Blowin’ In: Stargazing
By Susan Mangan
Paint at night
those stars in a frosty sky,
one brighter than another.
Sirius, Orion, Great Bear
accustom eyes to deepest pitch
that delivers the Milky Way.
The more it’s scanned,
this sprawl grows fathomless.
Too late to catch low in the south –
as if the sound made walking the lane just now
frightened it away –
a star falling seconds later
another, lit trajectory
over the western rim.
Yet, up above the heavens are
crammed with constellations
like so many freckles jostling for place.
(“Night Sky” by Catherine Phil MacCarthy)
At the turn of the winter solstice, light is slowly brought back into the world. The air is still cold though, and darkness encroaches on our light. Some people sink deeper into the loneliness of the night, while others find beauty beneath the stars that shine in the winter sky.
Forever a child, I am enchanted by the stars and the everchanging faces of the moon. I can still hear my mother reciting, “I see the moon and the moon sees me, God bless the moon, and God bless me.” During any given season, my father would haul out his telescope, ignoring the light pollution of Chicago, and we would stand in our small, fenced-in yard looking up, high into the night sky – a mysterious world filled with possibilities.
Born prematurely, I had to spend my first few months of life in an incubator. As I grew stronger in my isolated nursery, my mother could not hold or touch me. She could only wait and pray and trust that I would soon be allowed to go home, to start my life in this world.
My mother always told me that I began my new life in her arms on the day that the men landed on the moon. Standing outside in the warm July night, she held me close and whispered softly, telling me about the wonders of our world. No matter the season, that night energy has never left my heart or memory.
Much like the stories my mother would tell me of my infancy, the night sky has long captured the imaginations of storytellers and poets. Orion, the mythological hunter, leads the stars in winter. Best viewed in January and February, one can readily identify Orion’s Belt, three of the brightest night stars that form a line.
Gemini, the twins, and Taurus, the bull, are two other winter constellations. It is said by some astral story seekers that Orion either hunts his neighbors, or kindlier, carries them through the winter sky, if only for a night.
Imagine living in ancient times when the world was completely winter dark and great pictures of light formed in the night sky, changing with every season. Ancient people looked to the sky to mark time. In the Boyne Valley of County Meath, Newgrange is a Neolithic burial mound.
Each year at sunrise on the Winter Solstice, a single ray of light shines through a box-like shaft at the center of the main chamber. The light lasts only for seventeen minutes at dawn but remains as testament to the intelligence of the ancient people who survived by marking time in a world without light.
Dark Sky Park
While Newgrange is archaeological proof of the industry of the ancient Irish people, other seekers look to the sky to weave stories that bind the myths of Ireland to her history. Naturalists and educators involved with Mayo’s International Dark Sky Park compare the constellation of Orion to the legend of Daithí Bán, a legendary giant who wandered Mayo’s Nephin mountains.
They say that he was a hunter, like Orion, and met an untimely death through trickery. His image is held sacred in the great constellation of Orion, forever the hunter who guards the night sky.
Mayo’s Dark Sky Park is located between the Nephin mountains and the Atlantic coastline. Encompassing Ballycroy National Park, the Dark Sky Park is Ireland’s first international night park that touts the darkest place, free of light pollution, in Ireland to view the stars, planets, and phases of the moon.
The Wild Nephin mountain range is unpopulated and one of the most isolated, untouched ranges in Ireland. Within that area lies the Bangor Trail, a path worn by shepherds since the early sixteenth century.
This untouched land speaks to the history of a place illuminated by natural beauty. Visitors to the Dark Sky Park can view stellar constellations or take part in educational tours and lectures led by naturalists dedicated to preserving both the folklore and science unique to the Wild Atlantic Way of Western Ireland.
This winter I have been reading a memoir aptly entitled Wintering by Katherine May. May uses the term winter as a metaphor for both the inevitable pain that comes from living, as well as the inexpressible joy and hope that greets us if we are open to wonder. At five months pregnant, May traveled during the frigid month of January to the Arctic Circle; far from her home in England, she sought to view the elusive lights of the Aurora Borealis.
In the mid of night, May and her husband went by coach with other seekers in the hope of seeing the lights, validation that their trip was not a fool’s journey. She describes the first viewing as a green mist, barely perceptible, but present nonetheless, in the winter sky. Each subsequent siting also proved rewarding, if unremarkable in constant green.
Then, one evening back at her hotel, May went to the lobby in search of her lost mittens. There framed in the windows of the lobby was the storied brilliant pink of the Northern Lights. In essence, May did not have to go searching for the changing rose of the night sky; she remarks that it was “just waiting for me to learn how to see it.”
This is where the lesson lies. Maybe we expend too much effort, place too much hope in grand expectation. Sometimes the reward of living, lies in clear sight, just beyond the darkness.
One night, years ago, my husband’s cousin was walking home with friends from a night at a pub on Achill Island. As the young ladies walked and laughed, the dark sky above Sleibhmór became illuminated with broad streaks of red, pink, and green. The night was alive with color.
The cousin ran inside the cottage to awaken her sleeping mother, who quickly rose out of bed to join in the excitement. The mother explained that the lively color was indeed the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. As mother and daughter stood enjoying what would become a treasured memory, the science behind the display did not seem important.
Perhaps, if we replace the dread of winter with the spirit of discovery; if we use winter as a season to pause in stillness; we might just be rewarded with a moment, not of darkness, but one of brilliant wonder.
*Sources Consulted: May, Katherine. Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.
On-line Sources: BBC Travel – Ireland’s Loneliest Wilderness: Wild Nephin National Park.
Mythical Ireland: Terra Firma. August 17, 2020.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. Susan may be contacted at email@example.com.