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Been Thinkin' About...The unknowing sky

It is dusk on the hill, this long, undulating, grassy Ozark ridge (and former cow pasture) I now call home. The blinking red light on the water tower becomes visible. The hot air cools just slightly. Early moisture forms on tall orchard grass. Beneath the grass, copperheads begin to hunt, stirring shivers in the unknown.

Already, it is too late to let the dogs go running. Puppies have no idea of the dangers of venom, or fang, or sudden, instant strike. Above, twilight replaces blue sky and cheerful white cloud. Above, now are stars. Above, now is the unknown.

The comforting, disquieting voice of Art Bell's "Coast to Coast AM" still echoes in my head. My buddy Rob told me about Art Bell some 20 years ago, the show hearkening to the golden age of tin foil hat conspiracy. I miss the 1990s, back when the X-Files' hints of UFO declassification seemed simple, even fun. Art Bell has since passed, but it is not uncommon for me to fall asleep listening to his old broadcasts. I was young back then, young and green and curious of the unknown world.

"Broadcasting from the high desert," Art would say and, in a weird way, the desert is not far away. Ozark glades are microcosm deserts, all prickly pear cactus and scrub cedar and tarantulas. The roads of which we are all too familiar — Highway 13 and Interstate 44 — were once trade routes for ancient desert peoples who also looked to the stars and built their ceremonial pyramids by the alignments of Venus and the Pleiades.

These Ozarks have long acted a bulwark against the anxieties of the atomic age, but bulwarks only go so far. Silver Dollar City, Shepherd of the Hills, Mutton Hollow, The Beverly Hillbillies, all channeled fans looking to touch earth, to remind themselves or lose themselves in a world in which death didn't come from the sky. The Ozarks became the antithesis of a secular apocalypse. Here, we had homespun values, moonshine and countless rural churches lifting hymns to the heavens.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Cold War and the high strangeness of space were always closer than we wanted it to be, here in the grassy and forested hills. Air force bases, nuclear silos, weapons of defense, weapons of war, stealth bombers arcing across the blue from a base near Sedalia — Sedalia, home of the state fair and fancy hamburgers — to strike targets in the Middle East. Worlds constantly colliding.

And lights continue to dance in the sky, origin unknown. Hundreds reported strange craft above the rugged mountains near Piedmont, Missouri, in 1973. Spaceships, it seems, hovered over the mountains, followed or trailed cars, one even glowed red and emerged from Clearwater Lake. Missouri's UFOs have taken on a weird life of their own, having been featured in multiple reality TV shows. The general assembly in Jefferson City designated Piedmont and Wayne County as the "UFO Capitols of Missouri." It doesn't take long before trite consciousness trails over to Bigfoot, the Wendigo, the Ozark Howler, ley lines, fault lines and giants. Perhaps most disturbing are the stories of cattle mutilations in northwest Arkansas from the late '70s, cattle mutilations that left no blood or offal.

Darkness has fallen. The stars are bright. Spica, Antares, Vega, Lyra, Arcturus.

Despite our age of information, our instant connectedness, the unknown has only magnified. Science fell prey to propaganda and oligarchy, as is only fitting for late-stage empire. Easy access to technology — some say, reverse engineered alien technology — has not made us smarter or kinder or more thoughtful. Distracted, unthinking, obsessed with gratification, our civilization has not progressed upward to the stars with the cheerful inexorability suggested by NASA in the '80s or the Field Museum in Chicago, which opened in 1894. No, after 130 years of dominance by "progress," our technology shows just how little we have progressed. Truth is, human beings haven't changed for aeons and no touch screen will change that.

But tonight, I stand beneath a cascade of stars, reminded that answers are not in somehow progressing from "primitive to advanced," but instead progressing to humility, to a reminder of our humanity beneath the unknown. Together, in the night, in the lonely of the dark, as we huddle near our tiny lights, the campfires of hearth and soul lighting our own earthbound stars, and go deep into our own inner dark, may we emerge for the better, kinder and more united beneath the vast, unknowing sky.


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