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The center of his universe

Earth and sky meet at Rocky Hill, science author Timothy Ferris' rural retreat in Northern California. It's a place to ponder life and the world beyond.

June 17, 2004|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Glen Ellen, Calif. — TIMOTHY FERRIS lives in a neighborhood of exquisite proportions. Just beyond his front door, time and space rush forward to greet him. The stars are his neighbors, the universe his friend, and on clear summer nights, the glow of galaxies nearly 30 million light-years away rains down upon him.

"You see those two bright stars?" he asks, pointing overhead. "That's Castor and Pollux."

Like a captain on the deck of a ship, he stands high above the ground on the viewing deck of his observatory in rural Northern California. A westerly wind gusts around him and swirls through the black walnut trees and oaks to the east. The colors of a late spring sky leach into the night.

"Now look to the left, twice their distance apart, and go up."

The crescent of Venus, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter and its moons are all within reach, but Ferris is on the trail of Comet C/2001 Q4, otherwise known as Comet NEAT. A skillful observer and guide, he hands over a pair of binoculars, and there, caught in the reflecting mirrors, is this star with a broad fuzzy tail, seemingly motionless, 29.8 million miles away.

Ferris first described Rocky Hill Observatory, named for his wife's family farm, in his 2002 book, "Seeing in the Dark." In these pages -- an intimate portrait of stargazing and stargazers -- he transforms the night sky into a panorama of extraordinary beauty and dynamism accessible to anyone with a telescope and a willingness to stay awake through the night.

Few contemporary writers are as well equipped for such alchemy. Ferris has been writing about space since Rolling Stone published his first article on cosmology in 1974. A popularizer of relativity, string theory, fermions and quarks, he has a knack for making the unfathomable fathomable and, like his friend the late Carl Sagan, he reminds us that dreams often pave the way to the stars.

No more so than in his own backyard. But Rocky Hill is less a place to view the stars than a place to savor the possibilities of life and to think about worlds well beyond our own. More than a country retreat, it is a place of epicurean elegance and inspiration. No wonder space is never a dark, cold vacuum in Ferris' prose but instead a fantastic destination of color and light.

"Now let's see what we can really see."

At the center of the viewing deck, Ferris' telescope responds to a series of computerized instructions and rises toward the sky. From here he draws a line of light to the stars. From here he is connected to space.

Escaping the city

Like the best journeys, this one begins in a rocket ship. The Mercedes SL55 may have four wheels and three mappings of suspension, but in Ferris' hands, the 500-horsepower V-8 roadster is a booster rocket in disguise.

"I'm a sucker for a big ride," he says. Ferris will turn 60 later this summer, but he looks a youthful 40. The long, wavy hair that stood out in earlier author photos has been trimmed, but a childlike enthusiasm animates his manner.

Get him started on Formula 1 race cars, spaceships or the blues, and there's no stopping him. Nor would you want to.

As he backs out of the driveway of the San Francisco apartment he keeps with his wife, Carolyn, he is pleased to see that their 18-year-old son, Patrick, has placed a "Kerry for President" sticker in the kitchen window. Their four-level home on Telegraph Hill has a clear shot of Treasure Island and the Berkeley hills. Step out onto a deck, and there's Coit Tower just over your shoulder and the Filbert Steps at your feet.

Heading out of the city, he finds an opening in traffic, taps the accelerator and the supercharger kicks in. The license plate, LOWORBT, is an understatement. He takes the 101 Freeway onto small country roads, passing the Sleepy Hollow Dairy, the Pegasus Ranch, Ernie's Tin Bar and the Valley of the Moon, home of Jack London's lost dream.

As oak trees give way to grape fields, he turns off the main road and easily hits 60 before pulling off the oleander-lined driveway into the motor court. A working farm, Rocky Hill has five vineyards and produces commercially sold olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

The Ferrises live in one of two ranch-style homes built on the property in the 1950s. Carolyn's sister lives in the other. Their grandfather, San Francisco investor and philanthropist Benjamin Swig, purchased the property a little more than 40 years ago.

Plain and simple, their five-bedroom, four-bath home sits on the brow of a small hill looking across a valley to a counterpane of oak forests and vineyards. The house is so integrated with the landscaping -- Mexican primroses, wisteria, trumpet vines and oaks -- that it seems impossible to talk about one without the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame the view over a small patio, a patch of lawn and a slope lavishly covered with lavender.

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