Lately I’ve been obsessed with the sky photography of experimental geographer and scholar of classified satellites, Trevor Paglen. Paglen documents stealth military installations, a dark world of covert domes and fortified fences he shoots from great distances, often with cameras meant for astronomy. He does gorgeous work and is clearly smart as hell.
If Don DeLillo and Bruce Nauman decided to hook up and have, somehow, a biological child, well, that spawn would be Paglen.
The deliberate, slow passage of a satellite is one of my favorite things to see here in So Cal, out in the desert, where the Milky Way doesn’t hide and the zodiacal light — a cone in the sky — shows itself if you know where to look.
According to San Diego astronomer Dennis Mammana, who showed me the zodiacal cone on the night of my 45th birthday, on a dry lake bed with a group of night-sky-shooting and wildflower-craving and fannypack-schlepping desert adventure tourists, zodiacal light “is produced when sunlight is scattered from dust particles spread along the plane of our solar system.” It ascends from the western horizon, this cone of faint light blue.
That night I did a bunch of things. I peppered Dennis with many annoying questions. Why was the Aurora Borealis visible in the Hudson Valley for three whole weeks in July 1982? Have you ever seen a UFO, Dennis? And what about my good old friend, Comet Hyakutake? Will it return, and if not, why? Let’s talk about when the moon gets really big. I drove the poor guy nuts. And with my night blindness, I slammed into his big-ass telescope, kept walking into lenses.
After leaving Dennis to his celestial ministrations, I joined the desert yentas around a campfire. Requested “Leaving On a Jet Plane” and was obliged. It was great. That is one song I love to sing, and I ruin it each time.
So there was “Jet Plane” and “Yellow Submarine,” which I did not sing, and some James Taylor which I butchered as handily as the John Denver. A great 45th birthday night.
When it was too cold to trudge from telescope to campfire, I stumbled to the cot I’d dragged to the middle of a field. No tent sharing for me, no way. There was a cot, a sleeping bag, the ski jacket I slept in, my glasses on (and fogging) as I watched the satellites pass overhead.
Because, sans Aurora and comets and particularly colorful and brilliant meteors, satellites are my favorite thing to watch.
My favorite Lou Reed song is “Satellite of Love.”
And on my 45th birthday, in my army cot (see below), I thought of “Satellite of Love.” And whenever I think of “Satellite of Love,” I think of December 7, 1984, when I played that song 20 times in a row in the middle of the night, in my Oberlin dorm room. My uncle died that night and I hadn’t realized it. The next day I’d write a paper about Emily Dickinson’s “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House / As lately as today.” In that paper I would mention the shiva observance I would miss, still at school and not slicing bagels with the mourners. My grandmother, when she called me, quipped, “Annie, we got a shocker.”
I hung up the phone, played “Satellite of Love” some more.
I listened to a lot of Lou Reed back then. I still do. The media may be different, no more cassettes, no more boom box. But it’s the same Lou, and a lot of him too. And more. His “Candy Says” with Antony? I would not have appreciated Antony Hegarty, at 18 in my dorm room.
I didn’t appreciate many things at 18, in my dorm room or anywhere else.
But “Satellite of Love,” I craved.
When I think of outer space, I think of oblivion, and I get terrified. When I think death, more oblivion, more terror for me. Yet I cannot get enough of satellites, of photographs showing the etched arcs of star trails in the sky.