the day. We two of the last to arrive and board for the hour-long trip to Monhegan, a small Island seven miles off the coast of Maine.

“Here we go!” we say to each other, trying to remember the last time we made the trip. “Certainly five, and maybe as many as ten years ago.”

“At this point, it’s the closest thing to traveling to another country,” I say to Mary.

Once settled on the top deck of our ferry, I turn to Mary with a random question. “Do you think space just goes on and on out there, infinitely?” I ask this because the Webb telescope’s sending back images from the beginning of time. “We’re seeing pictures from when our galaxy was formed. But do you think it all just keeps going and going out there?”

The Hardy Boat arriving at Monhegan Harbor

“Maybe.” Mary answers, the two of us talking about galaxies and the size of our universe. She then asks, “I wonder what the Latin definition of universe is? Uni means one, but what about verse?”

“I can look it up?” I say, pointing to my phone.

“No. Not yet.”

Mary’s right. When someone breaks a conversation to look up the information, the magic of the moment’s lost. Better to be left wondering what the word means for a bit, to question rather than to have to shut it all down while I Google around, lost on Facebook or scrolling texts instead of finding the desired information, at which point we’ve all moved on.

“We know what ‘verse’ means, don’t we?” I say. We do, but we don’t. At least not in this instance. “Verse, as in poem or song, isn’t right.”

On this day, our universe will comprise of walking around a tiny island with a winter population of seventy.

“I always wanted to teach on Monhegan,” Mary tells me.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Didn’t have the guts.”

Summers see a larger artist community come together here, with people like us visiting from the mainland. Once, we sailed in and out of the tiny little harbor, stayed the night jostled up and down by Atlantic swells. Now, we arrive with others ferried by the Hardy Boat for a day trip to enjoy the slow pace of island life.

Island Life

“Here,” Mary says handing me a set of binoculars. “It’s more fun if you have your own.”

On this day, our universe will be comprised of all the birds Mary can identify, many pelagic, like the Arctic Puffins we see off to starboard, but some nearly domesticated, like the pheasant who later seems happy hiking the same trail we do. Puffins are small black birds with cute orange beaks and quite rare, though efforts to re-populate them on Egg Rock have largely been successful. Pheasants, I have no idea.

At some point when the conversation lulls, I do finally look-up the definition of universe, and the root ‘verse’.

“Verse means turn,” I say, surprised at the definition. “I’m not sure I get that.”

“Turn into one,” Mary explains. “Everything turns into one, comes together.”

The two of us have been talking about time and space for a few days, since I pointed out we’d be seeing the beginning of time with Webb’s first images.

“How do we know how far away that galaxy is?” my older brother Jim asks when we later draw him into the conversation. We’re seeing light from thirteen billion miles away, and he wants answers. Mary’s brother Stephen explains how light turns more and more infrared over distance travelled, so we measure the wavelength to get the distance. Simple.

Mary leading the way

On the other hand, today Mary and I travel at the speed of a gull as the Hardy Boy mates hand out paper bags due to storm seas the day before when the captain measured wave length as nine-foot swell, leaving passengers sick or stranded. Today not so bad, and the bags go unused.

My binoculars are 10X. The Webb measures infrared light from a billion years ago, and says the universe is expanding. But so does my 10X piece of glass—to include Brown Boobies, Northern Gannets, and Atlantic Puffins.

In our cottage hangs a framed needle point. ‘Dear God. Be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.’

“If it’s not infinite, then what’s out there?” the question I pose to Mary at some point during our conversation.

“Maybe our galaxy fits inside a molecule of a dinosaur’s blood,” she tells me.

Mind blown.

Webb’s got me thinking. About the beginning of time. About the size of our world. About each of our teeny tiny places on this planet. Today we’ll be counting species of birds on a small island in Maine. Tomorrow, who knows what?

Steve and Mary on the bluff at Monhegan

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