Kage Baker loved the Griffith park Observatory. So did I, and still do.
Kage was always fascinated with its classical beauty and weird exhibits, and the mere fact that it is there in the first place. One doesn’t readily consider the Los Angeles Basin when one thinks of celestial observation. Mount Wilson, now, so remote in the California mountains that the road washes out every rainy season; or Arecibo in its jungle valley with parrots flying through the very eyesocket of the telescope … those, yes. But not the Griffith Park domes, silhoetted against the sea of lights that stretches below it, West to the Pacific.
I suspect most Angelenos don’t think about it much, even though it’s perched up there on the hills of Griffith Park. You can see it from as far away as downtown, Century City and the Baldwin Hills, gleaming like a pearl. The fact that there is a world-class observatory in Los Angeles doesn’t seem to surprise any of the natives … but it’s astonishing, really. Does anyone wonder what it can see? Does anyone wonder that it can see at all? To anyone who notices it, it’s a commonplace miracle.
Growing up as we did on the edges of Griffith Park, the Observatory was a fixture of life. Hell, you could see it from the front yard! I’m in a different front yard now, but it’s the same neighborhood and I can look up to that temple on the hilltops every day.
Saturday I spent several happy hours exploring it after an absence of 16 years, and it was as beautiful as ever. It’s just completed a major renovation, to celebrate it’s 75th anniversary and unlikely survival in this light-soaked wilderness. The old halls are tidied, the Focault Pendulum and Tesla Coil and Camera Obscura still where they always were; the seats are more comfortable in the theatre, but the new Zeiss Projector still rises like a giant mechanical ant from the floor there. Under the whole thing, though, an entire new floor has been excavated, and new wonders wait down there like the caves of Lascaux.
The stone walls are now immaculate and white, and the bronzed roofs of the telescope domes have been cleaned and stabilized. All the corrosion and verdigris is gone, and they are expected to stay bronze-coloured now for decades.
I rather regret that last bit.
When we were small, the domes were a glowing sea-green above ivory walls, and the Observatory looked even more lovely and exotic than it is. It looked like a sea-king’s palace, the last bastion of Lemuria still watching over the remains of vast cities sunken beneath the western waves. When we were 14 and 15, we decided it looked like Minas Tirith; and if you are looking up through the golden afternoon haze and ranks of oaks on the hillsides, it does.
When I was very small, they kept a meteorite in one of the side halls – in those more innocent days, just sitting there on a plinth. You could climb on it (I don’t know if it was actually allowed, but you could do it) and, being small girls, we did. I got a sneaker stuck in one of the holes in it once, and had to leap down barefooted and wiggle it out before a guard noticed.
This time, I touched a piece of Mars. It wasn’t there when I was a kid – it’s a shard of one of the Martian meteorites we have found in the last few years. It’s a tiny bit of ruddy stone,like a chip off a terra-cotta tile: but it’s not a tile, and it is most certainly not terra anything.
It’s Mars. In the hills above Los Angeles, in that temple of sea kings and childhood dreams: Mars.
Tomorrow: running loose in Griffith Park