It was starlight that first lured me into the darkness. I was just a boy then, more enchanted with the stars than afraid of the dark, and I was anxious to become “acquainted with the night.”
Growing up in a small town, I went out in darkness and lurked in the shadows of streetlights, and one by one, I learned to recognize the stars and constellations by name. Darkness became my friend and ally, for darker skies meant brighter stars.
Years later, I constructed an unconventional 10-inch reflecting telescope using an aluminum irrigation pipe for the tube and the axel from a piece of old farm machinery for the mount. I built an observatory in my backyard and went about tracking the behavior of variable stars, concentrating on the ones that changed brightness in a sudden and unpredictable manner.
When we moved to the country, I brought the telescope and observatory with me and continued my variable star observations, delighted to be free from the glare of city lights. But my ability to endure long hours at the telescope declined through the years, and now I spend more time just sitting out under the stars and enjoying my intimacy with the night.
When I step outside on a clear, moonless night, the stars seem close enough to touch. They hover just over the trees, shimmering in a velvet sky. The surrounding landscape lies hidden in darkness, from the ground underfoot on out to the horizon. I stand in a field of stars, no longer connected to the earth. Caught up in the magic of the moment, I become a sojourner in the universe.
Nothing on earth gives me such a deep feeling of peace and security. The stars provide an anchor in the rushing current of ceaseless change and uncertainty. No matter how far you travel or how strange and alien the environment, at nightfall you can always find comfort in the familiar face of the constellations.
Those friendly stars have followed me into the forests of Maine, to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, up the high mountains of Colorado and down into the Grand Canyon where, flanked by the dark walls of the canyon, they seemed to shine brighter than ever.
The constellations form a natural clock and calendar, announcing the time of day and the passing of the seasons. The Big Dipper, turning around the pole star like the hour hand of a clock, provides a handy reference for telling time. As the stars slowly rise in the east and set in the west, I can almost feel the earth turning on its axis.
The seasons have their own unique signs in the heavens. In summer, the Milky Way streams high overhead in a river of phosphorescent light. The rising of Capella marks the beginning of fall. Winter brings the bright stars of Orion and Sirius, shimmering in brilliant color, and with the Pleiades low in the western sky after sunset comes a sure sign of spring.
Stargazing is an ancient ritual. Since time immemorial, people all over the world have been watching the stars and using them for navigating, timing religious celebration and fixing the date for planting of crops.
Some of the stars seemed to hang together in loose clusters, or constellations, and the ancient star gazers gave them names and wove them into tales that reflected the culture and thinking of the time.
The Chaldeans were among the first to make a systematic study of the stars, and when their writings were deciphered, it was surprising so many of their constellations had names we still use today. The earliest record of constellations goes back to 3000 B.C.
The Greeks borrowed the names from the Chaldeans and added some of their own. Thus, the firmament today is populated with a host of gods, goddesses, heroes and other mythical characters. The characters are largely fictional, but the constellations themselves are real, and you can see them in the sky any clear night of the year.
Orion is there wielding his sword and shield, ready to do battle with the charging bull. There too you can find Cepheus, Hercules and Perseus, and Andromeda the chained lady, and Pegasus, and Draco the Dragon, and the Pleiades glittering “like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.”
Our ancestors, the people who named the constellations, had an intimate relationship with the night sky. Today we know more about the stars, but we feel less of a connection to them. Henry Beston wrote that night “adds depth to the adventure of humanity.” The adventure, I fear, is growing more shallow as starlight continues to fade in the glare of streetlights.
When I step outside on a dark night, I enter a realm of enchantment. The universe stands before me in all its glory, a revelation of beauty and wonder rippling with the serene light of countless stars.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.