Writing The Night Sky
I began The Night Sky in 1979 and finished it in 2014, but that is misleading because it was published twice in between (in 1981 and 1988) and then I did not work on it after editing the 1988 edition until 2012. Yet it is an authentic thirty-five-year project, for it took all of my experience and reconsideration of concepts and themes during that time to paint a full scenic and structural landscape of earth and sky, night and day. The proposition as I initially conceived it was so large, multi-tiered, and implicitly complex that it generated multiple versions, iterations, and overlays of my first take (as well as thinking through correlative topics in a number of other books), to get to, by my standards anyway, a satisfactory rendition.
When I began writing The Night Sky in the late seventies, it was a one-off project, an “astronomy” commission from Sierra Club books. By the time I began the third edition in 2012, the text was lodged inside a larger book cycle encompassing four major topics and several subtopics. The majors were medicine, cosmology, embryology, and consciousness. Subtopics included alchemy, manual medicine, dreams, synchronicity, shamanism, ecology, and others too numerous to itemize.
Initially my 1979 proposal for The Night Sky was a job application. From age twenty-five to thirty-two, I had earned a living by teaching college in Maine and Vermont. From age thirty-two to thirty-four, after having bailed from a dysfunctionally countercultural school called Goddard and moved to Berkeley, California, I earned a livelihood mostly by writing books for mainstream commercial publishers. North Atlantic Books, my ultimate profession, was still a decade shy of being hefty enough to pay me a salary; it was in its long incubation.
During that occupational diaspora I wrote Planet Medicine: From Stone-Age Shamanism to Post-Industrial Healing first, for Doubleday Anchor. That book came straight out of my recent, unfinished graduate work in anthropology, particularly my study of ethnomedicine, shamanism, and ethnobotany. When departmental politics in the University of Michigan anthropology graduate program prevented me from writing a thesis in my chosen subfield, I changed to more compatible professors in ecological anthropology and got my PhD by researching a totally different cultural layer: fishermen in Downeast Maine.
Two years after completing my PhD defense, I still had the unexecuted thesis-scale ethnomedicine project in my head (and heart), and I was able to convince Doubleday to fund me to write a more popular, literary version for them. Planet Medicine went through one print run in the Anchor line and then was let go. I revised it for Shambhala Publications in the eighties (a few years after I had written the first version of The Night Sky). The “healing” book went through an additional print run with Shambhala and, after they reverted the rights to me, I initiated two print runs of their edition with North Atlantic Books, my rapidly growing imprint, before significantly enlarging the text and releasing it in three separate volumes across a period from the early nineties into early aughts. Those were Planet Medicine: Origins; Planet Medicine: Modalities; and Homeopathy: An Introduction for Beginners and Skeptics. I later revised the homeopathy book again, renaming it Homeopathy: The Great Riddle.
After the publication of the first edition of Planet Medicine, I was looking for another commission, and astronomy/cosmology was the next topic that came to mind. As a teenager I had been a science-fiction buff and in 1979 still read a fair amount. In the early seventies, I had attempted (without evident aplomb) to write a science-fiction novel based on the Hopi creation myth in the style of C. S. Lewis. Some of that is recorded in an old book of mine called Mars: A Science Fiction Vision. Then in the later seventies, when I needed a new income source, a number of friends and family recommended that I write science fiction, but fiction was never in my skill set. Instead I went for the idea of science fiction qua cosmology—a sequel to Planet Medicine: literary, expository prose. Sierra Club was interested enough to fund me.
I keyed off a hidden link between ethnoastronomy and ethnobotany: the ideological pathology created by the Big Bang universe and its sponsoring cultures vis a vis the healing power of shamanic medicine. This was virtually unexplored in either academia or pop culture, though it underlay indigenous and (later) ontological critiques of science. Part of the issue was the obscurity of imaginal and occult astronomy in the context of an insufficient understanding of the relationship between chemico-physical and shamanic universes. Though ethnobotany and, by extension, ethnomedicine, had earned a huge academic literature (in part because pharamaceutical companies were raiding native dispensaries), ethnoastronomy had virtually none. Of course, that made perfect prima facie sense insofar as healing has been an integral part of daily human life from the Stone Age, whereas astronomy has always been a more esoteric and optional undertaking, confined to forerunners of astrology and Aristotelian physics. Ethnoastronomy was primarily etiology (origin myths) and calendrics (time-keeping).
My book proposal, in the form ultimately accepted and refined by Sierra Club Books in San Francisco, was for a new modern interior and exterior astronomy, a cross-cultural book on the heavens that included ethnoastronomy in the anthropological sense but also history of Western astronomy, astrology, astral domains, science-fiction, flying saucers, star myths, stars in pop culture, dreams of stars, etc. It was to be sort of a “Whole Earth Catalogue” of the nocturnal sky. Though the book didn’t have an official subtitle, the so-called tag line that Sierra Club and I later agreed upon expressed our general intent: “The Science and Anthropology of the Stars and Planets.”
In writing Planet Medicine, I had drawn on (1) my personal experience with psychoanalysis (as a Western mode of shamanic transference), (2) my homeopathic training, (3) my practice of t’ai chi ch’uan, and (4) my later hands-on education in bodywork and palpation. In writing The Night Sky, I was more of an outlier star poet as well as a bibliographer and ethnographer of the nocturnal firmament. I wasn’t a practitioner: my initiation and main sources were not experiential but other books. I mention that here in order to distinguish the 1981 Sierra Club edition from the 2014 North Atlantic edition of The Night Sky: the latter is fully experiential.
For my first shot at The Night Sky for Sierra Club I drew on a handful of books and articles not usually considered together: Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time; Rodney Collin, The Theory of Celestial Influence; Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe; Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked and From Honey to Ashes; C. S. Lewis, Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet; Frank Herbert, The Dune Cycle; Barbara C. Sproul, Primal Myths: Creating the World; Edward H. Schafer, Pacing the Void: T’ang Approaches to the Stars; Walter H. Sampson, The Zodiac: A Life Epitome; Wilhelm Reich, Ether, God and Devil—Cosmic Superimposition; Tarthang Tulku, Time, Space, and Knowledge; Ralph N. Buckstaff, “Stars and Constellations of a Pawnee Sky Map” and Alice C. Fletcher, “Star Cult among the Pawnee: A Preliminary Report.” Of course, I had myriad other sources, but this gives you a sense of the some key ones and my general range.
My goal was to evoke a sense of the shifting cultural and historical contexts in which the night sky had been viewed and to explore the underlying meaning and etiological basis of any space-time backdrop, any ontological-cosmological field. I had a relatively short time in which to execute it—Sierra Club wanted an eighteen-month turnaround for a 1981 publication date. I rushed through a sprawling text, grabbing documents and composing narratives and fugues somewhat willy-nilly, ultimately fusing them in a giant idiosyncratic “night sky” prose field. Editors hired by Sierra Club helped mold it, but it remained amorphous and episodic like a ballad with verses.
Reviewers for the most part had no idea how to deal with it. Those who read it in a New Age context praised it lavishly but facilely. Those who read it in a scientific context panned it. In the Sunday New York Times Timothy Ferris accused me of trying (unsuccessfully) to merge astronomy and astrology, something I was expressly not trying to do. I was trying to measure their actual distance from each other on a human canvass broad and fractally discrete enough to contain both. He also claimed that I said that Christ came from outer space, a perversely contrary misreading of the thing that I was actually saying about the entanglement and superposition of “exterior” and “interior” space. One Seattle newspaper selected The Night Sky as the worst book of the year.
Both the Sierra Club edition and its German translation had gone out of print by 1987 when Jeremy Tarcher offered to sponsor a revised edition in paperback under his imprint (the Sierra Club edition was hardcover only). Since Jeremy wanted to use the Sierra Club film for the text, my revision was limited to a few select chapters and a new introduction. However, I was able to move chapters around and organize the flow better, for it turned out to be technically possible to repaginate film. Still it was the same basic book.
After finishing The Night Sky the first time in 1981, I went looking for another spinoff of the same gig. By then it had dawned on me that I was in the middle of a natural cycle, a trilogy, and that a biology book would be the appropriate entry to close the loop. Life was the singlemost link, in these parts anyway (but probably anywhere in the cosmos) between stars and medicines. This insight led to my sending out a proposal for what was to become Embryogenesis. Avon, a mass-market publisher, paid me more than twice my combined advances for Planet Medicine and The Night Sky to write it for them, an unexpected stroke of good fortune given how much more obscure the topic was.
I wrote the first edition of Embryogenesis under the subtitle From Cosmos to Creature, a nod to the three-book cycle. But Avon had a wholesale change in the editorial department and never published the book, despite editing, designing, and advance-selling it. Instead I bought the film from them and released it with a less glitzy cover under North Atlantic Books in 1986. When the original edition went out of print a decade later, I rewrote, enlarged, and republished it in 2000 under the subtitle Species, Gender, and Identity, incorporating many corrections and emendations I had gotten from epigenetic biologists who had read it.
Then I wrote a sequel (2000-2003) tying my embryology theme directly to The Night Sky. That book, under North Atlantic from the get-go, was called Embryos, Galaxies, and Sentient Beings: How the Universe Makes Life. It is fundamental to understanding the new Night Sky.
The star-cell link is well stated by a sentence in Embryogenesis that I drafted into the 2014 Night Sky:
“Evolution has taken something as big and complex as the universe—in fact has taken the universe itself, its collective hieroglyph—and, over billions of years, stuffed it … into something as tiny as the nucleus of a cell.”
A fresh sentence in the revised The Night Sky extends its field:
“That is why a tiny button you could hold in your palm (if you were there) could explode or implode into the whole cosmos, and then that cosmos could go about laying turtle and penguin eggs, molecules and atoms, each of which contains the entire premise wrapped around and inside itself at every tensor and seam.”
The main difference between the original 1981 edition of The Night Sky and the current 2014 one is that, during the years in between, I earned a deeper experiential sense of the relationship between internal and external space and then applied that, both consciously and from unconscious psychic integration, to a deeper understanding of astronomy, ethnoastronomy, astrology, and other psychic and shamanic forms of star integration. During my psychospiritual quest of more than three decades, I did Jungian dreamwork and depth psychoanalysis. I trained in craniosacral therapy, Breema, visceral manipulation, and other somatic systems. I developed my t’ai chi ch’uan set and extended my Taoist practice into hsing-i and chi gung. I did a year of meditation at Empty Gate, the Korean zen center in Berkeley, getting a first-hand experience of empty spaciousness essential to any hermeneutics or archaeology of the sky. I took courses at the Berkeley Psychic Institute and then continued my psychic study with John Friedlander, an early graduate of the institute who, later, became a student of Seth via Jane Roberts. I also added a fourth topic to the cycle: consciousness. My three-volume work Dark Pool of Light: Reality and Consciousness was published in 2014.
You might wonder how trainings in energy and meditations on inner space can deepen one’s sense of the night sky or, more cynically, you might suggest, as many of the reviewers of the first edition of The Night Sky did, that I was imposing a delusional New Age construct on a legitimate scientific rubric. Obviously I view the matter differently; I am interested in what astrophysicists and other scientists have to say about Creation, the cosmos, and our naked emergence in it, and I have extended my discussion of that front in the revised Night Sky to include dark matter, dark energy, string theory, amplituhedra, rainbow universes, multiverses, etc.; but I believe that the real action in space-time is occurring inside our consciousnesses and that we are expanding to encompass a universe operating on multiple simultaneous frequencies and planes, not all of them available to human beings in their present cognitive and cultural state.
The real or meta night sky, including our remote and unconscious awareness of various transdimensional and hyperspatial vistas within the greater multiverse, has far more ballast and poignancy than the quite formidable starry firmament.
The universes of the Pawnee shaman, Egyptian priest, and Australian Aborigine dream-timer open up to encompass frequencies of All That Is far more profoundly than the expensive cosmoses arising from the Hubble telescope and CERN Large Hadron Supercollider do. The vast trans-galactic realms espied by astral travelers, urban shamans, and entheogenic explorers may not be identical to the NASA heavens, but the relationship between the two is not merely metaphorical and superficial: there is an actual thread and similitude, something I didn’t establish effectively enough in the first edition to discourage Ferriss’s misreading. The thread was what I was trying to run primitively through the first rendition and the narrative that scientific reviewers most misunderstood. It finally took 800 pages (the length of the new revised Night Sky, about twice that of the Sierra Club original), and thirty-five years of exploration, psychospiritual practice, and writing for me to establish that warp in a credible way.
What I have written is not so much an astronomy book as a cosmology, a starry opening to the unknown and unknowable ontology of All That Is. We can’t map the incomprehensible, but we can dowse its vibration through our being, for we are part of it and, when we scan and interpret the night sky, we are skirting its nearest material manifestation at the fullest expression of its innate abeyancy, its churnless latency.
Finally, in looking at the first printed copy and making my peace with the tinniness and ephemerality of the artifact as compared to the vastness of the vision and its space-time object, I realize that whoever dictated this book—and I am neither joking nor being falsely modest, believe me—is a lot smarter and has a much higher security clearance than me.