(With Ash Wednesday coming up, my time has been consumed with parish work. Therefore, I will be taking a week off from the summaries of the Waterborne Symposia. If you have been following these posts, we will get back into "Christian Ecology" next week.)
A little over a week ago, I had a rare opportunity to run back to the family farm for dinner. I had just come off of a long stretch of funerals at the parish and felt the need to get away, even if it just be for a night. As soon as I got home, my father told me how beautiful the night skies had been. It has been an unusually warm February in Wisconsin, providing crystal clear skies and weather warm enough for some stargazing with no winter gear necessary.
After nightfall, my parents asked me if I brought my telescope home? Unfortunately, I had not since I was just looking to rest for the evening and enjoy some literal home cooking. My mother, however, insisted, "Take the field glasses and do some stargazing - you need to enjoy these skies." My mother was right. As soon as I got outside, I didn't even need to let my eyes dark adapt to be stunned by how clear and crisp the night sky appeared. The clarity of the heavens instantly took me back to my childhood as the night revealed, once again, the beauty of a rural central Wisconsin sky, free of light pollution (mostly).
After a quick peak at some of my favorite objects, I called to my mother to come out and enjoy the stars. In the past, my mother would look through my telescope to see what her son was observing. This time, I wanted her to be the one to find things in the night sky.
"Mom, come out here and look through the field glasses!" When she came outside, I informed her that she was going to be the one in charge of find things tonight. My mother quickly accepted the challenge as long as I was willing to help out a little bit.
"What's the really bright star on the horizon?"
"That's Venus, Mom. Take a peak."
Success! My mother quickly and easily found Venus. I asked her if she could see the phase of Venus. "Oh yeah..." Her affirmation gave me a quick sense of accomplishment. We were off and running!
"Now, is that Mars over there by Venus?"
Two for two! My mother didn't even need my help on that one. I could tell that looking at these simple objects was giving my mother confidence and eagerness to find more wonders in the night sky.
"Mom, how would you like to look for some things that are a little more challenging?"
"Let's start with the Orion Nebula."
After outlining the constellation of Orion, I explained how to find the Orion Nebula in the sword hanging from Orion's belt. I told my mother to look for three small stars that make a triangle that look like they are surrounded by a white, hazy cloud.
"Oh, yeah... I got it!"
I explained to my mother how the Orion Nebula is a place of star birth. Once my mother learned it was a "star nursery," the field glasses went up again.
I can't put into words the pride I felt, seeing my mother have so much success on her first night of stargazing where see was choosing the targets.
"Where is the Big Dipper? Where is the Little Dipper? Where is the North Star?"
After some pointing and creative imagining, we connected the front two stars of the "bowl" of the Big Dipper to draw our line in the sky to Polaris and the Little Dipper.
"Now, what is that really bright star over there?"
"That's Sirius Mom."
The excitement in my mother continued to grow, giving me the confidence to throw a fun stargazing challenge at her.
"Mom, how would you like to see a galaxy that's about the size of ours?"
"I'd love to!"
Before my mother had come out, I was looking at the Andromeda Galaxy. Since I currently live in the city, I rarely get a chance to see this object naked eyed. Tonight, however, there it was! Through the field glasses it looked spectacular, making me wish I had brought my telescope home.
In typical astronomy fashion, I first tried to show my mother where the Andromeda Galaxy was with neighboring stars. I could tell that trying to use Cassiopeia as a "pointer arrow" wasn't working well for my mother. Then I had an idea - stop thinking like a hobby astronomer. As soon as this happened, I knew exactly how to help my mother find Andromeda.
In rural Wisconsin, we often say that directions are never given by proper street names, but by visual cues on the terrain. A typical joke for a Wisconsinite is that the most common directions we give are to "take this road for about five miles and then turn right at the cow." Though it might be a bit overstated, I must admit that this technique is used quite frequently (minus the cow - usually a big red barn, yellow house, or lake).
In the spirit of "rural directions," I noticed that the Andromeda Galaxy was lined up perfectly with our silo that was jetting over the trees.
"Mom, take the field glasses and look at the very top of the silo. Center the very top of the silo in the field glasses and slowly go strait up to see Andromeda."
"Oh my gosh, there it is!"
My mother's first night of stargazing on her own and she was able to find the Andromeda Galaxy. Amid the excitement, I was reminded that it took me about a year to find this galaxy when I was a kid. That being said, I was trying to find it on my own with little experience in astronomy. I didn't have someone who knows the sky to help guide me. Nevertheless, it was a very good night for me and my mother.
After "oo-ing" and "ah-ing" at the Pleiades, my mother said, "That's strange. It looks like the sky is getting hazy."
"No, Mom, that's not haze. That's our Milky Way Galaxy." Putting the field glasses to her eyes in disbelief, she understood that what she always thought was a hazy cloud was not haze at all, but a lot of stars.
"James, you're right. The night sky is God's canvas!"
When my mother made this statement, something was touched in me. Many times people will ask, "Why do you like astronomy so much?" No matter how hard I try, I never feel like I can give an answer that sufficiently gives voice to the numerous times I have experienced God's presence, love, joy, and peace while looking at the stars. To hear my mother embrace a vision of the night sky as God's canvas made me feel like she now was able to understand and share in the spiritual aspect of stargazing that I experience. Needless to say, I'm really glad I went home for dinner!
Sadly, given the increase of light pollution, these types of moments are getting harder and harder to share with people. Could there be a day when people look up to the night sky and see nothing but a milky haze that it not our galaxy? If you are blessed with dark, clear skies where you live, get out and enjoy them! If you live in the city like I do, drive out to the countryside and find a place like our family farm that provides beautiful dark nights for you to behold the wonder of God's creation. The night sky is God's canvas. Let's spend some time this week enjoying the Artwork of God!