I’m usually a very good sleeper but occasionally I wake up at some ungodly hour for no reason at all. I like being awake when the rest of the world is asleep. Sometimes I get up and make tea and toast. Sometimes I look out the window. Last night was a beautiful starry night and I couldn’t go back to bed until I looked at my star chart.
When I was young my Dad pointed out some of the constellations for me: The Plough and Cygnus,t he swan that flies the Milky Way. When I was older the ancient star maps with their warriors, animals, princesses and ships fascinated me. How did the ancients see all those stories in the sky?What was in their heads that allowed them to fill in the gaps in the massive join-the-dot chart above our heads?
I recently read a book called The Shallows on how the internet is changing the shape of our brains, how inventions such as the written word, maps and clocks resulted in us outsourcing parts of our intelligence, our memory , our spatial awareness. It makes me wonder if before television and photography, before images and paintings became common, we were able to visualise in greater depth and detail. It is a bit mind bending to think that the ancients really saw warriors in the sky…
Some years ago I went on a 4 month trip to Namibia in Africa. There wasn’t a lot to do in the evenings. Mostly people sat around the campfire talking but my hearing difficulties made conversing in the half-dark hard so I would take myself into the darkness with a star map and try to identify the constellations. Being on the equator I found it disconcerting that the sun set at the same time each day. It gave me the curious and not particularly pleasant feeling of being stuck in the same day but at night the stars always let me know that everything was moving and that all things must pass.
The first one was Orion, my favourite, its three-starred belt a dead give away even in Namibia where it was hanging upside down. It was one of those things, half-noticed, familiar yet in the wrong place that made me realize how far from home I was. Seeing the Southern Cross to for the first time had the same effect. I became familiar with quite a few constellations as the expedition wore on: Aquila, Capricorn, Aquarius, Grus, Triangulum Australis, Lepus, Gemini and Cassiopeia of course, the instantly recognisable ‘W’ we can see here near the North Star.
I never expected to see Eridanus, one of the original 48 constellations, which represents the River Po in Italy and which twists its way across the sky past other constellations from Orion to Phoenix. Then, one night, I was looking at the jumble of stars and suddenly it was just there. Like the Magic Eye writ large.
Living like that~camping out, with no distractions~ I began to understand how important the stars were to people long ago. They form beautiful stories above our heads and their constant cycle of change echoes all the cycles of life.
You might expect that now I can look at the sky and instantly recognise all the star formations but that is not the case, if you are not looking at them nightly I think they fall away. Some of the more obvious stay like Orion,which sprawls above us like a burglar on a skylight, and The Plough and Cassiopeia but I still need my star map when I look out. Last night it took me at least 20 minutes to work out what I was looking at.
To the west towards Dungarvan, there were the twin stars, Castor and Pollux of the Gemini constellation, mid-right in this photo, while Lynx is above with a part of Leo-the sickle-to the left…
…looking East there was Ophichus along with parts of Hercules, Aquila, Libra and Serpen Caput.
To finish, here’s a little poem I wrote in Africa.
UGAB CAMP SITE
Slept under a mosquito net, Grus flying overhead,
and dreamed of lions.
A cricket woke me in the night and
I thought I heard the soft breath of elephants.
Hornbills in the morning.