Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hazy With A Patch of Stars

Alexander and I took the binoculars out last night and did a little amateur night sky observing. Nearly at the zenith, Mars lolls about between constellations, it's rosy light bright enough to obscure nearby stars. In the south I show Alexander the constellation of Orion. At age nine,a year older than he is now, I found a deep love for the winter sky and in particular the 3 stars that make up the belt of Orion. On a childhood vacation by car from California to the Texas Panhandle, I watched those same stars whiz by the trees and snow capped hills we passed late at night. Past weird signs promoting Mystery Spots and Rabbits with Antlers, past Meteor Craters and Lands of Enchantment. I didn't know that cluster of stars had a name just yet and so I gave them a name myself, Omar, which I believe came from a mysterious character in a Nancy Drew book.

A year later, in summer school i took a science class and found out those stars were from a grouping of stars that make up the constellation of Orion. I fell in love with Astronomy that summer and took my fathers Navy issue binoculars out every night for a look.

It was amazing what you could see with binoculars. Those little stars and fuzzy patches puffed right up to big fuzzy blobs. I made drawings of what I saw and kept files in my desk of my nightly observations. Then I got a book called The Field Guide To The Night Sky and read about telescopes. I looked at the pictures of what you might see with a good scope and the naked eye and realized I'd been looking through the binoc's all wrong. The images hadn't been in focus. I'd made big hazy out of focus blobs in all of my drawings. When I finally figured out how to properly use the binoc's I was disappointed with the results. The stars looked like slightly brighter dots. Big deal.

Then for christmas I got a telescope from Santa. It wasn't very powerful, but it was a lot better than the binoculars. I found out the scope was a refractor and later if I wanted a more powerful scope I'd probably have to go for a reflector (which eventually I did).

I spent countless nights out in front of our house with that 60x Tasco telescope. During the late afternoon I'd sometimes pray, "please God, make the clouds go away and if it be your will make it a clear cloudless night." The best nights were in the winter for sure and of course that's when my favorite constellations came out, Orion, the Dippers, The big and little Dogs, Taurus.

I lived in a small working class town in north central California. Oroville had been a goldrush boom town, then a railroad town and by the time we lived there it was just coming on to it's next boom time with the "world's largest earth filled damn" being completed in 1968. We were there when the lake started to fill up and all the old roads that were down below a certain level of the hills, and all the old grave sites and tiny towns and mines were completely covered with water. It was weird seeing those things disappear, looking at the full lake and knowing their were lives that had been spent in places now submerged.

Their were a few songs that played in my head and on the radio a lot that year. "Honey" by Bobby Goldboro, which was a sad story about a man who plants a tree with his wife and it grows up and so do their kids and then the wife dies. I'd watch the blurr of pine trees go by the car window and get all chocked up in my own world in the back seat. And another Bobby, Bobby Gentry sang "Tallahatchee Bridge" and we'd pass over the big new bridge that took us over a large tributary of Lake Oroville. Other songs that I remember, "Games People Play", "Skip A Rope", anything by Johnny Cash, they all made the prospects of growing up into adulthood look, less than desirable. I decided I'd stay a kid, not male not female, and become an astronomer. Or a writer.

I wrote my first story in the fifth grade, Mystery Of The Winding Stream. And my first song, Cretaceous Times was written the same year. When my guitar instructor heard Cretaceous Times with all of it's twelve verses which included the various theories of how the dinosaurs may have died out, he nodded at me and said, "you might want to cut it down to just a few verses". And I thought, 'well, which theory's should be cut, Einstein'. But these are tales for another night, and another chance at a crisp winter viewing of natures lights.


  1. great post! i love that you are blogging!

  2. Look around, leaves are brown. There's a patch of snow on the ground. A Hazy Shade of Winter. It is a great time for hot cocoa and (radio?)astronomy. I had the privledge of spending a weekend up at the Lick Observatory and putting the big 36 inch refracting telescope to bed after a night of viewing. We looked at the surface of the full moon rising as well. I know the professor that was teaching the Astronomy class from UC Santa Cruz at the time.

    The Stig's Sky Calendar is a fun interactive tool to see where the moon, planets and stars are aligned, just move the mouse over the calendar.

    The hubble website has some great photos taken from the Hubble Space Telescope.

    Happy Observing to you both.