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On June 8th, 2004, Venus transited the sun for the first time since 1882. It’s going to happen again on June 5th-6th, 2012, and then not again until 2117. So don’t miss the next one.

I’m standing across the street from the nun’s house and wondering if the copper beech tree that people come from all over to admire has laid a branch or sheaf of leaves so much in the way that my wife, whom I’m about to leave (though she does not know this yet) won’t be able to see Venus transiting the sun in the short time she’s willing to devote to observation.

I got her to leave her coffee and makeup to see something she has little interest in except that she’s heard about it on the TV. But I know it will go down well with her friends if she can say she’s seen it, because they know she’s married to a guy who does stuff they never heard of.

They will shake their heads, Wow, how about that. You actually saw it.

I was surprised that she agreed, because seeing Venus transit the sun is only interesting if you know why it was important historically. Like in the eighteenth century. And I know she won’t ask me to explain it to her. She and her friends like to know the names of things, whatever they are, but that’s it. I’ve been coming to terms with being the person whose activities are noted, but are not worthy of inquiry, and the final result of that coming-to-terms-with is that I’m going to leave.

While I’m setting up the tripod and leveling my theodolite I realize I’m sorry I asked her to come out and look. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe setting up something to use as a defense when things get rough, as they’re going to?

Will I find myself saying, Well, I showed you the transit of Venus, which proves I am not a mean and nasty man?

I haven’t had my theodolite out of its case in years because there’s no work for it, except once I used it to level a brick patio. Talk about overkill. In the old days I shot the sun with it; long before GPS I did latitude and longitude by measuring the sun’s altitude and azimuth at noon, looking through the darkgreen sunfilter. I’m remembering the first time I screwed it to the eyepiece and wondered if I should test it first, realized what the hell could I test it on except the sun, and quickly swung the theodolite around and up and looked. And didn’t burn out my retina, and saw the sun’s disk moving. Except of course it wasn’t actually moving, as it won’t actually be moving this morning, although Venus will be.

She knows my theodolite is very old and is probably wondering if there’s any danger. She’s got to be thinking that if I look first she should be OK, unless I shut my eye, meaning to trick her into burning hers out. I know how she thinks: be sure he looks first.

I’m thinking about how Captain Cook, James Cook, sailed to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus on June 3rd, 1769, so that astronomers could work out how far it was to the sun. Other telescopes would be looking from Europe. Parallax. It was all about parallax.

In the modern vernacular, it was a ballsy thing Cook did: sail from England into 17 degrees South, 149 degrees West counting on clear skies and a solid viewing platform on the precise day and time he needed them. Joseph Banks drew observing plans marked with the appropriate words Zenith and Nadir.

Cook and Green observed the exterior ingress to the sun’s limb at 9 hours 21 minutes local time, and exterior egress at 15 hours 29 minutes, also local time. This is only the third transit of Venus since then. I know all this because I looked it up last night. I liked encountering new usages of ingress and egress. I knew the technical usage of zenith but not of nadir, a fine coincidence considering that my nadir appears to be now, local time, and my exterior egress will probably be next month, also local time.

I look through the eyepiece at the sun, which is not obscured by the copper beech, and as usual do not burn out my retina. The sun’s disk nearly fills the field of view. I force myself to scan the whole field looking for a dark spot moving, which is hard, because the sun itself is moving relative to all the dust and dirt, the spidery fungus, inside the theodolite.

But it’s all good. It feels like the old days. I’m juggling three levels of perception, four if I count that the eyepiece is an inverting one. But since I don’t know whether Venus is transiting the sun’s top or bottom, I don’t have to worry about inversion. The sun looks the same right side up or upside down. Ah, slow movement. That’s it.

“Here,” I say, stepping away, “Go ahead and look. It’s that little dot towards the top, which is really the bottom.”

She says, “What?”

I say, “It’s an inverting eyepiece.”

She says, “What the hell is that?”

“Upside down,” I say, “Nevermind, just look for the little black dot moving.”

“Jesus,” she says, “I have to go to work. You said this would be quick and there are who knows how many little black dots.”

“Yes, but only one is moving.”

“I don’t see it. What a waste of time. I’ll catch it on TV tonight, they probably have a better whatever than this one.”

“Fine.”

I pick up the theodolite and its heavy tripod and pack it down the corner where there’s a better view. While I’m setting up again her car hisses by. I don’t wave.

Here it’s good, a clear sightline. I should have come here first, but the lure of looking for Venus up the nun’s passageway was too great.

All in focus again, very nice, the dot’s moving. Venus. I step away from the theodolite to take in the entire scene. Has anybody in the entire history of the world ever observed the transit of Venus on a sidewalk before a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house? No. Surely no. Might anyone care? Again no, and no one except me cares about the nun’s passage business either.

A woman walking her dog comes up the street and gives me a quizzical look, which is reasonable since presumably she’s not used to seeing a guy out at 7 AM standing at a painted wooden tripod looking towards the sun through what only sort of looks like a telescope.

“Transit of Venus,” I say, “If you’d like to look you may. It’s quite safe. And it’s transiting the top it looks like, but it’s really the lower part of the sun because this has an inverting eyepiece.”

“Oh,” she says, “So maybe I should stand on my head to look.”

We laugh. The dog barks.

I wonder who she is. She’s pretty and has no wedding band but I don’t hold onto that thought because I can feel myself and my theodolite already in motion in my own great Southern Ocean, tacking, sailing away from nuns, copper beech, corner, wife.

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Don Mitchell DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

43 Responses to “Transit of Venus”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Nice piece, Don. I felt very sad when I read it. It is a perfect rendering of how the spaces in a marriage grow too large be to ever be breached.

    As for the transit of Venus – It seems to me that for about 3 months back in 2004 – all I heard when I turned on my radio or opened the paper or watched TV was about the transit of Venus. It was everywhere, a big deal down here in the South Pacific.

    There was something about it that caught my attention. Something sort of romantic and nostalgic that captured my imagination. It spurred me on to read everything I could about Cook, which was amazing -given the fact that he was our discoverer and yet I really didn’t know too much about him. So thanks to Venus, I learned something about our own history, which I should’ve already known, but thanks (or no thanks) to the NZ schooling system, I didn’t.

    Cook’s voyage is a truly interesting thing and I have to say, I have a deep and enduring fondness for Banks.

    Nice to see their names here on TNB.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Zara.

      I have sometimes wondered how Cook and Banks got on in their daily lives, what with Cook being of humble origins, and Banks, a gentleman. I suspect they got on well.

      I’ve always felt a non-academic connection with Cook, having grown up just on the other side of the island where he was killed.

  2. Matt says:

    That last paragraph of yours is utterly killer, Don. And very similar to a sentiment I expressed on my 1000 words post last year.

    And then there’s this: “I’ve been coming to terms with being the person whose activities are noted, but are not worthy of inquiry, and the final result of that coming-to-terms-with is that I’m going to leave.” Man oh man, does that ever sum up the way the final six months of my last relationship played out. I always wanted to head out and do what I thought were interesting things-exploring the tide pools, hiking the canyons, visit a new exhibit at a museum, etc.–and all she wanted to do was sit around on the couch and watch television. Getting her off her ass took half the damn day.

    I wonder sometimes if it’s not that our significant others are actually uninterested in these things (they were interested enough at some point to get involved with us, right?) but that they’re choosing not to be out of spite, or some similar emotion.

    Also, I find it interesting that both you and I wrote essays about the intersection of science and pivotal points in our lives. Though I suppose it makes sense in your case, as you actually are a scientist, while I’m just a dilettante naturalist.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      It really is interesting how that stuff — the gaps — happens. Maybe what was exotic wears down into the commonplace, but I’m sure some of it is out of spite, as you say.

      I suppose I’m a scientist because I was trained as one. But what I’ve always hoped to be is a careful observer of the world — natural and social — around me, who can write effectively about it.

      So in my book “naturalist” is a worthy title. These days, you have to look very hard to find a biological/geological generalist, a.k.a. a naturalist. It’s easy to understand why, but it’s a pity. I remember once asking a botanist if there were any whole-animal biologists left, and he said Not many.

      And now I’m off to what’s only my second “featured reader” reading ever. I’m hoping that people in the audience who don’t know me won’t leave wondering if I’m anything other than a writer.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Geez, Don,
    This was really sad and enlightening at the same time.
    Nice work.

  4. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Really well done, Don. Melancholy to me but liberating, too. Not the “I’m king of the world!” liberating but, as you drew it, tacking and riding the power of the current liberating.

    It is interesting to me that my marriage almost went the same route and for very similar reasons. I have said more than once, “If I leave my wife for another person, that person will be me.” Somehow – somehow – she had a sea change of her own and abandoned the shell she’d been carrying. I was very lucky (though it might not quite feel it right now – kids put her on the warpath :D) and you were very wise.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Anon. That’s a nice distinction you’re drawing, between “king of the world” liberation, and riding the current.

      I don’t know whether I ever wanted a partner that was very much like me, but I always wanted (and finally found) a complementary one, with many shared interests.

      It’s good that you found what you needed.

      • Andrew Nonadetti says:

        Heh. If I’d found what I needed, I’d likely be single, childless, well-rested and wealthy. But I found what was good for me and what, I think, has made me a better (if possibly a little schizophrenic and frustrated) man.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    “tacking and riding the power of the current liberating.”

    Well said, Anon.

    This is a wonderful, wonderful piece, Don. For so many reasons, and it speaks to me on a number of levels, and for a number of reasons.

    “Has anybody in the entire history of the world ever observed the transit of Venus on a sidewalk before a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house? No. Surely no. Might anyone care? Again no”

    I totally disagree. I think that’s awesome.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Speaking on a number of levels is my goal, and if I succeed I’m happy. So I’m glad it spoke to you, Simon.

      If you’re into architecture and Wright, there are buildings in greater Chicago for you to see. We have a handful here — the one is the picture is the Darwin Martin House. Darwin Martin, when he commissioned Wright, was living in the house that the nuns took over. So it all whirls around there on Summit Avenue in Buffalo.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    Fantastic piece, Don. Reads more like a short story than a memoir. And really powerful ending, weaving the themes together. And I love the part about your nadir and egress. Brilliant.

    Here is the astrological map of the sky for 7am, June 8, 2004, in Buffalo, N.Y.:

    http://www.healygates.com/greg/don-venus.jpg

    Not only is there the Venus/Sun conjunction, but it is in direct opposition to Pluto. Lots of powerful energies hard at work that day (which is, incidentally, my brother’s birthday). When a planet gets that close to the sun, it is said to be “combust,” and its power — in this case, the Venus energy, which is exactly what you think it is — is weakened. Throw in the opposing force of Pluto, a Shiva-the-destroyer energy, laying waste in order to begin again, and you have quite the zodiacal reinforcement of what actually happened to you.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      Hmmm. That adds another layer to my experiences of Summer 2004.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      This way to the Nadir!

      Although I knew nothing about TNB when this all happened, my senses were heightened on that day because, once I got my theodolite out and started setting up, I felt as though I was a spectator, or in the kind of dream where you see yourself as an actor. I knew I would write about it, even as it was all unfolding. So perhaps that’s what gives it the flavor of fiction.

      That’s a beautiful chart. I don’t know how to interpret it, but it’s very nice. If I had a color printer I’d print it out.

      Watching Venus in motion was awe-inspiring — I think that being aware of a celestial object in another way (transiting the sun as opposed to swinging through the night sky) gives it a different kind of reality. I remember once when I had manged to get Saturn and its rings resolved in a small telescope and turned the eyepiece over to woman I knew, her first response was “so they do exist.” And I understood immediately what she meant — here they were, poorly resolved by a backyard telescope, fuzzy, but seeming more real than any beautiful ground-based or spacecraft image.

      I wonder if the dog’s name was Pluto. If this makes its way into something fictional, it’s going to be.

  7. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Seeing, or at least genuinely acknowledging, the transit of Venus is important because it’s a representative moment of a cycle, one far greater and expansive than our own lives. Such events call for pause, reflection. The older I get, the more I do that sort of thing.

    I’m with Simon on the transit watch in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright house. That is so cool. So cool!

    I hope your current partner appreciates your interests and curiosities. This piece made me think how fortunate I am that my partner and I share several interests, and value and support each other in the ones we don’t.

    Wonderful essay, Don.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Ronlyn. I’d been working on it on and off for a while, but it was your posting that pushed me to give it a final tuneup and post. So thanks.

      I agree about those representative moments, as I wrote in my response to Greg. They can be at once vivid and penetrating, and then expansive, too. The first poem I ever had published was about “shooting the sun” and even though the event is by now almost 40 years displaced, I can recover the feeling easily.

      http://wiasi.net/Sightlines.html

      I did find that partner I was hoping for, and not long after the transit. Many shared interests, and the others are complementary (as I said to Anon).

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Gosh, you’re welcome. Thank you for sharing that tidbit.

        Gorgeous poem! I especially liked the line “I can link my stakes to Greenwich,/and I can finally learn where I am.” And that whole stanza about the woman and the baby–what images! The detail about the cord really struck me.

        Regarding Wright, I got a chance to see the Chicago neighborhood with the cluster of his houses and the tiny little bridge he designed. Quick drive-by trip but worth it. Then a couple of years ago, I toured one of his Usonian houses in Alabama, spared by the city and beautifully restored.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    >>I don’t know why I did it. Maybe setting up something to use as a defense when things get rough, as they’re going to?<<

    This articulated a technique I’ve been unconsciously using for my whole life. The pre-emptive nice gesture intended to preclude someone from feeling bad when you hurt their feelings later. So poignant that it stung a little to read.

    I really got the sense that you felt intimately tied to this historical moment, while the entirety (practically) of your race ignored it.

    It’s clear that it was your moment. That you offered the gift to others is noble. That you yourself enjoyed it gives the piece meaning. Thanks.

  9. Don Mitchell says:

    It does sound rather pre-emptive. In this case, I suppose it was. I don’t like to think I make a habit of doing it, though.

  10. Judy Prince says:

    Don, this entire piece “stung” me, like Joe described a part of it stung him.

    Your careful, deliberate plan to see the celestial event; your insisting, but wondering why you insisted, that your wife view it with you; your already knowing that the marriage, for you, was over—–these made it seem that you felt your marriage breakup was as inevitable as the planet transit.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad it had an effect, Judy. It’s odd how we often use words like “pierced” and “stung” to talk about how something got to us. I don’t know that I’ve ever used stung, but I’ve certainly used pierced as praise.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Don, I think Joe was saying that it “spoke to” him as behaviour he has used, he said, unconsciously throughout his life.

        The piece’s relentless unfolding of the inevitability of the planets’ turns and your personal turns came from your slow subtle feed of information.

        “Stung” meaning, therefore, “identified with”, which is the essence of communication.

  11. Erika Rae says:

    Don, this was a beautiful piece in so many ways – and pregnant with feeling, although understated. I think I’m rambling, but what I mean to say is that you did this perfectly. It resonated with me. More a feeling of new beginning than of end. Wow. How did you do that?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Erika.

      I think an important part of the feeling I had in 2004, and then again while writing this, was the feeling that — having learned that the transit was going to be visible from Buffalo — I could engage it directly, with equipment I’d had for years, and by knowing how to do it, again something that I’d had for years.

      Most of the world saw it on TV, if they saw it at all, and I don’t see the least thing wrong with that. I never felt superior in any way; what I felt was a deep satisfaction at being able to grab my old friend the theodolite and do it, relying on no one else. I think perhaps this contrasted with my inability to put the marriage right, which was never something that I (or, really, anyone) could do by myself.

      There was a great feeling of freedom in the air that day, and as you say, it felt like a beginning rather than an end.

  12. Mary Richert says:

    Don, there you go breaking my heart again. I want to see the next transit, and I wonder if I will get to. I can’t quite explain all the reasons this piece resonates for me, but I’m so glad you wrote it.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      It looks as though everywhere in North America the 2012 transit will be in progress at sunset. So you have a chance to see part of it.

      If my piece had a strong effect on you, then I’m glad too.

  13. angela says:

    i agree with greg that this reads much more like a short story, which i love! i even checked the category to see if it was fiction.

    love the juxtaposition of venus moving and your leaving. such a big change but told quietly, which only emphasizes the “bigness.”

  14. Don Mitchell says:

    Thanks, Angela. Well, CNF does have that creative component, which – for me anyway — involves trying to see the story lurking in the messiness of what happened somewhere, sometime. I can’t speak for anybody else in the CNF community, but that’s what I do: find what might be a good thread, extract it, shape it, decide whether what I’ve ignored or added done does violence to what really happened (or seemed to me to have happened), and if not, keep writing it.

    Once I asked a poet friend of mine (a guy with a lifetime of well-received work) if he could generalize about how he wrote. His answer went something like this:

    I become aware of something.
    I ask, Is there a poem here?
    I ask, What is that poem?
    I ask, Can I write that poem?

    That’s pretty much what I try to do.

  15. Jordan Ancel says:

    This is absolutely fascinating, Don. I know nothing of Astronomy or how to measure the movement of anything with an instrument of any kind. I can’t even get my GPS to work 😉

    What really struck me, aside from learning something new (thank you), was your thought about why you wanted to share the experience with your soon-to-be-ex:

    Maybe setting up something to use as a defense when things get rough, as they’re going to?

    Being divorced, I relate to this all-too-well.

    Nicely woven through, especially he (as expected) reaction.

  16. Don Mitchell says:

    Thanks, Jordan. There’s a certain commonality among the community-of-the-divorced, isn’t there?

    I liked your piece, by the way, and created a comment but failed to post it properly, but it came back to me via email as a response to a comment I’d never made. Maybe it was acting like your GPS.

    Fortunately it was still in my mail client’s trash:

    “Yeah, Jordan. Welcome, and I think you’ll like it here as a poster. Other comments have made most of the points I’d make, but I’ll say I’m with you on the unique thing, most of all — that uniqueness needs fostering. Too right!”

  17. kristen says:

    Ah, Don, such beauty. Bits like this are just so packed: “I’ll catch it on TV tonight, they probably have a better whatever than this one.” Also love your discovery of “a clear sightline,” and that last paragraph, as others have noted, is a stunner.

    Glad you transcended that particular relationship.

  18. Don Mitchell says:

    That’s nice to hear, Kristen.

    I do like the “better whatever” phrase myself.

    And “transcended” is just the right word. I did get a truly wonderful stepson out of it, though.

  19. […] not: thermonuclear explosions, tsunami waves (albeit only once), women working molten metal, the transit of Venus, and founding fathers whose faces grace currency butchering […]

  20. […] MITCHELL catches the transit of Venus (his then-wife does […]

  21. Irene Zion says:

    Don,
    I love how you write.
    Sad and funny and informative.
    Not easy, that.

  22. […] At the other end of the telescope is DON MITCHELL. […]

  23. Don Mitchell says:

    It’s almost time for the other Transit of Venus. Of course you read all about the first one of this century, didn’t you?

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