As I write this, the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory is in danger of being overtaken by fire. The “Station fire” has been burning for more than a week in southern California and it’s been an exceptionally terrible fire, consuming houses, leading to the death of firefighters, and turning the afternoon light a very wrong color of orange.
Through all this, the Mt. Wilson Observatory has been a focus, partly because, until yesterday, it had a webcam that updated every 2 minutes, giving you a kind of real time stop-motion animation of the fire. But while most people have been talking about the communication towers that are at risk on the mountain and what a fire might mean to television stations, radios, and cell phones, my mind keeps going back to a strange little exhibit I saw at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Now for those of you who have never been there, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is one of the weirdest place perhaps anywhere. Squeezed in between a run-down rug store and an office building is the museum’s ornately gated doorway with a little fountain decorating the wall. When you step inside, the line between reality and fantasy instantly blurs. Most of the museum has a slightly turn-of-the-century, occultish feel to it. The exhibits, while factual in nature, are designed in a way that make you question the meaning and realness behind them.
For example, one exhibit chronicles, in detail, the life of two people who never met but who, at a one pivotal moment in their lives, were at the same place at the same time. An operatic concert performed at the Igassu Falls in Argentina.
Another exhibit shows micromosaics by Henry Dalton, created entirely out of butterfly scales, which you can only view using a microscope.
But the exhibit I’m thinking of is in a small, closet-like room. Its walls are covered with letters sent to the Mt. Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1935. They are strange rambling notes from different people, all who had discovered the secrets of the universe and felt compelled to share them with the scientists at the observatory.
It sounds crazy, but there’s a conviction, and often a poetry, to the letters that makes them cling to your mind. For example, in one letter, a man, Edward, writes, “Etholeum – The base of all existance – it is One with Electricity and There is no place where It does not exist. It is the conduit of The Light between all of the planets and thru the telephone and the radio and without it There would be no Earth Because there would be No sound. to be transferred between”
In another letter, Mrs. Alice May Williams urgently writes, “I want to tell you I am not after money & I am not a fraud. I believe I have some knowledge which you gentlemen should have. If I die my knowledge may die with me, & no one may ever have the same knowledge again.”
The writer in me wants to know what this woman knew, who she was.
Did she hold some secret that is now gone forever? Is the world a lesser place without it? A lump of a sadness forms inside me for the possibilities that have been lost.
As the fire rages here in the hills outside of Los Angeles, consuming buildings and lives, that sadness becomes a tangible pall over the city. Ash drifts down on us and an amber moon holds vigil. Homes and forests and people are gone that should not be gone. And no one may ever have the same knowledge again.