All my life, I’ve thought of northward on a map as ‘Up,’ southward as ‘Down,’ and eastward or westward as ‘Over.’ Living in New England, we would drive ‘up’ to Canada for a summer vacation or ‘down’ to Florida for a mid-winter warmup, or ‘over’ to New York State to visit my uncle and his family. I would look ‘down’ at my feet to see if my sneakers were tied or ‘up’ into the night sky to marvel at the familiar constellation Orion. Everybody else I knew seemed to observe the same orientations.
Then a few years ago I went way ‘down’ to Chile in the Southern Hemisphere to view the night sky from a barren mountaintop high in the Atacama Desert, where it has not rained in decades and the atmosphere is not only free of moisture but also free of both air and light pollution. Severe clear.
The night sky was spellbinding in its majesty. Impossible to adequately describe. Venus was casting my shadow onto the ground, I could see the Andromeda galaxy with my naked eyes, and the legendary Pleiades, those ancient beautiful seven sisters, were dazzling and nested in a bed of diamond-like lesser stars I’d never even known were there.
But the constellation Orion was upside-down. A few other constellations that I’d been able to see from the Northern Hemisphere and that I could still see from the Southern Hemisphere were also upside-down. What? I had to make a sketch on a pocket pad to figure out why. For the first time I realized there really is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ or ‘over.’ Those are all merely arbitrary concepts. Weightless astronauts learn this lesson quickly on arrival at the International Space Station. At any distance from our home planet, there is no longer any ‘up’ or ‘down.’ Even on the surface of our planet, if I look ‘down’ at my sneakers and then wait twelve hours, or half an earth revolution, I’m actually positioned on my head from where I was twelve hours earlier, looking ‘up’ at my sneakers.
It was a disconcerting lesson in orientational prejudice. The good people in Chile have every right to say they’ll go ‘up’ to Antarctica for penguin-watching or ‘down’ to Maine for photographing moose if they wish, and I have no right to fault them for it.