Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Year of the Star (1991)

Today is part 1 of me telling you something of my past shenanigans. If you know me, you probably already know about this stuff; sorry if it’s boring. If this is old news to you, check back in a week or so.

But if you don’t know me very well, maybe you’ll think this is pretty cool. I recommend trying it yourself, especially if you’ve got kids.

Before Sue and I bought the house—before home repairs, and finding ways to pay for them, became our number-one pastime (come on, smile—life could be worse, right?)—we used to have a “theme” each year.

It was like our very own “continuing education” seminar. It was always about natural history. Each year we’d pick some category of things in the natural world, and make it our theme for the year. We’d focus on it, read about it, plan activities around it. Whatever the theme was, we’d be conscious of it the whole year.

Making it an annual cycle makes sense when you’re learning about natural things. From the progression of the constellations to the lives of mosses, you need all four seasons to witness a complete cycle, the thing in all stages of life, in all positions and forms.

One year, we learned about spiders. One year, it was all trees. And we actually had two years where we studied mushrooms and fungi. Naturally, we only scratched the surface of these subjects, but we did learn more than most people know, and we also gained something in the way of consciousness—after spending a year focusing on something, you are pretty much always going to be aware of it.

This annual “focus” emerged from my sense of “withdrawal” after I got my master’s degree. I had loved taking “ology” classes: ornithology, mammalogy, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, plant ecology, and so on. Each semester immersed me in some wonderful new realm.

After spending months intensively studying something—say, plant taxonomy—you can’t go outside without keeping an eye out for novel plants, or noting and appreciating the familiar, characteristic structures of, say, a flower in the mustard family—4 petals, 4 sepals, tetradynamous stamens, the seeds enclosed in a silique. Good ol’ mustard flower.

And suddenly it seemed mustard flowers were everywhere—though before I took the class, I usually saw only weeds.

Each class opened my eyes, caused me to appreciate a chunk of this fantastically diverse world. Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for saying, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.” Taking those “ology” classes caused me to take that time, and taking that time made the world into something like a friend.

So when I got done with my schoolin’, I quickly realized I was missing something: learning. That year (and this was the perfect time for it, as I was between school and my first job, and I was living in Arizona), was for me the Year of the Star.

I had never taken an astronomy class, and I had never seriously studied the night sky. So for that year, I made it a point to drive into the desert at least once a week and learn the constellations, and the names of the stars. I quizzed myself on them, naming all I could before opening my book and trying to learn some more.

I kept abreast of interesting events—bright stars being occulted by the moon, times when two or three planets drew close in the sky, meteor showers, the moons of Jupiter, lunar and solar eclipses, and much more. Whatever I could witness without a telescope.

I read books and magazines by day; by night, I spent hours supine on the hood of my Civic, off the side of the road, looking through binoculars. This was way out on an Indian reservation, in open range, where small bands of horses would sometimes drift quietly past. Clear, dark skies. Later, at 2 or 3 in the morning, I’d sit in the Waffle House on Baseline and I-10 and write notes in my journal, sketching the lights I saw in the sky.

Once, I convinced a new “friend” I’d met at a bar to leave that smoky dive and join me on one of my stargazing outings. In retrospect, it must have seemed like an invitation to do far more, but in the end we both had a wonderful and innocent time, out in the quiet night, talking and taking in the mystery of it all.

Ever since my year of saturating myself with the stars in the night sky, I find myself looking upward at night, noting the phase of the moon, mentally rehearsing star names to myself, renewing my acquaintance.

And I experience a sense of reunion when I’m up late enough to see, reaching above the eastern horizon, a favorite constellation from the coming season—stars not seen since they vanished with the sun beneath the western horizon months ago. Seeing Sirius in October is like spying the first wildflower of the spring, or noting the first tinges of gold on leaves in mid-September.

And even more than this, I discovered that I am somehow deeply comforted by the fact that no matter where I go (unless I travel far into the southern hemisphere), the constellations and planets will always be there with me, doing their thing, predictable clockwork overhead.

On some level, it’s a terribly romantic concept, to think that we all—you, me, and all the ones we love, and all the ones we have trouble with—live beneath the same stars, the same silent heavens.

(Yes, I'm going somewhere with this. Check back again in a few days.)

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