Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

ConstellationsIn the darkness the four of us lay comfortably on camp pads, covered in sleeping bags. We are warm despite the spring chill in the air, and from the middle of the back yard we have a nice view of the sky and stars above us. Working the plastic discs of a Planisphere into position for reference, the constellations delightfully take shape, like putting a key into a slot and opening a door. There is Leo the lion directly overhead, Bootes the herdsman in the East, and Gemini to the West, among many others. According to Greek mythology, Gemini consists of the twins Castor and his immortal brother Pollux. Castor, however, is not one star—as it appeared to the Greeks and to the naked eye—but a cluster of six. The night sky is full of such surprises, and of ones that are curious and unfathomable.

The stars always seemed unchanging to me: I believed the nightly points of light that guided islanders in canoes across the Pacific thousands of years ago were in the exact places as the stars that guided my grandfather when he flew planes over that same ocean in the forties. But it is far from being so. As the earth wobbles on its axis over long periods of time, the positions of the stars relative to the earth shift. The star Thuban—not nearby Polaris—was the stellar pole when the pyramids were being built, and Egyptian temples were aligned to it. The stars themselves are also in motion. What we know as the Big Dipper did not appear the same thousands of years ago, and will continue to change shape as the bodies that make it move away from one another. Stars also go through life cycles from birth in colorful, immense dust clouds called nebulae, through an existence of changing sizes, colors and temperatures, to sometimes explosive, brilliant deaths as supernovas.

Unlike other lives I've learned about in science classes, such as people, plants and animals, reading a field guide to the stars feels more like processing the particulars of mysticism. There are small particles that weigh millions of tons, stars hundreds of thousands of times brighter than our Sun, temperatures measured in millions of degrees, distances calculated by how far light can travel in a year, gravity so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape from it. There is illusive dark matter, and even more mysterious dark energy up there. It takes imagination, suspension of disbelief and a degree of faith to accept. Pictures definitely help. For that I can turn to a vast array of images, some of the most famous captured by the Hubble space telescope. An internet search for the Eye of God produces a stunning picture of the red, orange and blue Helix Nebula that will send a chill down your spine.

Perhaps it is best that we lay star gazers are not fitted with such powerful telescopic eyes. Binoculars add nicely to our experience on the grass, and Jeremiah's star finder application on his cell phone is also really cool. We are participating in something that goes way back, a shared human experience like sitting around a camp fire. The Greeks looked up and told tales to one another of how Bootes invented the plow and hunted the bear, Ursa. The Egyptians spoke of the kite-shaped Bootes as a hippopotamus goddess that protected them from the evils of the polar stars. American slaves sang of the Big Dipper as the drinking gourd that guided the way North to freedom. Ancient Indians pointed to the serpentine formation of Draco as a crocodile, and Chinese families referred to the Yin and Yang of Gemini. Across cultures and time we have been bonded deep down with the night sky. Tonight Odin, age five, chats with his aunt Brittany, the two of them forming their own connections with each other and the celestial heavens.

Note: All constellations mentioned here, Leo, Gemini, Bootes, Draco and Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) can be seen during the month of May after 9 pm.

References:
Chartrand, M. R. 1991. National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Moore, P. 2005. Firefly Guide to Stars and Planets. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books Inc.