Way-Seeking Mind

Ode to the Radio Telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Before its Collapse

By Mary Dingee Fillmore

YOU LISTEN ALL THE TIME to the whispers of faraway stars’ radio signals. They barely flutter, but you’re more sensitive than any other telescope in the world. You’re a nineteen-acre bowl made of almost 40,000 aluminum rectangles, with huge instruments suspended over it. Your dish is a thousand feet across. As the twirling earth sweeps you past different parts of the sky, you capture the stars’ softest signals, all day and all night. You are made of aluminum and steel and concrete. I go underneath you to see how, like a subtly shaped wing, each porous rectangle is delicately curved, in both its one-meter width and its two-meter length.

A star is rising over you right now, or more likely a million stars. All around you are high limestone hills, one right against the next like scoops of ice cream, packed tight around the edge of the deep bowl. Atop three hills are towers, the tallest 365 feet high, to support cables which suspend an immense triangle over your bowl. One side turns gold in the dawn, another glows pink at sunset. At night, the towers’ red lights throb at the rate of my pulse. From the porch at the Visitors’ Quarters, I can’t see your cables; everything floats the way a seagull hovers, serene over the hills. I remind myself that you are made of aluminum and steel and concrete. Who else listens to the stars? The cables hold up almost a thousand tons: the triangle, a long parenthesis, and the instruments hanging from it—a one-hundred-foot antenna and a multi-sided Gregorian dome, which catch the signals. They are poised 450 feet above your bowl’s curve.

Even in banal daylight, you are still listening. I go out for groceries and errands and rush back to see you again. I spot you from miles away – first the towers’ tips, then a top slice of triangle over the doll-like hills, the small cows. Your instruments are pointed at the exact spot where a particular star’s signals will fall, then be reflected up, gathered and relayed to the control room. Locating that precise place is like standing on the moon and pointing at a single grain in the Sahara. A laser measures a corner spot on each rectangle, to keep your bowl a semi-sphere within three millimeters of accuracy. Even after you find one star’s signal, your instruments must shift to follow it, because the earth’s position is constantly changing. Then astronomers spend decades decoding the infinitesimal quivers. You listen all the time, even now as someone’s reading this. You listen on my birthday, on holidays, at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

A few hours before dawn, I go out to watch the visible stars. The full moon silvers all of you: the triangle and instruments above the shining bowl. Your dome cracks the moonlight and each triangular facet shows separately, some brilliant, some shrouded. You were built to study the upper atmosphere, but now you listen to signals from eons beyond it, and sometimes send signals and wait for them to bounce back from other planets. Your dome creaks to the end of the parenthesis, pointing toward the signals of a rising star. The softest fog is filling the bottom of your bowl. When the sun finally rises, it touches the towers first, turns their dove grey into cherry-blossom pink. I can never understand how big you are. And I keep forgetting you are made of aluminum and steel and concrete. Before bed, I watch your calm immensity, and wake to sunrise along your shining lines. I check on you like a mother, watching your positions, how you’ve changed with the light. I want to know you’re still there, still working, that someone on this fragile planet is still listening to the stars.

Mary Dingee Fillmore

Mary Dingee Fillmore’s essay, “The World’s Telescope Was Puerto Rico’s,” was featured in About Place, and her poetry appeared in Atlanta Review, Diner, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere.  Based on her Kirkus Indie Book of the Month, An Address in Amsterdam, Mary speaks widely about resistance then (1940-45) and now. She’s at http://maryfillmore.com, and on Facebook.

5 thoughts on “Ode to the Radio Telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Before its Collapse”

  1. Mary, Listening, listening when we are busy, listening when we are joyful or far far away. You’ve entranced me into a new stance towards listening.
    Yesterday I found a line I’d posted on blue construction paper on my bulletin board in high school, “What things are we to watch in silence?” While the activist 17 year old most likely saw this as a provocative statement to wake, I look at it now 52 years later as a reminder of the deliciousness of watching in silence.

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