Finding the Deep Sky

Patience will help, when it comes to learning where you are, where you are going.

When I First Posted “Deep Sky Observing” several months ago, based on the opening chapter of one of the books I’d been meaning to open, I thought I might do a series with subsequent chapters. A few hours after doing this, my daughter noticed the book on my bed and took an interest, so then it was hers.

This morning, none of my usual ways of finding an idea were working, probably because I am exhausted. For these reasons, it seemed like a good time to return to the question of how to observe the deep sky, so I retrieved the book (just for a bit). Today’s post is assembled from phrases found in a chapter entitled, “How Can I Find All These Deep-Sky Goodies When the Sky is So Huge?” which seems to me like an excellent phrasing not just for the issue of the burgeoning stargazer, but for any soul beneath the vast canopy. This morning’s findings offered me some much-needed perspective at a critical time. I share in the spirit of knowing that most of us can use some re-alignment from time to time, when it comes to remembering how to look.

Being confronted with finding your way around can take the fun out of things very quickly.

Fear not! Being able to point accurately will define your joy.

After all, it is written: no find, no fun. Start with your eyes, observing how it moves.

Remember: don’t just glance.

Remember:  with a centerfold chart and a red flashlight, much can be observed.

Another thing. Leave the city, watch it dance around.

A finder will really help, but you have to align it during twilight.

You can use a distant object, like a hill. 

Calculate the size of the field of view. 

You can count the seconds it takes a star to drift through a field.

Then there’s the issue of finding directions––no easy skill.

Patience will help, when it comes to learning where you are, where you are going.

Put a crosshair eyepiece in the scope. 

Keep in mind, there are a variety of names for these objects.

Don’t give up. Now find a galaxy. Describe it.

Inspiration (and found words/ phrases) from:
Coe, Steven R. Deep Sky Observing: The Astronomical Tourist. Springer, 2000.

Old Shells, New Forms

Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

On this day in 1883, English poet and critic T.E. Hulme was born.  Considered “the father of imagism” his work influenced the modernists who were seeking new forms across the arts, finding that the old forms, like shells ready to crack, no longer served the honest vision.  At the age of thirty-four, he was killed by a direct hit from a shell during the first World War.

I will not pretend to give an overview of Hulme’s career. In honor of his birthday, I am assembling a verbal collage of phrases from A Lecture on Modern Poetry, an influential paper Hulme delivered at the Poet’s Club in 1908, which was published and widely circulated after his death.  The verses below are mostly collected from Hulme’s text, rearranged as one does with “found poems,” which are one of my favorite forms for listening to unfamiliar texts.

Toward verse, I anticipate criticism. Don’t call it the means by which a soul soared, but a means of expression. I suspect the word soul in discussion, its hocus-pocus like selling medicine in the marketplace.

We are not the Mermaid Club, but a number of modern people. I have no reverence for tradition, and certain impressions to fix. I read for models but found none that fit. Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

For the living, burdened with thought too difficult to express using old names, what possibility is there? The actor has no dead competition, as the poet does. Immortal arts need new techniques with each generation or risk an age of insincerity.

Consider decay of religion: dead carcass, the flies upon it. Here’s what happens when the spirit leaves the form.

After decay, a new form. I wish you to notice: the marvelous fertility, the fluidity of the world, its impermanence. If you prefer the ancients, consider the Greek theory of universe as flux, and how they feared it. The disease that followed? A passion for immortality. You know the rest.

Now we focus on impermanence. Leave the siege of Troy to the ancients. Let’s linger instead within the mind of the child by the drying lake. We cannot escape from the spirit of our times.

It’s a delicate and difficult art. A shell is a very suitable covering for the egg at a certain period, but when the inside character is entirely changed, to become alive, the shell must be broken.

House of Bones

Considering the first known examples of human architecture: dwellings made of mammoth bones.

They found them in the Ukraine in one of the Vietnam war years, in the year of Selma and the teenage sniper on the 101 and the launch of the world’s first in-space nuclear reactor. There were troops in the D.R. and the burning of draft cards and Muhammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in a rematch.

Phantom punch?

Right. It was Beatlemania and Watts and the Stones and Vatican II that year.

How did they find them?

It was just a jawbone at first. A farmer was expanding his cellar when he uncovered it. Then there were more bones.

How many? 

Hundreds, then thousands. They thought at first it was the site of a mass slaughter.

All mammoth? 

Yes. Then they noticed the patterns, the arrangement. Then they found more, and they figured that what they were looking at was one of the earliest known relics of human architecture.

People lived in the bones?

The tusks made an arched entryway. They created domes with the rest, covered them with skins. There were sometimes multiple domes in one area. Each could hold ten to one-hundred people. It is likely that there were ritual gatherings inside.

Day-to-day living, also?

Definitely. They would have to. Consider the cold. 

So, they were sheltered in the bones of the mammoth they had eaten?

And the bones they would gather.  

I am trying to imagine the quiet of that space, the uncompromised elegance.

Of living in the remains of the dead.

Of no one pretending otherwise.

Where everywhere you looked, there they were.

The remains, and you inside them.

Except it would be us, always us.

Always a group, breathing for a short time.

In the shelters assembled by living hands, from the remains.

As if to say, come in. Stay for a while.

As if to say, we are all going soon. 

As if to remind, this is shelter. Foxes have holes, birds their nests.

But the sons and daughters of men?

Only this.

For more about the 1965 discovery of the oldest surviving architecture, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information provides more information and a short video.

Guide to Underwater Living

To survive in the deep with no hiding place, make yourself invisible. Where there is no refuge, develop a form that light will pass through.

Today, I am considering living underwater. Ninety percent of earth’s livable space is in the oceans. Recently, I read that many of the creatures living in it have survived by evolving talents for invisibility.

Consider this: land-dwelling creatures may camouflage themselves to blend in with surroundings. They may retreat to underground dens, high-altitude nests, or fly. 

To illustrate, one doctor cites a familiar scenario: Say a gunman enters a room. What do you do? A kindergartener can tell you: take cover. Hide. Do not come out.

But what about the deep, where there is nowhere to hide?

To survive, you adapt by making yourself invisible. Where there is no refuge from what will eat you, develop a form that light will pass through. 

The deep is full of transparent animals. You can read a book through some of them. Such forms are not without complications, of course. Risk of sunburning organs is among them. Stay low to avoid this. 

If not see-through, you can make yourself a mirror, reflecting light back. 

If not invisible, you can create your own light and shine it below you so that anyone looking up, sees nothing but light. If you do this, be careful not to let your light leak out or above you, so that you don’t become an easy target.

These transparent swimmers are everywhere, and now I can’t stop thinking about all of this invisible life, teeming beyond our ability to see what it is.

This post was inspired by this New York Times article, “A World of Creatures that Hide in the Open” from 2014. 

Mirror, mirror

Imagining thirteen ways of being looked at by a blackbird.

They’re back.

What?

These blackbirds, see? They are looking at me. I just wanted to see these mountains. Out in the––

Snow?

Right. I’ve been––

Wallace Stevens again?

Well, sure. There were only three at first.

And where did you think you were going to find snow? Have you seen the––

Now this one. Listen. There is some innuendo in his tone.

His?

C’mon, you can tell. Now they’re at my feet.

Now they’re flying out of sight.

They’ll be back. All afternoon, it’s been night coming, and you can feel weather brewing, too.

Not snow, though. Fire, maybe. Or rain.

It’s a murder, right, when they come in a group like that? 

No, that’s crows. Blackbirds are a choir. Except, I hate to tell you this.

What?

Look when they come back. Those are crows. You can tell by the beaks. Tails, too. Besides, have you been listening?

Caw, caw! 

Exactly. Did you know that they hold funerals, crows do?

What?

One dies, they all come silent and look. They stand around. Then fly away again, quiet as they came.

Huh. I thought they were mostly mischief. 

It’s the blackbirds that go from nest to nest. Crows mate for life. They don’t even kick the young out. They can stay in the nest ‘til they’re mating age, and even then, they’ll keep coming back.

The river’s moving again.

There they go.

Tell me you didn’t feel it, though. 

Feel what?

They were looking at us.

That’s why they have a reputation.

For mischief?

For being messengers.

What’s this message, then?

How should I know? I don’t speak crow. Maybe they just wanted to mess with you.

For?

Getting enamored with that voice.

What voice?

That human one you love so much. Like from the Stevens poem. Where it’s always you––

Looking?

Right.

*This morning, I woke up with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in my mind, alongside a sense of mischief. I couldn’t help imagining the birds flipping the script.

Holding Here

Remember the living.

There are plenty of good ways to lose yourself, many of which are to be welcomed as venerable guests. But not this. Don’t let me be dulled by the endless impact of the gears, the noise, the flood of what passes for knowing.

Remember sleep. Remember a meal.

Remember waiting, and to listen–– and look! What is that? Stay in the question.

There is sky. Here is earth. Remember water, and all that is invisible and necessary in the air. 

Then, remember breathing.

These are basic things. You knew them as a child, even if you resisted: bedtime, mealtime, any unwelcome pause in your momentum. 

But the world will pull you from it all, and away from matters of your substance. 

Not the world, exactly––but the machine colonizing it: including our breath, our dreams, the simple act of looking.

Remember what you are. Remember touch. Remember, body. 

Here is the place where you are. Remember, it is a powerful stranger.

After David Wagoner: 

“Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger” (“Lost”).

Skywatching

We looked and looked––so as not to miss it, so as not to be missed.

Squinting, we studied the faces. It’s all Greek, you said, of the letters. We looked back and forth: the sky, the charts, the corresponding manual. We couldn’t help ourselves; we kept returning, flashlights wrapped in red cellophane. What are we doing? You asked, as if to acknowledge the elephant.

They circled us. Or, they held in place as we spun. Or, it was all spinning, all of it pulling apart. The lines, at least, indicated order. The wandering stars came and went. Those are planets, you said. We nodded, wearing grave expressions to indicate our intended recognition of the obvious.

You continued. See the hunter’s belt, his right knee, the blade of his sword. Notice the white spot at his crown, how he gazes toward the head of the bull. We followed the book, looked up. Back to the book. 

Daughters of Atlas, braiding bright––and across the way, the dog star. Now the she-goat and her kids; now the charioteer. We pretended, at first, to see them. We didn’t want the story to vanish. The Big Dipper was offered: Take this cup, and our mouths fell open, heads back.

Our own galaxy is ragged, irregular, its dark nebulae like curtains hiding the light. In the spring came Ariadne, and then Theseus after the Minotaur. Surrounded by the walls of the labyrinth he built, the craftsman must have plead his case to the same sky, dreaming Icarus’s wings. 

Now the head of the hydra, now the snake and the eagle behind it. Now the scorpion, and here’s the instrument of song with Vega its center. He played for love, Orpheus, until he lost it, looking back. 

Now comes the winged horse. We looked and looked––so as not to miss it, so as not to be missed. No, I think that’s it! That must have been it! Unless it was the southern fish, unless it was the dolphin, coming to save the poet and his songs.

Turning and turning, Andromeda’s spiral, and the ram bled before it––until the dragon was installed at the gates, to guard the fleece. The royal family stood beyond them. At last, another hero with a sword, looking for something to slay. He asks the three sisters, finds the gorgon sleeping, takes the head.

There were other monsters to fight, other maidens to scatter, and Look! Do you see them there? Strewn from the east to the west?

I am telling you, we tried. So great was our wish to understand something; so great was our need to be tied to something that the ancients also knew, to run our hands across some venerable form that had managed to keep living, even after the bombs and the weather, even now––that we believed ourselves when we said Yes, and Yes!

Yes, we see! There––and there! Seeming with our raised arms to behold what held us, but what was it? We didn’t care, not really. Its substance was beside the point. In that moment what we wanted was the relief of our surrender. To say Show us, and wait, deciding in the silence: We believe.

Bury My Ash and Plant a Tree

What if we gave it up, this whole habit of protecting these temporary husks?

I have an idea.

About what?

How to die.

Please. I’m trying to just––

No, it’s about that too, hear me out. Let’s not put these bodies in boxes when we’re done with them.

Ah, the boxes. What size, what wood, what level of cushioning? Where to put the box, and what shoes?

Let’s give it up, that whole thing.

You mean––?

The whole habit of protection, when it comes to these temporary husks.

From?

The inevitable ends we want to rage against. The humiliation of decay.

Not to mention of a bare face, unpainted.

Exactly. What were we doing with all of that, anyway?

What were we hoping to keep?

Look at the fate of cut flowers, gathered with the same impulse. I mean––

Any vase, however flimsy, will outlast its contents, destined in most cases to wind up broken.

Or on a Goodwill shelf with a sticker.

Let’s try something else. What if we burned as we lived, saving none?

Fuel for the living. What if––

we used the container we keep––

––for growing, instead?

With all the dirt, filth, worms––

Husks of fruit––

Let the falling seeds have at it.

If I’m going anyway, let me spend what I have on the living.

Here it is, take it. This hand.

Not to chain, but to comfort.

Yes, and this face. Not to photograph,

To hold a gaze. These eyes, even.

Don’t cover them with coins. 

Eat this vision, I am giving it up.

Don’t strike me down.

Don’t box and bury me. 

Let the fire eat my excess.

Let me prefer this and the way it reduces

––my body from its confines, to magnify

––Its purpose?

Infinitely. Then put me at the base of a tree.

Let me be dust. I am going now. Hold none of me.

In the spring, I will bloom for you, reminding you back.

To what?

To an original question: what is beauty without death?

To make it something we ache to be, hold; being held inside it, holding.

Wait. It comes for you also, but also coming is this impossible bloom. 

A thousand bursts. Like cotton balls when you squint, in baby-blanket pink.

Rest against this trunk.

Of my shade. There will be nothing to hold

but there you will be, cool inside it.

Cool from burning?

Yes, you will be cooling from the burning

there, in the shade of my ash, for a little while.

And you will welcome me there?

Yes.

For how long?

How long will you stay? Don’t answer.

Why not?

Because when the time comes, you will burn it all up again. 

But––

Still, I will be at the end of the burn and the beginning of this tree––this cooling shade, waiting.

Wait.

This post is inspired by an article I read this morning in My Modern Met (one of my go-to haunts for inspiration), about new environmentally friendly developments in burial rituals: vertical gravesites, human compost, and the option of burying ashes at the base of a new-planted tree.

How We Once Faced

Imagining behind the veils we saw everywhere.

In early spring, we sat on a south facing

bench above the water and the topic was

veils, what they may keep and then

reveal of promises and mysteries.

They were everywhere, suggesting

kaleidoscopic arrays of faces around us,

spreading themselves wide like arms 

to the histories we’d lost,  

collapsed inside the buds 

of new expressions, blooming, 

and they were in the water, too, 

rippling after fish jumps, after 

the stones we threw like hopeful

singers in the night, at bedroom 

windows, begging them to hear 

and wake before our eyes, to open 

the windows and show themselves again.

Not Enough Dream

Holding on to dreams, holding on in a dream, and the question of how we are dreaming.

I used to have a friend who would ask, in all seriousness,

How are you dreaming? like that was something anybody

necessarily did. Like being made to dream meant you could.

It felt like he was asking after a dead friend.

I envied the time he had for these questions.

If not for the alarms, I might have had better answers. 

If not for the constant interruptions to the dreams I meant to live inside, 

I might have had better answers.  Not enough, I would say, 

but I remember one now.

In the dream there are two small eggs in a nest in one hand.

The other hand holds on tight to a bar above a narrow ledge.

Toes curling, too; I wait on that ledge between What and Never.

What and what? Who knows,

––eggs, nest, birds. Some imminent fall or drop implied,

I hold on. What’s next, death? An eagle? Rescue?

I wait, my grip slipping while my wrapped hand sweats.

Who else is watching these eggs? I want to know. 

No answer comes, and I am still waiting, but that

was the end of the dream.  

Still, the same answer applied to his original question,

and it was still not enough, and I was still envious of the

way that someone could take it for granted that they

might follow such visions to whatever dream message

they were aiming for before the alarm shot them, 

execution-style, as we all lined up, backs against the concrete

wall and the relentless clock above us, holding 

for the start of the next day, our tentative beginnings and

the open-air eggs we were forever trying to protect.