A midnight clear
December, 04, 2008
Two wanderers are dancing cheek to cheek on these December nights. Perhaps you have seen them stepping out in early evening, low in the sky with sinking Sagittarius. The brighter of the two is luminous Venus, a coy mistress who never lingers long. Her steady partner is Jupiter, holding down this particular patch of the celestial dance floor since the beginning of the year. Venus and Jupiter have made an assignation to renew their tryst in the dark before the dawn, but not until May of 2011. Come the New Year she will be off to other lovers — flirting first in Aquarius — leaving her partner with mad-eyed Mars.
My love of the night sky is a gift from my childhood, the result of spending evenings like these with my father and grandfather, tracing arcs to Arcturus and then spiking to Spica. They introduced me to the stars of the winter sky, bundled out of doors on a night without heat or humidity to blur its crystal clarity. I cannot look on Orion with his gleaming belt without feeling a direct link to those formative times and relationships. Even when the vastness of space threatens to overwhelm me with the vertigo of the infinite, the constellations remain, as the sonnet goes, “...an ever-fixed mark/ that looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
My grandfather taught himself celestial navigation in 1944 on the Liberty Ship “Jane Addams.” These were equatorial stars, of far different aspect than those of his Lake Erie boyhood, but he learned them well.
Though he was a surgeon with a Marine Air Group assigned to various island supply bases, he felt frustrated that he wasn’t in a position to be more useful and sometimes managed to hop a flight to more forward positions.
It was on one of these trips that his newly acquired celestial knowledge proved of great value, flying out over the dark Pacific one night in a plane with no navigator. Somehow he managed to plot a course back to their atoll using charts and what he could observe of the sky from the air.
My grandfather was passing this skill on to me when the onset of Alzheimer’s compelled him to alter course.
My other great celestial teacher was the creator of Curious George: H.A. Ray’s “The Stars: A New Way to See Them” has been in print since before the space age, and its great contribution to stargazing is the way Ray makes the constellations truly look like what they are meant to depict as an aid to recognizing them in the sky. I took a copy of the book with me to Africa and learned the southern constellations, as well as my old northern companions that now appeared inverted below the curve of the equator.
In our land of unshielded lights, the Milky Way is seldom seen in its true glory, but on certain winter nights what the Bushmen call “the wood ash stars” are so clear it is as if they had been pricked out in black velvet and held to the light.
u u u
One of the great gifts of my years in Africa was season after season of dark skies, with nothing but a campfire below to mar my night vision. I saw planets in close conjunction and a comet spitting blue fire at the horizon. Nights that clear and dark are as rare in this latitude as rural electricity was back then in Namibia, though sometimes in winter when the frost adheres to my whiskers with every breath I see something of that remembered glory.
The Milky Way, though, is never better than when it bisects the heavens in summer, a celestial charm bracelet dangling crowns and the wings of eagles.
When we moved to North Canaan on Emily’s second birthday, I started to put stars in her sky. Instead of random patterns of glowing stickers, I tried to map out the constellations of late August over her bed and across the ceiling. The constellations of her nativity include some that always abide in our northern latitude — the great Queen Cassiopeia and the great northern bear — and some vagrants, like Scorpio, with Antares its murderous eye, scuttling along the southern horizon and dreaming of hot desert winds and equatorial nights. High overhead, winging through her Milky Way, I placed cruciform Cygnus with gleaming Deneb at its tail, diamond white Vega adorning the Lyre, and Altair — the eagle’s eye — completing the great triangle.
Emily is in third grade now and devouring books on Greek mythology, and so the stories of the stars are open for her. We will step out on December nights when the clouds lift and watch the grand procession of the constellations together. She will tell me of Andromeda, chained to her rock and awaiting the Leviathan, and Perseus her rescuer and I will show her how to find them. Her little brother Elias will listen and watch as the wheel turns, and remember.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com. He and Fred Baumgarten write Nature’s Notebook on alternating weeks.
© Copyright 2008 by TCExtra.com
Top of Page
Email this article
Printer friendly page