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Posted on July 15, 2015 at 6:00 am
The old lawn chair isn’t comfortable. My legs always stick to it when I wear shorts and it tilts to the left. But on this unusually warm Fourth of July evening, just minutes before the grand fireworks were about to begin, I was able to lean back and gaze up to a sky full of familiar friends; Cassiopeia’s pointy crown, the Big Dipper circling the North Star, and Jupiter and Venus all appeared to be particularly cozy that night. I found comfort that the usual suspects in the night sky are always there, and awe in knowing how small I am in the grand scheme of the universe.
My interest in astronomy began years ago at summer camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene. With our gear tucked into the canoe, we paddled across the bay for an overnight stay at a State Park. There we laid on the beach and as the light from the campfire dimmed, we held our wishes, ready for the next shooting star to hang them on.
Mostly, I was interested in the constellations and the fascinating stories humans made up to explain how the heavenly bodies came to be. In school, we studied Greek and Roman Mythology. It seemed as if they had a corner on the constellations. But, there are as many stories as there are cultures. For example, there’s Native American folklore that teaches when the Great Bear (Ursa Major) bumps his nose on the horizon, it will bleed—that is when the stars are in position in the sky, it’s the time of the year when the leaves change color. A couple of my favorites are the children’s books Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s Back, a story about the moon and the changing seasons, and How the Stars Fell into the Sky, the retelling of a Navajo folktale. These are older books, and the stories they tell are even older!
“As old as the moon and stars” is a favorite saying of one of my aunts. Relatively speaking, the stars are old, making our time here barely a blip on the screen. Ancient mariners navigated by the same stars we see today long before we knew the earth was round. Navigating by the stars is an art we can practice today. A fabulous resource for this is The Natural Navigator, the rediscovered art for letting nature be your guide. This book can help you impress your friends with MacGyver-like skills when the battery on your smartphone fails.
If you have a smartphone, one of the best apps ever created, in my opinion, is Star Walk2 (iOS or Android). With this app, you can hold your phone toward the sky and it identifies the constellations, stars, planets, moons—you name it. When you’re stargazing this app is like having a planetarium in the palm of your hand. It will even draw out the constellations as you scan across the sky. I think this is one of the apps out there that is worth paying a few dollars for.
One of the few school field trips I went on as a kid was a visit to the George Stahl Planetarium at Eastern Washington University. This trip had a bigger impact on me than anything I studied in class. The college students presented the program explaining some of the basics to my junior high class, and I was fascinated. Many years later in college, I was thrilled to find that my general requirements included an astronomy class. Again, I found myself in a planetarium—this time at Spokane Falls Community College—completely mesmerized by the cosmos.
The same summer I was in the astronomy class, my husband and I took our young son to the Five Mile Prairie, and along with hundreds of other stargazers, parked alongside the road to watch the Perseid meteor shower. The Five Mile area was still undeveloped at the time, and without the city street lights, the showers were easier to see. Instead of a beach and campfire, I sat on the hood of the car and pointed out the shooting stars to my son. He made wishes, and I found peace and awe in once again experiencing how grand the universe is.