By Mary Plumb | October 7, 2013
I have had times lately of being (uncharacteristically) blue, keeping to myself more than usual, but Saturday night was a party I could not miss: the Southern Oregon Starwatchers gathering at the summer site in the mountains, about 15 miles out of town. Planned at the dark of the Moon for maximum viewing, the night further gifted us with the clearest skies.
We got to the site at dusk. I’d never been before and didn’t want to get lost. (Insert Pisces jokes here.) It was a small group drawn to be together on the mountain under the night sky.
The quiet mauve sky at dusk began gently to darken. Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, was the first to show against the not-even-dark sky. Associated by astrologers with magic and charisma, Vega is considered by astronomers to be the most important star in the sky (after the Sun). Vega was the northern Pole Star around 12,000 BCE and will be so again around the year 13,700. (More on the Pole Star coming up.)
I saw Arcturus and Capella next, on opposite sides of the horizon. Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, was low in the northwestern sky. Nearly across the horizon was Capella, the brightest star in Auriga, the Charioteer.
Vega, Capella, and Arcturus are the brightest stars in the northern sky and far distant (in viewing range) from one another, but with these superb viewing conditions, we saw them all at once.
Soon we could easily spot the Summer Triangle, a triangle drawn between the brightest stars in the three constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra (i.e., Altair, Deneb, and Vega).
No planets were visible to the eye, but the stars continued! Way beyond grasping or counting or cataloging: just a massive expanse — a nearly 360° view of the horizon with only a few trees in the way.
We saw the Andromeda galaxy (known as M31), the farthest object from earth that can be seen without a telescope. It is one of the closest galaxies to earth — 2.54 million light years away. The light we saw on Saturday night took 2 1/2 million years to become visible on earth. It looked like a soft fuzzy light, but through the telescope you could see its spiral shape.
A local and humble astronomer was masterful at showing the constellations, including the zodiac: he pointed out Sagittarius, Capricorn, and the large faint stars of Aquarius and Pisces.
I was getting dizzy — in part from looking up for so long, but also from drinking in so much; I had gone from being confined in my own head to this glorious, out-of-this-world display.
We turned to look north, finding Polaris, the North Star, here in Ashland at 42°N. (If you get lost in the woods, providing you can see the sky, find the Great Bear (i.e., Big Dipper) and follow the lower edge to Polaris, which is at the end of the handle of the Little Bear (i.e., the Little Dipper), always due north and always at the latitude of where you are. It’s always there, night after night. There’s more to it than this if you get lost in the woods, but this is as much as I understand so far.)
I could see how the stars were used for navigation for eons. The North Star points due north — the center point of the circumpolar stars, the still point around which everything turns. The circumpolar stars never rise or set but just revolve around the Pole Star.
Due to precession, the Pole Star shifts every 6000 years or so. We saw Thuban, a faint star in the constellation Draco the dragon, who weaves between the Great and Little Bear. Thuban was the Pole Star in about 2800 BCE. And then looking way overhead and a bow to Vega again, our long ago Pole Star, and to whence we are being drawn again.
There was something deeply restorative about staying for as long as we could in full view of the wide, clear sky and watching the Great Bear and Cassiopeia beginning to turn counterclockwise around Polaris; seeing the constellations begin to appear and move across the sky as the earth turned. As my companion said, we might as well say we are looking down at the stars rather than up.
The night also made me think about looking closely at the fixed stars in nativities of those born at the dark of the Moon; I have four or five people close to me born within a few days of the New Moon, when there is no moonlight in the sky and the stars are at their most brilliant.
I also appreciate anew the various metaphors and internal practices born from the image of the still point around which all revolves.
In these chaotic and creative times, wherein every day we experience the forces of change taking us all on a spin out to the fringes of what is possible, the timeless, steady magnetism of the North Star was a gorgeous anchor point that night.
I thought of you all there with me, my star-loving community, far and wide. Nothing like a night under the magnificent and massive sky to set oneself back on track.
Have a good week everyone.