“The Milky Way…is now invisible to two-thirds of those living in the United States. If this does not bother you, that may be because you have never seen it stretched out above your head like a meadow of smallest stars.”
— Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark
If you are not a closeted amateur astronomer, it may be only because you have never lived in a dark enough place. My childhood on an Illinois farm gave me plenty of opportunity to see the stars. In my mind the dot-to-dot constellation stick figures are still fleshed-out by the more human figures of Orion and Cassiopeia from my Golden Book of Science for Boys and Girls. The night sky offers intrigue for even the casual observer. Traveling has offered me a few memorable opportunities to see new things there.
Opportunity One: Cruising on the Paul Gauguin in Tahiti we dined often with a pair of women from Australia. It occurred to me that they might know how to find the Southern Cross in the local sky. They were familiar with it but had only vague instructions. Combine that with too much ambient light on the ship’s deck; we did not see the Southern Cross on that trip.
Opportunity Two: Riding in a van late at night through the jungle roads around Iguassu Falls, Brazil, I wondered aloud if we could see the Southern Cross from there. Our naturalist guide halted the van and got us out on the road to look. Ta-Da! There it was, lopsided but cruciform, just like on the New Zealand flag.
Opportunity Three: Cruising off the coast of Argentina, surely captains know the skies for navigation, right? On a small Seabourn ship with very guest-friendly officers, I asked if the Norwegian-born captain would turn out the lights on the uppermost decks and show us the highlights of the southern sky. He agreed and we met him on the top deck for an astronomy lesson. We all admired the display above our heads – then he apologetically said, “Now if this were the sky over Norway I could really show you around!” Apparently navigation no longer requires the human ability to tell a few stars apart from the hundreds visible.
Opportunity Four: Again, cruising around Cape Horn (I am a very lucky girl!), the on-board lecturer offered a star-gazing time on the upper deck for all interested in finding the Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds, and more. Loads of amateur astronomers (closeted and not) attended and questions were answered with authority. Most satisfying!
Now, only a few years after that last evening, both of us have apps on our phones and tablet which identify constellations and planets in whichever part of the sky you ‘look’ to. (They even identify things well below the horizon, and include cartoons to help you visualize the scorpion or the bull in the otherwise stick figure constellations.) So technology can help you be a less ignorant astronomer, anywhere on the earth.
But there is a wonderful satisfaction in knowing your way around the sky yourself. Even without traveling, you can find an open and dark patch of sky if you look. I highly recommend checking the night sky yourself for things you have not seen in a long time.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
21 April 2016