Starry, starry night
There's nothing like a crisp winter night for star-watching.
The dry winter air is as clear as glass when the sun goes down. With less moisture in the air, the stars are more sharply defined in their positions across the sky.
In dark-sky country, which we have in Northern Ontario, the Milky Way is always evident as long as there are no clouds that night.
The moon marks the passage of the months, rising and falling, always in some different phase as the earth passes between it and the sun. A dark sky, with no moon, is the best for star-watching.
On a dark night, as a child I would venture out with company across the dark field away from the yard light. Beyond the reach of that high lamp, the world was covered by a dark bowl of brilliant stars.
The Milky Way slices across the sky in spangling glory, when uncountable far-off galaxies, stars and planets combine to create a beautiful display, suitable for the throat of some great ancient goddess.
The planets drift, one by one, in a perfectly timed dance.
Venus is the first and most easy planet to identify for a child raised under a dark sky. Because the sun goes down early in the life of a country child, the stars become a more prevalent part of that child's life. Venus would be hanging in the west sky on any evening, like one of the great jewels depicted in my grandfather's encyclopedia set. Venus is veiled in a thick cloud of sulfuric acid, so we are told, and like most seductresses, as Venus is depicted, her true self is a dark, dry, rocky and volcanic world. But seen from a distance, the planet burns like a jewel, reassuring and beckoning. For those travelling by sea, the planet is one that sailors would be happy to spot.
The second most evident of the planets in a child's view of the sky is that of Mars. The planet often glows in the sky, red as a great ruby just out of reach of those who dream of riches in far-off worlds. It's actually iron or rust that causes Mars to glow in all its crimson glory. Like old swords that have seen battles and now have been forgotten in deep crypts, the god of war, as Mars is known, is not so great upon closer inspection. Jupiter, though, is apparently the largest planet within the solar system.
While Mars is much more riveting when it appears, Jupiter has drawn more admirers, mainly because of its size, I suspect. A child's eye looks at pictures of Jupiter and imagines marbles. There it is. I think it's why I love marbles so much, and jewels of course. My grandfather's encyclopedia set depicted all these planets as these beautiful treasures hanging in the sky.
Jupiter, apparently, is depicted as the great sky god, or Zeus himself. Read more carefully. It's all bluster and show, like the Wizard of Oz. Jupiter is mostly just a big ball of gas.
Mercury also makes its appearance on a regular basis, as it recently did with some spectacular audacity, cutting right across the face of the sun. With a crust of silicate, the planet is quite capable of capturing the light of the sun and throwing it back to the earth. While small, Mercury can command attention.
Conjunctions are always appreciated to create a beautiful display in the night sky. Saturn, the father of the planets according to Greek mythology, will often show up to meet the other planets, which is a better bouquet than any vase of flowers.
I hear of the other planets, Neptune, Uranus and Pluto, the last of which I still consider a planet, but without a telescope, I have never seen these other characters of the great night pantheon. But I know they are there and part of this amazing clockwork solar system, which in turn is part of the galaxy, which in turn is part of this universe. And so it goes on.
There are many treasures in the night sky, which can occupy dreams and lifetimes of studies. But I think my child's mine identified them as they remain in my heart. They are beautiful jewels which are strung together, depicting images and stories created through time. My favourite of all though, is the Big Dipper, which hovers off to the right in my vision during the summer months when I sit on the steps of the cabin. It hangs on the North Star, and assures me that all the riches that I could ever wish for are spread out before me, and the world is perfect as it is.