Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On Watching The Skies

Of all the lessons I have learned in forty-five years as an amateur astronomer, the most poignant and heart-wrenching is this; the Universe is a fickle mistress.  She can bless the observer with moments of incredible beauty or cast him down into the depths of stargazing purgatory with what can only be described as terrible whimsy on Her part.

On some nights the ancient photons seem to shower down, effortlessly falling onto one's optics to form tapestries of nebular light and dusty shadow, glorious spheres of pinpoint stars or great spiral vistas; on other evenings the optics are hazed by heavy dew and stars vanish behind skeins of cirrus, curtains of stratus, walls of cumulus. Nights of exultation, evenings of despair.

We, the mortals who aspire to divine Her secrets, to learn Her ways; we make sacrifices and lay down offerings in plenty.  We study the elder volumes of stellar lore; books authored by other aspirants and seekers--from savants with names like Tirion, Pasachoff, Webb and Peltier, French, Rukl and Moore we seek guidance in our quests; lists of jewels in the heavens to be sought with avarice and passion, maps with which to chart our voyage along the Milky Way, down the Cascade, over lunar Alps and through the gap of Cassini.

We study the tomes, and wait for darkness.

And our equipment!  Great, glittering, intricate devices of silvered glass and cylindrical metal, gears and lightning constrained to our wills.  Purchased with treasure from merchants and artisans, or made with our own hands in hidden workshops, they are part and parcel of our quest for star-stuff.  Each optik tube, each carriage of iron and hardwood an extension of our wills, our desires. Their shapes and mechanisms are both defined by us and defining us as members of the legion of observers.

We prepare our tools, and watch the heavens for errant clouds.

Alone, facing the night in solitude, or in numbers gathered as for some arcane ceremony under the arch of night, we come to our chosen places as the sun falls from the heavens. Our tools are readied as dusk falls; the intruding light of day is replaced by faint ruby glows and pinpoints of green light as verdant fireflies in the twilight. White light is banished, cursed by all those gathered. Bands of harnessed energy are deployed against the fall of dew.

We wait. 

Finally, the moment arrives.  Now, after all of our preparations, wards and spells, it is She--the Universe Herself!--who rules the darkness, who will favor us, individually or together as is Her whim.  Will the heavens open before our optically-enhanced eyes to show us wonders or will those clouds far away to the west suddenly race toward us to manifest an overcast--or worse?  Will Sirius be steady and calm or flash angrily with the Universe's disdain for all of our studies and sacrifices, warning of poor seeing and a disappointing night?  Will our tools perform as designed, gears meshing and glass focusing with precision, or will they fail in the dark crucible of the middle-night?

All we can do now is bend to our eyepieces, tend to our charts and grimoires, hope for wonders in the night, and watch the skies.

Always, watching the skies.

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