a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The Arecibo Observatory was humanity’s most sensitive ear tuned to the cosmos. Its vast dish caught faint, flickering signals from the stars, and reflected them up to the nine hundred tons of instruments suspended high overhead. As the signals were deciphered by scientists during the telescope’s fifty-seven year life, humans caught a whisper of the long imagined “music of the spheres.” The telescope’s home was rural Puerto Rico, and its people were both global and very local. All of them mourned on December 1, 2020, when the world’s most sensitive and second largest radio telescope collapsed.
Humanity lost part of our hearing that day.
Those most hurt by the collapse were the people who kept the Observatory going since 1963. The vast majority are Puerto Rican, and it isn’t just a question of their jobs and livelihoods. It’s a matter of pride, for them and everyone on their home island.
“It was more than a telescope to me,” Melissa-Cristina Marquez explained in #WhatAreciboMeansToMe on Twitter. “It was a beacon of hope that things and people made in Puerto Rico could thrive on the world stage. Arecibo showed me that we mattered. I am so so proud of this telescope and all it represents. My heart is broken.” She spoke for her millennial generation, and many others.
For the Observatory’s employees, the loss was intimate. Whether they were operating the telescope, or painting its massive instruments four hundred and fifty feet above the nineteen acre dish, or trimming the semi-tropical shrubs, they had a hand in the telescope’s accomplishments, including one Nobel Prize. The staff helped find out how the most accurate star clocks in the universe work. They helped map the paths of asteroids that might collide with this earth one day. They even helped send signals deep into outer space. No wonder they feel pride in what they have done, and want to resurrect the telescope, with help from the mainland and beyond.
Scientists around the world who are the telescope’s faraway workers felt heartbroken in their own way. For my astronomer partner Joanna Rankin, observing at Arecibo was a privilege and a dream come true for more than fifty years. The child of a stargazing public utility worker and a store clerk, she said “Arecibo made me a scientist, and not just the telescope. It was the people, the culture and the place.” An island of resilient people, mixed from the supposedly extinct Taino, the free and enslaved Africans, the colonial Europeans. A territory of the U.S. government which owns the Observatory. A place of small alert lizards, of loud-mouthed coqui frogs and endless birds among the glossy-leaved trees.
What hope can the Observatory’s people, near and far, have for a new telescope rather than another searing loss to Puerto Rico? Resurrecting Arecibo would be a step in the direction of justice for this beleaguered island.
The telescope’s story is of a piece with so much that has happened to Puerto Rico’s land and people. It’s a rich island made poor by the attempted genocide of the Indigenous people, by the plantation economy run by enslaved and forced labor, and by modern industrialization, all for the profit of owners from elsewhere. Puerto Rico has suffered from draconian natural disasters, especially in the last few years. All these factors color this exploration of why the Observatory was sited in Puerto Rico, of the place and its people present and past, and a vast, collective hope for the telescope’s future.
One interpretation is that the U.S. government roared onto the telescope site in 1960, tore up the landscape, and imposed massive structures that interfered with many living things that used to flourish there. Was the Observatory just one more thoughtless desecration of wilderness, one more colonial grab at the resources of this extraordinary land? One more exploitation of its gifted and robbed people? In some ways, yes, but other cycles are at work there, too.
The Observatory’s plants and animals have accommodated the telescope. In the hollow beneath the dish, an ecosystem of ferns and their companions flourishes, verdant and lush. The “bare” places where hillsides were cut into sheer cliffs to accommodate structures are riddled with roots, sudden orange flowers, exuberant vines searching for soil. Lizards and birds are everywhere. Repair may not be complete, but it is ongoing.
The human beings of Puerto Rico date back at least a thousand years. One night when I was stargazing, their connection to the sky haunted me particularly. Imagine it: Joanna is enraptured in the control room, observing pulsars. To calculate where the star’s signals will land on the dish, she takes into account not just the earth’s rotation, but its revolution, and the slight wobble in its axis every 23,000 years. Her motivation is the same as the ancients’: to decipher the sky.
I ask to borrow the binoculars for my own simpler stargazing. The telescope operator Egardo Cruz immediately interrupts his work.
“I know the darkest place, but it’s too rough to walk up there. I’ll take you in the Jeep,” he offers. We lurch up to the helipad, whose pancake shape suddenly appears in the moonlight. It was created by chopping off one of the hilltops that surround the vast dish. The view of the southern sky opens, and I breathe in stars. Now, a dark sky is a privilege – and being on the Observatory grounds is even more so, especially for someone who isn’t a scientist or on the staff.
I lie down on the tarmac and look up. Beyond the telescope’s mechanical sounds, the night pulses with life – the coqui frogs’ two notes, the insects’ buzz, and the occasional bark. Rustling trees cover the surrounding hills, and the soft air carries the scents of soil, flowers, recent rain. This is the island as the Taino knew it, and I feel their presence. They are not extinct, despite the worst efforts to exterminate them, and they never were. The sky is spangled with rivers of the stars they revered.
They lay somewhere near here before I did, also marveling. By what names and stories did they know the stars we call the Pleiades, Scorpio and Orion, thought to be their most significant constellations? Their deities swirled across the sky. They would have seen so many more stars than I do, their eyes sharper, the sky darker and their motivation more urgent. Even in this beneficent climate, the stars still indicated when planting would best begin, and when hurricane season was over. They showed the Taino where to steer the one-hundred-person canoes which brought them here from Colombia.
After five centuries of colonialism culminating in being a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is still treated like a poor relation. Unfortunately, people from the mainland often see the island as merely a stereotypical beach destination. When Puerto Rico makes the U.S. news, it’s usually because of natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, or supposed fiscal irresponsibility – fostered by Wall Street bankers who pushed for more and more debt. Any visitor who looks closely isn’t surprised that the annual household income is less than a third of the U.S. overall average.
The U.S. exploitation of its territory is enough to make any conscientious American cringe. The U.S. military practiced bombing Vieques for years, including the use of Agent Orange. The drug industry flocked to the island for tax breaks, paid low wages and contaminated the local water and air. Many left when the breaks expired, and now there’s talk of luring them back so they can do the same thing again. Beaches are lined with high rise hotels whose profits go north, while local businesses often struggle. An independent restaurant outside the Observatory gates was abandoned even before the pandemic slump, a bedraggled eyesore with vines engulfing the concrete.
Both Washington and human-fueled climate change have been cruel to the island in the last years. Natural disasters have afflicted it on an operatic scale, most profoundly Hurricane Maria (2017) which killed almost 3,000 people and destroyed the electrical grid. The U.S. failure to provide adequate and immediate aid to its territory is a scandal comparable to Hurricane Katrina. Only a relative pittance was allocated, much of it not released until right before the 2020 Presidential election.
For all the damage around it, the telescope appeared to survive Hurricane Maria fairly well, given how bad it might have been. During those chaotic times when few had power and water, the Observatory’s people provided a lifeline to their neighbors thanks to the helipad. Many staff literally lived on site. Israel Cabrera told me, “We got food or whatever the helicopter dropped here, and took it in the Jeep to places where nobody could get out. If the road stopped, we walked in and brought people whatever we had.”
Puerto Rico received less aid than it should have partly because the island has no direct Congressional clout, only a non-voting Resident Commissioner in the House of Representatives, and no Senators. This has everything to do with the predicament of the island, and the telescope. In a 2020 referendum, more people voted for statehood than not. As a territory, Puerto Rico receives less than anyone might expect, and hosting one of the world’s great telescopes helped offset that situation.
When Joanna describes the marvels of the Observatory, people often ask, “Why did they build it in rural Puerto Rico?” First, the United States was paying, and could do whatever it pleased in its territory. Puerto Rico is far enough south to study planets well, and to receive stars’ signals from seventy-five percent of the sky north of the equator. The site had relatively little radio interference from garage door openers, TV stations and the like, which is vital because radio signals are indistinct and inconsistent. The clincher was the unusual topography of steep karst hills, packed tightly like scooped ice cream, and the accompanying sinkholes when they collapse into the caverns below. If you want to construct a dish a thousand feet in diameter, a pre-excavated hole surrounded by hills to protect it is a very good start. The tops of the encircling hills were ideal for building towers to hold up cables which could suspend instruments over the dish.
We don’t know if the Observatory site was occupied by the Taino people, but it does appear on the map as part of the Araisibo chief’s lands. A peaceful group, they lived quite comfortably on the land despite an invasion by the fiercer Caribe – until the Spaniards arrived on November 19, 1493. The Indigenous people numbered in the tens of thousands at that time. At first so generous that they led Columbus to their gold mines and gave the products away, the Indigenous people caught onto the newcomers’ greedy motivations, perhaps when women were captured and used for sex and reproduction. Each Indigenous rebellion was met with more mass executions, the first massacring six thousand people. Between bloodshed and smallpox, the received wisdom was that the Indigenous people were virtually extinct within fifty years of the Spanish invasion.
However, the karst hills are thought to have sheltered Indigenous rebels, perhaps on the Observatory site. Some people could have survived in such places. Today, more Puerto Rican people than ever are showing interest in Taino culture and identity. A 2003 study showed that sixty-one percent of Puerto Ricans had some Indigenous DNA, but only in the maternal line. In other words, the invaders killed off most of the men and bred with the women. The local people of the Observatory descend from all these and others.
While it may be speculation to place the Taino right on the site, a tobacco farm was definitely located right there, where the dish is now. The history of tobacco is entangled with the Africans’ history of the island. After more than a century of using them for forced labor, in 1664 Spain offered free land to free Africans from neighboring islands. However, once Spain permitted its subjects to engage in the slave trade in the Caribbean in 1789, Africans were forcibly transported to Puerto Rico. White migrants from other colonies brought enslaved people with them. The colonizers chose to cultivate export crops like cane rather than anything locally useful. Tobacco was among the crops the island grew using a classic plantation system, as well as sugar cane, coffee, and grains among others. The legacy of that system is felt in the hills near the Observatory grounds, which were used to grow sugar cane by the twentieth century, perhaps before. Somehow people cleared these densely vegetated, steep hills without modern pesticides or equipment, and created agricultural terraces.
Puerto Rico has suffered as only a captivating tropical island invaded early by rapacious powers can suffer. The plantations are gone, no one is enslaved, but the inheritance of these crimes is endless. For example, the island does not grow its own food commercially because so much cultivatable land was stripped of value by plantation agriculture, and because market economics are loaded. Practically all the food in grocery stores is imported from the U.S., and the tiny amount of local produce is often costlier than the imports.
Given their overall experience of the United States, no wonder the islanders were suspicious of the “Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory” as it was called at its 1963 inception. The Pentagon wanted to use it to spy on the Russians. However, over the years the Observatory became a source of pride. Puerto Ricans had physically built the award-winning structure without losing a single life in perilous conditions. They always made it what it was: well tended, warm and welcoming to everyone, as well as scientifically breathtaking. Streams of school children roared through and squealed with amazement when they saw the huge instruments suspended from the tall towers, over the colossal dish. And some kids returned to work there, the seed planted on that first visit. A few became scientists. When I chat with the staff, many tell me they never wanted to work anywhere else.
On site, Puerto Ricans were and are the majority of Observatory employees. Before the collapse, engineers constantly tinkered with the software and monitored the physical underpinnings. Telescope operators discovered the intricacies and limits of the instruments, and conferred with scientists to decide what was possible. People with screwdrivers and machetes and paintbrushes maintained the equipment, often working at dizzying heights above the dish. Guards welcomed staff and visitors and checked on equipment all through the night. Cleaners, cooks and landscapers helped make the Observatory sparkle hospitably. Some of those jobs are still being done, and more.
The staff at Arecibo has suffered bureaucratic hurricanes as well as meteorological ones, but their dedication has been invariable. Funding has waxed and waned, and management has ranged from the visionary to the blatantly inept. The staff has withstood layoffs, cutbacks, diminished benefits and worse. Despite it all, many local staff and others have stayed and kept the intricate bloodstream of the telescope flowing. It’s true that they have some of the best jobs on the island outside San Juan. But the staff’s loyalty and pride go well beyond these mundane considerations.
After some tough years, a 2018 management change had potential for the Observatory and its people. For the first time, the Director, Francisco Cordova, had Puerto Rican roots. The National Science Foundation prime contractor was the University of Central Florida, with a huge Hispanic population. That had to be good, despite some early concerns. Staff and other researchers at a 2019 Arecibo Futures Conference offered renewed enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
When Joanna and I returned to Arecibo in early 2020, we feared that the countryside would still be devastated two and a half years after Hurricane Maria. As we traveled on the rural roads lined with modest dwellings, a few houses had been boarded up and apparently abandoned. Sometimes only a concrete foundation remained, but most places were as well kept as ever. The paint was shining.
When we arrived at the Observatory, the grounds still showed some damage. Yes, the trees were hurt. None had escaped completely, and some had been cut down to the ground. Branches were bare or broken. Yet one tall tree bore a full crop of pale pink flowers with dark yellow throats, and the shimmering glossy-leaved mango tree still magnified the sunlight. Our local friends said that the bird counts were initially way down, but now recovering. The doves that had always fluttered and cooed on the ground were still at it. And the butterflies! A dusky orange one with brown markings fluttered by. How could they have survived and bred? Yet there they were, not in profusion but enough to weave a thread of hope for our desecrated planet – and for the people who had survived so much in this beautiful, irrepressible place. Even if they were “poor” in the eyes of some.
How had they managed? The day after we arrived, a smiling woman arrived bearing clean towels. We have known each other a long time. She was among those who worked through the weekend to make the casita habitable for us. They could easily have put us in the fancier facility outside the gates, but they know we love the simple casita atop a hill looking toward the telescope.
“We had to throw everything here away,” she said. “Furniture, everything.”
“And at home?” I asked.
“The same,” she says. “El mismo. It was bad.” I could only imagine what “bad” meant to her. (I am not using her name because she might not want this known.)
She continued, “You want some towels? I have plenty.”
No matter what we asked for, the Puerto Ricans of the Observatory always had plenty – coffee, knowledge about the telescope operations, sugar, insight into local life, or just the feeling that no matter where we’ve come from, we belong here. Even if our government is behaving abominably toward them, we are still the recipients of their boundless generosity, and it is instructive for northerners from the “richer” mainland to be in that position.
Somehow, the Puerto Rican people always rise. They rise ready to roast a pig for the whole neighborhood if they can afford it. They rise no matter what abuse they are subjected to, personal or institutional or natural. They’ll dig out after a hurricane, get their tools and a few cans of paint, throw out some stuff and fix the rest. They’ll even leave the island if that’s the only choice, but many will come back.
None of this means the Puerto Ricans are not hurt, or that anyone’s cruelty is justified because these people have evolved ways to recover. Like the land-bound creatures who evolved to escape their enemies by taking to the air, the Puerto Ricans rise. No matter what happens, they go on working at the Arecibo Observatory, in good times and bad. Whether the National Science Foundation is penny-pinching or being open-handed, whether management is offering benefits for their kids, or deciding to save money by contracting services out. Whether the telescope which was their pride is aloft and working, or now that it is on the ground.
When one of the eighteen cables holding the massive instruments above the dish snapped on August 10, 2020, nobody knew why, and a new one was ordered to replace it. However, a second unexplained break on November 6 was the beginning of the end. When Joanna contacted researchers, staff and others to keep a Zoom vigil for the telescope daily, thirty participants quickly became fifty, then one hundred.
Day after day, they told stories: what they had discovered at Arecibo about the stars and life and each other, who they had learned from, how they took the cable car up to the instruments high above the dish. Participants came from many states, from Puerto Rico and even farther afield. They discovered that they were a community, a part of the place. They felt called to bear witness, because they had had the exquisite privilege of working there. Joanna likened them to the reminiscing family of a beloved relative waiting outside the ICU when the doctors don’t know what to do.
Finally, the telescope collapsed, and a whole new sorrow swooped down on everyone. No matter how bad the situation had looked, it is terrible to move beyond hope. Every person on the planet lost something precious that day. The Puerto Ricans, who had already lost so much, felt the loss most deeply. The faraway researchers had their own grief.
The Zoom community brought people together to ponder the exact details of what fell in what order, and why. Perhaps there is not one cause but many, as with a person who appears healthy but drops dead of a heart attack. After a week of mourning, the community began to imagine a new telescope at Arecibo, with all the advantages of the place itself, and of the human beings who have loved and cared for the Observatory for so long.
Technology has evolved over these fifty-seven years. What if you didn’t have to suspend nine hundred tons of instruments above the dish any more? In only three weeks, a white paper was drafted and delivered to the National Science Foundation outlining a plan to bring the Observatory back to life. The new telescope would be able to listen to the stars even better, and do the many other things the old one did so well.
Where else but at Arecibo?
The site is more even than the river and the caverns beneath it, more than the eternally green karst hills and all who live on them, more than the magnificent instrument which was there, and more even than the stars which seem to turn over it.
Arecibo is also people and stories – of the land on the site and its ongoing recovery from hurricanes and construction. Of the guards’ children who got to go to Cornell in the early years because their dads worked for the University. Of a young woman who was asked by an airport baggage handler if she was here on vacation, who grinned and replied “No, I’m a scientist, and I’m going to the Arecibo Observatory for the first time!” Of a six year old boy who told his mother “I’m going to work there” after a school trip and became a telescope operator. Of a woman who thought she was going to be an engineer, but fell in love with pulsars and me instead. Of the writer who followed her to the Observatory. And there are so many more.
Telling those stories began the rebuilding of the Arecibo Observatory.
There are innumerable practical reasons why it can’t happen – lack of resources in every sense, political controversy, long-term underfunding by the U.S., the financial crises, the pandemic. It sounds impossible.
But Puerto Rico has already set aside eight million dollars to help rebuild the telescope, which is a fortune to them. The island has been strangled with debt, and bears the indignity of a U.S. presidentially appointed Fiscal Control Board. But Puerto Rico can’t let the Observatory go down with the telescope.
The stories tell us there is hope. The Arecibo Observatory site is a place where the land was ripped and limestone hills cleaved, now covered with living beings. A place where Hurricane Maria turned a useless helipad built for a president who never came into a lifeline. A place where committed people kept working no matter what. A place where the birds’ colors flash again, as well as their ebullient songs. This place of coqui frogs and limestone and hurricanes, of a joyous and warm human culture, a beleaguered place, is also a place intimate with the stars through human beings and our longings and expertise. That bond must not be broken. The stars are sending their signals, always, to every place on earth. At Arecibo, they await us.
Mary Dingee Fillmore writes and speaks about human rights and social justice issues. In 2020, her essay “Standing By in Minneapolis and Amsterdam” appeared in Tikkun after the George Floyd murder. She co-wrote “The Arecibo Observatory Is More Than Just a Telescope” for WIRED with her longtime partner, pulsar astronomer Joanna Rankin. Mary’s award-winning novel An Address in Amsterdam delves into the life of a young Jewish woman who joins the resistance. Mary speaks widely about what she learned in 13 years of researching the book: “Remember and Resist: Learning from the Dutch,” and “Anne Frank’s Neighbors: What Did They Do?” Her poetry has been published by Atlanta Review, Blueline, Diner, Main Street Rag, New Verse News, Pearl, Pinyon, Slant, Upstreet, and Westview, among others.