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.

Harvest Moon

Time to gather, time to put away.

It’s a Harvest Moon, the old woman announces. Then she tells me: it means that now is the time to reap what’s been sown. 

I am wondering what else. 

Consider the goddess who rides a white mare across the sky.  Also, this: did you know that the Celts would count their days from sunset? The first day of a week began at night to end in the morning. Now here are true dreamers.  They measured time in moons, and there were thirteen in a year.

Elsewhere, they saw not a man’s face, but the body of a hare, the harbinger of good fortune and fertility.

There’s a black-winged creature who eats the orb slowly until its all gone. The moon disagrees, and the creature vomits it back. The cycle repeats.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why it affects the tides. You need to understand: the moon kidnapped the sea god’s daughter for her impertinence.  Now you know.

Aine, Aylin, Esther, Hanwi, Io, Mani: she’s the waxing maiden, waning crone. She was romantically involved with the sun god, you know. A dramatic pursuit is what caused the great flood. Now they are a couple. When there’s peace at home, weather is good. But when there’s trouble between them, look out!

Some say she’s captured every night by a hostile tribe. When the antelope go to rescue her, coyote foils the plan, tossing her into the river. And what about the dark marks on her surface?

That’s another story, from when the moon was a wily hunter, outsmarting rabbit, and blinding him with his great light. That’s why rabbit’s eyes are pink-rimmed and squinty, why his lips tremble. He was terrified and blinded by the size of the light. He reached his paw in the river and flung clay at the source.

Now it lights the harvest. Time to gather, time to put away. This from the old woman again. Store the good fruits, she says, and toss away the bad. Patch the walls against the draft, take stock of what you’re storing, and of the hands around the table. Hold, dance. Longer nights are coming soon.

World in a Grain of Sand

Celebration of wonders that are easily missed by habitual lenses, and of the transcendent potential of the the act of looking closely enough.

Reading about the father of microbiology for yesterday’s post inspired me to return to one of my favorite forms of photography, the extreme closeup, which has been a fascination of mine for some time, most likely because it so aligns with other perennial fascinations: the unseen world, the right-before-the-eyes wonders that are easily missed by habitual lenses, and a belief in the transcendent potential of the the act of looking long enough and closely enough, with a willingness to appreciate unseen wonders, bowing to them over a lens, in postures of awe and reverence––for the wonders themselves, and for the artists who knew how to look, who took the time to wait, sore necks bowed over lenses, so that others might see: not what might or can be, but what already is.

Such as?

Look!

Sweep of obsidian, the curved form of a new age creature, the decorated ponytail extending from an avian head, the fine grain of its surface, the smooth luster of the skin. Where is it looking, so made up, and what is this creature?

That is the hind leg of a beetle.

What can I make of this glowing-red canopy from Alice’s wonderland, bright orbs giggling on top of it, a party of yellow puffer fish around the birthday cake?

Anther of hibiscus.

What is this now? Jungle of Pleistocene Forest, before the age of leaves, where the burgeoning woods are a viscous pink, part fiber and part gel, growing up and across like the storms of Jupiter, cooling in a mold, catching globs of supernovae?

That is cotton fabric, pollen grains.

Now a dreamscape: cloud bands fertile with wheat fields, above the twilight river, bodies of unborn fruit floating in it, their impish sweetness like thumbnail fairies?

Cross section of agate. Think you know rocks? Look at this.

That isn’t rock, but concentric circles of prism: green, blue, pink, suspended in snowflakes, but I don’t have the words right; the colors themselves are not even colors, but light in translation.

Check out this guy. He’s looking at you.

Look at this ant, his face grizzled with three-day-old whiskers and his Whatchou doing there? look, wearing the attitude of the widened trickster on the corner, the crazy uncle calling out the trouble you’re about to get into before you’ve even thought about it. He looks like he started in early on the rum punch and he’s cornering you with what you can already tell is going to be a long story.

These close-ups are really something, but look at this. Is this a lost Rothko, or an arial view of the ruins of some ancient cousin to Babylon’s gardens? Yes, it must be the gardens; look at this rich wood, these leaves, translucent gold petals of gossamer fabric. This must have been what the seraphim wore to blow trumpets; it must be–– 

That is a table salt crystal, and there is the vein and scales of a butterfly wing. 

But what is this wild celebration of light, like a Van Gogh vision of Mardi Gras after the absinthe kicks in, like a pointillist’s version of stained glass?

That is a brain tumor, laced with a virus.

Even this?

Even this.

Oh, this world.  

It’s almost too much.

To take in.

How does anyone ever do anything but look?

And wonder.

And take the hand of the next person, hold it and say, Look, look!

There it is. 

There it is.

This reflection was inspired by a feature in The Atlantic on the winners of Nikon’s 2021 Small World Photography Competition.

Lens on the Littles

How do you discover something new? By looking where no one else is looking, with a new and better lens.

Huh.

What?

It’s Antonie Phillips van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday today.

Wait. Does this mean you’re inviting people over? I’m not up for it tonight. I have––

It’s not like I know him, know him. Besides, he died in 1723. It’s just, you know.

I don’t. Who is this guy?

He’s the father of microbiology. Dutch guy. He lived in the same town as Vermeer. Funny, he didn’t even think of himself as a scientist. He was a draper. He wanted to get a better look at the thread, so he worked on making better magnifying lenses. 

Is he that guy in Vermeer’s Astronomer?

Some say, even though the resemblance is questionable. What’s funny is he didn’t tell anybody about the lenses. Competition was fierce. But then he had a look at pond water, and he saw all these moving creatures.

Wonder of wonders. 

That’s exactly what he said!  So, he tells his friend, who is a scientist, and eventually word gets out and he captures the attention of The Royal Society of London. 

He published his findings?

Eventually, in letters. He had to be talked into this. He was like, I’m not a scientist, I’m a businessman! They’ll laugh at me! I don’t even know the terminology!  But his friend assured him that biologists used mostly made-up words, especially where discoveries were concerned.

Studying biology is like learning a new language.

Okay, he said. I’ll call these little guys animalcules!

That’s the spirit, his friend said.  The term is out of fashion now, but it encompassed lots of little creatures: unicellular algae, small protozoa, tiny invertebrates.

All in the pondwater?

At first. Later he turned his lenses on other findings. He found bacteria living in the human mouth and he the guts of animals. Spermatozoa, too, and the banded pattern of muscle fibers. 

Well, that’s something. 

Isn’t it?! That’s the point! Where everyone else saw nothing, he saw something. His followers called him the first with the power to see.

Well, here’s to you, APL.  I’m still not cooking, but I’ll raise a glass.

Something small, maybe?

Hah! Better get your microscope. With the right lens, it’ll be a feast.

Whisper Songs

Longing for the living silences.

The silent places are gone now, but––I hear–– there are these anechoic chambers accessible through three sets of thick doors, behind three layers of thick walls, with fat grey foam over every surface. It’s so quiet inside that the hiss of blood in your ears is deafening.  So quiet that if you should say something, the sound has nowhere to bounce, and what you hear will feel like needing to pop your ears in a plane.

––Too much, I think. A body wants space, too; a sense of safety within the actual, living world, without having to be in a cell.

There’s the empty concert hall. Imagine an upper corner, a blanket and pillow. In there, you won’t even hear a bomb detonating in the city outside.

It’s not the grave I want, but living silence. Not outer-space, either, with its weightlessness and no air molecules to carry the sound of a scream. Please, just no rumble of truck over grave, no mid-morning leaf-blower.

In the Hoh Rainforest, in Olympic National Park, there once was a small square inch of space not yet affected by the noise of air traffic. It may be gone now.

There are underwater caves in the Yucatan, the Kelso Dunes at twilight, the volcanic patches throughout Iceland; a blanket bog in England, a crater in Maui, parts of Alaska, Big Bend.

The salt flats of Botswana are quiet too, they say. Except that I think the image of the lost lake must pain what is already sore with loss. 

Some are trying to designate refuges where the sound of natural noise buffers the sound of machine. There’s an Urban Quiet Park outside Taipei; there is Eduador’s Zabalo River. Let us hear water noises, squirrel, wren. A church at midday during the week. The low murmur of people chatting in a café would be fine, minus the blenders, the espresso machines, the crash rumbling of trucks on the street. 

They say you can hear the blue magpie in one of these urban parks. I don’t know the sound by name. I had to look it up. They say that deep in the jungle, a canopy of leaves and mosses can make the sound of water echo all around. 

When I was small, I would sometimes curl beneath a blanket on the couch in my grandmother’s living room. She had a garden with hummingbirds and blue jays around, and she’d exclaim over the occasional cardinal. She’d be quietly moving things in the kitchen, in the sink. I would hear the shuffle of her feet, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets, the birds outside. I would close my eyes just to feel it better, like the tickle of breeze in the late afternoon, the soft sweep of kitten fur against skin, the sudden landing of a butterfly on a nearby surface.  I would hold as still as I could, knowing that I would eventually have to leave her space, and her, and do whatever it was that the adult world demanded. This posture was not unlike the one I would hold in the car while going anywhere I did not want to go, especially school, when I would press my face against the glass as the miles moved too quickly toward the approaching noise, thinking, Shhhhhhhh.

Lightning

A flash, a bolt, a vision before the thunder: lightning conjures images of celestial warfare, but that isn’t all.

A bolt can be an inch wide and ninety miles long.

More people are hit while fishing than any other outdoor activity.

The heat can cause a sudden expansion of sap­­––or blood––exploding a tree, or blood vessels. 

New York’s Empire State Building is struck twenty-five to one-hundred times per year.

There was an orthopedic surgeon in Albany, who was struck in a phone booth in the mid-nineties. He had just finished a call to his mother. His heart stopped. He was revived but changed. He no longer had interest in medicine. What he did have was a sudden urge to play the piano, along with visions of musical notations. Although he had no prior musical experience, he became a classical musician, began touring. 

How? Some of the remaining doctors speculated that the neurons were rewired, providing access to areas of the brain that were previously inaccessible. 

Many cultures saw it as the choice weapon of divinities, but the Navajo had a different take. They considered it a healing power, a wink in Thunderbird’s eye. 

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.

One Hundred Days

Celebrating the mystery of daily practice.

Today marks one hundred days of these posts, which started as “this thing I am trying” and evolved into Breadcrumbs, and which are now evolving me.

The project began from an impulse of love and a wish to connect. Someone asked: Why, where do you see yourself? I thought, Dead, eventually. Hopefully not soon, but a person never knows. It mattered not to do so while waiting for someone’s invitation to the table. 

I was working on manuscripts, which is long and lonely work. I am still working on manuscripts, some of which are new since beginning this project. I publish here and there in journals, and this is also slow-going. That’s how these things are. And meanwhile, every morning since I started this experiment, I also publish here. The idea was simple: try this thing and don’t stop.  I could evaluate after a hundred days. 

Evaluating now, I feel mostly gratitude. It never got easier, but it did become more automatic, the practice of––this thing. I don’t have to name it to learn from it. Daily practice teaches what I could not think to learn, including invitations to new questions. Friend, thank you for joining me here. 

The mind offers many reasons to stop and change course. This is what minds do, offer reasons for things. They can be acrobats of distraction. But the still part, the listening part, knows. This is the part I show up here to visit. This is where we meet, at the edge of the deep, still lake we share. Most of what is happening in it, I will never explain. This is the kind of presence I trust. The mystery is always more compelling than any of my own ideas.

Looking back at selections from the archives, I see something moving that is vastly more intelligent than I am, the logic of which I could never have planned. One hundred is a special number, and in this case, only a beginning. I mark this day with this prayer of gratitude. Friend, thank you so much for being here with me. I bow to you with a heart full of wonder. 

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.