Saturday, January 23, 2016

Winter Night Sky Will Stir Forgotten Awe

Beginning this morning five planets align in the pre-dawn sky.

A lot of star gazers are excited by a relatively rare display that will be put on by our Solar System neighbors in the dark pre-dawn sky.  Beginning this morning and continuing through the first week of February the five brightest planets will roughly line up in the night sky diagonally from the highest, Jupiter down to the smallest, Mercury, just above the horizon.  In between in descending order will be Mars, Saturn, and the brightest of them all “morning star” Venus.  It will take a sharp eye, cloudless skies, and a horizon clear of obstructions to spot Mercury, which will rise late in the east after the other planets have arranged themselves and after a few minutes will be obscured by the pre-glow of the dawn.  But with luck and persistence, early risers can catch all five in the sky at once with the naked eye.
To add to the interest the wandering and waning Moon will seem to play tag amid the planets, shifting position night by night until on February 6, a sliver of a crescent moon will pair with brilliant Venus and Mercury low in the southeast at just at dawn.
This is the first time since 2005 that the planets have thus aligned and it will not happen again until July of 2020.
Of course a lot of people, probably most, won’t ever see what the excitement is all about.  After all during those early hours hovering after 5 am, most folks are still snug in their beds or groggily pouring the first cup of coffee.  Even if they were inclined to step outside, odds are against getting a good view.  Cloud cover is more common this time of year than clear skies, except on the coldest of nights.  Winter storms are frequent.  This morning and for the rest of this weekend, for instance, the American East Coast is being buried in an epic Nor’easter which will prevent viewing.
More critically, most people now live in urban and suburban setting where light pollution all but obscures celestial bodies even on the clearest nights.  Most people only spy the Moon and a planet or two when they are highest in the sky.  Many have given up entirely and live their lives as if under a tent. 
But it was not always so.  In the days of our earliest ancestors, the night sky was much clearer.  It is estimated that 1000 times more stars were visible then than in the most remote modern skies.  They Milky Way was not just a candy bar and rumor, but a dazzling, awe inspiring display.

The Milky Way can now best be seen from remote and shrinking wilderness.

Early humans, having not much else to do after the sun set, spent hours staring at those skies.  They noted first the cycles of the Moon and the seasonal procession of fixed stars across the roof of the world.  They also took note of a handful of bright stars which outshone all of the rest and meandered in mysterious ways in the heavens.  And they took note of transitory things—stars that seemed to fall out of the sky and disappear in a trice, sometimes swarms of them.  And once in a while a great light with a glowing tail would take days, weeks, or months to cross the sky.  They took all of these things as omens and pondered what these great events meant in their own lives.
Eventually they found they could regulate their lives—predict the comings and goings of game herds, times to plant and reap.  And perhaps divine propitious times to take a mate, wage war, elevate a chieftain, or make appropriate sacrifice to the mysterious powers that seemed to rule the world.
Almost as soon as civilizations arose around the world, as soon as temples were raised, and some way to record ideas in chiseled stone, or in clay tablets, humans were recording the doings of the sky and finding ways to predict, often with stunning accuracy how the sky would look and behave far into the future.  Stories were invented to explain the stars and heavens.  Often they became gods made visible on earth.

The ancients built monuments to align with the stars and saw their gods in the heavens.
Over the last two centuries or so, many peoples have lost that ancient connection.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter.  If we are curious at all, we can open books or tune in dazzling television programs that will explain in detail all about the stars, the Moon, the planets, the Solar System, and the Cosmos itself.  We are told it is all infinite yet had a beginning and in trillions upon trillions of years it will all come to an end.  Some of us may dream of traveling among the stars.  Others are so overwhelmed with loneliness in the vastness that they scurry back in terror to comforting fairy tales.
And many, so very many, just shrug their shoulders and go about the mundane business of putting one foot in front of another in a slog through brief existence.

The stars blazed fiercely for Van Gogh

Suddenly the Stars
Suddenly the stars
     unseen since god knows when—
     explode against the Arctic night.

No blank shelf of stratus bars them,
     no haze or mist obscures them,
     no scudding cirrus race the wind to hide them.

The fierce orange glow of pollution
     cannot obscure them.

Thus old Orion does his somersault
     across the heavens,
     ursine dippers pivot, reel
          upon bright Polaris’s steady blaze,
     forgotten constellations process
          with timeless dignity,
     long –lost Milky Way splatters half across the sky.

Once folk knew these stars,
     measured life blood by their glow,
     fixed on them for certainly against death and chaos,
     steered by their light where no marking showed he way,
     found their gods among them,
          and sacrificed to them in sacred duty.

But years have passed,
     these stars unseen, unrecognized,
     nor even missed
     amid a world of roofs, electric lights,
     other things to do, other lives to lead—
          until this night,
               when they come a calling
                    and change everything.

—Patrick Murfin

This poem appeared in a slightly different form in We Build Temples in the Heart published in 2004 by Skinner House Books of Boston.  Autographed copies are available upon request for $8 including postage. Post a request in the comments or E-mail with your request and a mail address.  I will send a volume winging toward you and let you know where you can send a check. 


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