The Underworld and the Heavens – Or, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona

I’d just completed the Pluto Walk: an uphill length of sidewalk stretching to the tippy-top of Mars Hill, where one finds the Pluto Telescope Dome surrounded by fragrant ponderosa pines. The walk demonstrates a to-scale approximation of the distances between the planets in our solar system, beginning with our Absurdly Bright Star at the bottom and culminating with Pluto. Each celestial body is marked on the sidewalk itself and is highlighted with panels featuring pertinent facts about the planet and its discovery.

But wait, you’ll object. I thought Pluto wasn’t considered a planet anymore. 

You’re not wrong. Pluto is now the best known of the dwarf planets, and is the namesake for plutoids (ice dwarfs) and plutinos (distant members of our solar system with funky orbital habits) found in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune. The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona knows this. Pluto is honored here not out of astronomical dissent, but out of pride.

You see, it was here that Pluto was first discovered.

Pluto Telescope Dome.jpg
This building houses the actual telescope commissioned to discover “Planet X.” It succeeded in capturing the first images of Pluto in 1915, and the significance of those images was recognized in 1930! (All photos by yours truly.)

Pluto, of course, is also the name of a chthonic god—chthonic, meaning “subterranean” and generally referring to the underworld. These days, Pluto-King-of-the-Underworld is perhaps better known by his older, grimmer name Hades, and I could write an entire post on the interactions of the two names alone, to say nothing of myth, ritual, and worship. I regret I must restrain myself. Suffice it to say that in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, it was Hades/Plouton/Pluto who presided over the afterlife, ruled the dead, and embodied agricultural wealth. His underground kingdom was glacially cold, piercingly dark, and promised no return for souls who ventured there.

Lowell Observatory, which bills itself as “The Home of Pluto,” is none of those things—or at least, wasn’t so for my visit this past Thursday evening. Certainly, it was chillier than Las Vegas in September (most places are!), and the night sky was darker than Las Vegas’s by far (Flagstaff, Arizona is a designated Dark Sky Community, and Vegas is not), but return is all but guaranteed for the daring visitor—everyone’s got to leave at 10 each night. And far from being underground, the Observatory campus is located at 7200 feet (2195 meters) above sea level, perched at the top of Mars Hill overlooking the city of Flagstaff some 300 feet below and less than a mile east.

So the reader will, I think, excuse my goth self for not expecting the dead among the stars.

Yet, as I stood beside the Pluto Telescope Dome studying my map of the Observatory campus, that’s just what I discovered. I’d arrived with an hour to spare before a lecture called “The Canals of Mars,” and had been advised to enjoy the grounds before sundown. “The Pluto Walk is hard to see after dark,” the physics student behind the ticket counter told me.

Well, I’d completed the Pluto Walk. Now what? I scanned the list of buildings. (3) Pluto Discovery Telescope. (4) Rotunda Museum. (5) Percival Lowell’s Mausoleum. (6) Clark Telesc—

Wait! Mausoleum?!

This was no gothic Freudian slip, my friends. I had not misread.

I set off immediately across the campus, wondering why the Observatory’s website hadn’t led with the mausoleum angle (all the better to attract the goths, my dear!), and knowing full-well that academically-oriented goths with odd spiritual interests in astrophysics probably weren’t their target demographic. Still, I’d paid for stars and was apparently getting memento mori thrown in for free. Just imagine the big kooky grin across my face. What a lucky day to be Crystal!

Cairn .jpg
“Contained in this cairn are the ashes of Kathryn Elizabeth Flynn Putnam, hostess and loving wife, and those of her spouse, William Lowell Putnam III, trustee from 1987 to 2013, whose collective gifts and decisions helped bring Lowell Observatory, once again, into the forefront of astronomical science, as was done a century earlier by his great-uncle, Percival Lowell.”

I hadn’t even finished descending the Pluto Walk when I left the path for this beautiful cairn. To my great surprise and delight, Percival Lowell wasn’t the only person laid to rest on Mars Hill. And he was far from the only one memorialized.

Indeed, the span of the Pluto Walk from the asteroid belt on is flanked by poignant tributes to the scientists, mathematicians, donors, trustees, and others who contributed their time, talents, and brilliance to the pursuit of knowledge at Lowell Observatory. Trees stand in honor of certain individuals. Benches commemorate others. The pathway to a large sunrise-facing gazebo is paved with names, dates, and titles. The McAllister Telescope Domecontaining a telescope exclusively for public educationis dedicated to the memory of John Vickers McAllister, “who loved the night sky.”

“The more we learn about the stars,” the bronze plaque reads, “the more questions we have about them.”

There’s even a small plaque dedicated to any and everyone not specifically mentioned.

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Pathway to the gazebo, a popular site from which locals watch the sunrise. Within the gazebo is a sign: “This is a place of beauty for relaxation, tranquility, and reflection.”

It’s always struck me that modern scientists continued the ancient habit of naming celestial bodies after mythological figures. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were all known and named in prehistory, and even in cultures before and beyond ancient Rome, nomenclature for each often followed similar deific patterns. Quick-moving Mercury was named for messenger gods. Bright, beautiful Venus, which hovers just above or just beneath the horizon, linked up with goddesses of love, fertility, or descent and rebirth. Red Mars oversaw war and destruction. Bright, powerful, reliable Jupiter was named for thunderous, all-powerful deities. And Saturn, with its long, sweeping orbit, encompassed deities of time itself, of the soul-scales after a lifetime, of slow and steady nature.

But Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, and the many moons and larger bodies whirling out there? These were named by more modern astronomers, with more modern sensibilities.

I’ll grant you, Uranus was very nearly named Georgium Sidus (George’s Star) after England’s King George IIIit was the 1780s, and, having so recently been jettisoned from the terrestrial New World, I imagine English royals were eager for something new to claim. Neptune, having been mathematically discovered in 1846 France, endured a similar squabble as both England and France sought dominance in some kind of passive-aggressive Victorian space race.

Pluto’s name was suggested by an 11-year-old named Venetia Burney, one name of thousands sent to the Lowell Observatory in the aftermath of the discovery. The astronomers in Flagstaff voted on the final three options (Minerva, Cronus, and Pluto, mythological figures all) and selected Pluto unanimously, both because it begins with P-L (Percival Lowell) and because the far-flung distant world was as cold and dark and isolated as the land of the dead. Many other cultures have followed suit, naming the dwarf planet for their own gods of death: Yama, Whiro, Meiosei.

Lowell mausoleum.jpg
Percival Lowell – Founder, Director, Endower – The Lowell Observatory – March 13th, 1855 to November 12th, 1916

Percival Lowell established his observatory in 1894 out of a desire to discover life on Mars. It’s worth noting that the State of Arizonawhere this observatory is locatedwasn’t integrated into the United States until 1912, only four years before Lowell’s death. Flagstaff itself was settled in 1876 and established itself throughout the 1880s, during which time governance of the sprawling territory fluctuated with repeated wars with newly-independent Mexico, violent conflicts with indigenous peoples, and political disputes among settlers. In many ways, this was still the Wild West.

Yet at the same time, Percival Lowell was commissioning and installing the enormous, state-of-the-art Clark Telescope, intended to study and detail the surface of Mars. The Bostonian mathematician-cum-astronomer-cum-ersatz-frontiersman dreamed of proving the existence of life beyond our world: a man on the conflicted edge of Western civilization with his eyes trained on the heavens.

In our day, scientists can often seem as cold and distant as the celestial bodies they study. Entombed in their worlds of ciphers and equations and spiraling data, speaking in cryptic jargon and eschewing the mystical, the modern image of these pioneers can often obfuscate the human beneath the study.

But in his time and in his place here in wild, territorial Arizona, the scholarly Percival Lowell must have seemed positively romantic.

Quote from Mars and Its Canals.jpg
“Astronomy now demands bodily abstraction of its devotee… to see into the beyond requires purity… and the securing it makes him perforce a hermit from his kind… He must abandon cities and forego plains… only in places raised above and aloof from men can he profitably persue[sic] his search. He must learn to wait upon his opportunities and then no less to wait for mankind’s acceptance of his results… for in common with most explorers he will encounter on his return that final penalty of penetration the certainty at first of being disbelieved…” Mars and Its Canals, Percival Lowell.
Commissioned by his wife, Constance, after his sudden death of a stroke in 1916, Percival Lowell’s mausoleum stands surrounded by ponderosa pines mere steps from the original Clark Telescope Dome, which was completed in 1896 and is still in use today. Hours later, after sundown, I myself gazed through Lowell’s prized telescope at a star cluster millions of lightyears away within our own Milky Way Galaxy, the twinkling starlight a memory far older than imagining.

The mausoleum mimics the shape of an observatory, with a glass dome tiled in blue. Lowell’s informationhis name, titles, dates of birth and death—appear on the building’s western face, but the detailed copper doorway faces east, towards the stunning sunrise visible each morning over the mountains near Flagstaff. Flanking the doorway are two quotes from Lowell’s own writing, one from Mars and Its Canals and the other from The Evolution of Worlds.

It’s a beautiful, fitting tribute.

As I looked and quietly, happily snapped my photographs, I thought of my childhood searching with my genealogist mother for our ancestors’ graves in rural Intermountain West cemeteries, carefully casting my shadow over the carved letters to ensure clear photos in the analog days of film (and thus we see that I come by my gothic tendencies honestly). This guy must have the coolest Find-a-Grave entry, I thought.

When I sent the relevant entry to my mother several days later as a novelty, she cheerfully plugged Percival Lowell’s name into Family Search to see if perchance we were related. Our two hobbies are not so different.

It turns out Percival Lowell is my sixth cousin six times removed through my mom’s maternal grandfather. Such a distant connection leaves me sharing absolutely no DNA in common with the man, but the fact remains that my 11th-great-grandparents were his 5th-great-grandparents. This information cheers my academically-oriented-goth-with-odd-spiritual-interests-in-astrophysics little heart.

The Evolution of Worlds quote.jpg
“Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay… Nothing begins but comes at last to end… Though our own lives are too busy to even mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal… Today what we already know is helping to comprehension[sic] of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form part…” The Evolution of Worlds, Percival Lowell.
I don’t know where Percival Lowell believed he was going when he sloughed off the mortal coil. I don’t know how much thought he put into it, between all the work he spent in gazing up beyond the world we know. The underworld? The heavens? Nowhereand everywhere?

Lowell Observatory is a striking legacyand there’s a poetic beauty to the interplay here between progress and memory, between innovation and tradition, between firm fact and distant dream. I deeply appreciate the love and soul evident in each memorial plaque across the grounds, evidence that though the modern sciences may bewilder the humanities with their numbers and elemental sigils and baldly-stated unsuperstitious portents, they, too, reverence their dead even as they stride towards the future.

Scientists, in other words, are just as sentimental as the rest of us.

Equal parts active independent research institution, historical heritage site, and educational resource, the Lowell Observatory is still growing, still adding new resources to its campus. Visitors enjoy short lectures on topics like the nature of stars and galaxies and the details surrounding Pluto’s discovery and recent reclassification. After dark, guests interact with Flagstaff’s famously dark sky, both by gazing through assorted telescopes and by learning the myths behind the visible constellations turning above.

I stayed at the Observatory far later than I intended, always craving more. I looked at Jupiter with my naked eye and then with a telescope, through which I could see the planet’s trademark colors and three of its moons. I saw the blurry, smudged Andromeda Galaxy in the clear dark sky without the aid of a telescopethe furthest celestial object visible with the naked eye. I learned how painstaking the quest for Pluto was, not just for Orpheus; how Mars may once have hosted a dynamic climate not so different from our own; and what happens when galaxies collide with one another.

Only when I got too sleepy to continue crisscrossing the darkened campus did I leave the Observatory behind and make for my hotel.

View from inside the mausoleum.jpg
View of the blue glass-tiled roof of Percival Lowell’s mausoleum, with the setting sun shining through. Detail of the mausoleum’s ornate copper doors.

Before nightfall, when I first approached the mausoleum from the west, I puzzled over what I’d read in my visitor guide. “The base consists of New England granite and the dome of inset cobalt blue glass tiles.” I could see the outer dome, made of clear glass, and the inner dome made of something darker. But I wasn’t seeing blue.

I soon realized I wasn’t looking from the right vantage. As I moved around the structure, fawning over the loving detail, I drew closer to the east-facing doorway to see what I could see. Gothic compulsionI wanted to see any detailing upon or around the stone sarcophagus within. Had Constance commissioned a statue of her prone husband, perhaps? Had the granite within been delicately engraved? Was there a chair or bench within for family vigils?

No. In contrast to the classical exterior, the tomb within the mausoleum was smooth and crisp and almost contemporarily minimalistic, with sharp neat corners. You might see such a shape within a remodeled kitchen and think nothing of it. It suggested tranquility far more than it suggested death.

But arched above the sarcophagus were Constance’s cobalt blue tiles, glowing with setting sun beyond like a heaven full of light. I realized all at once that those outside the shrine were never meant to see the blue of the tiles. They had been meant for Percival’s eternal enjoymentno one else’s.

Where did Constance believe Percival would go as she laid him to rest on the hill he had consecrated for worlds beyond? Did she believe that she could follow, as so many lovers throughout human history have dreamed? A mythological difference between Hades and Pluto was the god’s relationship with Persephone, his bride. Where Hades was a kidnapper, Pluto was a devoted, monogamous partnerunusual among Greek gods. A fragmentary Orphic text identifies the king and queen of the underworld together as a unit:

I know that even below the earth, if there is indeed a reward for the worthy ones,
the first and foremost honors… shall be yours, next to Persephone and Pluto.

view of Flagstaff from Mars Hill.jpg
View of Flagstaff from Mars Hill around sunset (near Percival Lowell’s mausoleum). After dark, the Dark Sky City twinkles dimly, not at all like Las Vegas, but beautiful all the same.

As I drove down the dark road from Mars Hill to my downtown-Flagstaff hotel (a distance of less than a mile), I thought how interesting it was that Percival Lowell should be interred so much higher up than most human beings live. His underworld is far closer to the heavensby nearly 5,000 feet (1,524 meters)than my current home in Las Vegas.

How strange to see the heavens and the underworld intersect. To consider a chthonic god’s name flung out to the farthest reaches of the known solar system, billions and billions of miles from ancient Greece and Rome, only connected through a human obsession with mystery. How strange to set out searching for stars, and to find wonder among the rustling ponderosa pines, among ashes and stones and carven words, here among the lofty skyward domes built by both the living and the dead.

Have you ever been to the Lowell Observatory, or to a similar heritage site? Have you ever found a graveyard or memorial where you least expected it? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

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Happy witnessing!

2 thoughts on “The Underworld and the Heavens – Or, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona

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