Last week I returned from my annual ministerial study break in which I stayed for two weeks in the desert home of friends in Borrego Springs, Calif., a “dark sky community” in which the night-time lighting is kept to a minimum – also a place where one can see vast distances with, typically, little cloud cover to impede one’s view of what is happening in the heavens above.
And, now, I’m going to describe what will certainly be the most elemental of observations to anyone interested in the night sky – and I apologize in advance to all professional and amateur astronomers, as well as to any half-way observant persons of the night sky, but here’s my story:
Since my childhood and youth in rural Lynden, Wa., I’ve always been able to locate the Big Dipper in the northern night sky. And sometimes, though never with any great assurance, I’ve located what I took to be the Little Dipper.
Also, I had heard that the North Star is part of the Little Dipper and that two of the four stars that form the cup of the Big Dipper point to the North Star. And, I had heard that the North Star was also the Pole Star.
Well, finally, in my 70th year, I experienced what this was actually about.
Around 5 p.m. in that part of the country at this time of the year, the sky would begin to darken.
As it did, over the Santa Rosa mountains to the north of Borrego Springs, the Big Dipper would begin to appear.
First, only the two stars at the front of the cup; then, as the hours went by, the whole of the Big Dipper.
At the same time to the left of the Big Dipper, from my perspective, the Little Dipper also began to be visible, with the North Star, which is at the end of the handle, being the most visible.
As the hours of the night went by, I would often check to see what was going on above me – 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m., 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 5:30 a.m. – not each night at all of those times, but whenever I might awaken on a given night.
And what I would witness was the “dome of heaven” wheeling clockwise around the Pole Star. The Big Dipper would come up and around, then disappear into daylight on the other side of the Pole Star.
So, too, the stars of the Little Dipper would rotate around the North Star, with it, like a ballet dancer on pivot point, remaining stationary. Early in the evening the stars forming the handle and cup of the Little Dipper would be below the North Star, but by early morning, prior to the sun concealing them, they would be above the Pole Star.
Why did this most elementary astronomical event move me so?
Perhaps it was personally witnessing something I had heard about but never truly experienced before, the difference between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge.
Perhaps it was connecting with our ancestral human community, humbly aware that what I was experiencing for the first time was something so many of our forebears would experience on a nightly basis so that it would be in their bones.
Perhaps it was connecting with sailors, guided by the North Star on their night sea journeys.
Perhaps it was the pleasure of experiencing an order to things and having an orientation point, such as the Pole Star provided.
Perhaps it was the sense of perspective that it provided: to grasp more clearly our human place in the cosmos, to realize under the wheeling heavens it is not finiteness or mortality that is the issue, but finding my/our place in the ongoing stream of time and space – “Yes, I’m a tiny fragment of the whole of things, but it’s okay, it’s okay … happy to be a part; happy to function as a conscious witness to the creative process.”
Perhaps it was a wish to let others know what was real and what was less real in our societal struggles; or, as Albert Schweitzer puts it, “How much would already be accomplished towards the improvement of our present circumstances if only we would all give up three minutes every evening to gazing up into the infinite world of the starry heavens and meditating on it” (The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, 1932).
No doubt, it was all these things and more; but, overall, with what a sense of appreciation and a feeling of gratitude I enjoyed my nightly ride on our earth as it spun in its orbit around our star under the expanse of stars, our dome of heaven!
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]