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The Mast-Head: The Language of Stars

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 15:57

I have a friend who knows the names of the stars. A few of them, anyway, she says. I do not know what the stars are called; a few constellations, maybe, yes, but individual stars, no.

As a species, we say a lot, perhaps too much, about the sky for it always shows us its magic, even if we do not know what each star is called. We know about red dwarfs and super novas, or at least we have heard of them. We hurry inside from the driveway without looking up, or if we do it’s only a passing glance to see if there will be rain.

These days, when I look at the sky at night, there is more light than there once was. A haze floats on the northern horizon, perhaps from New London or the submarine base on the Thames River. To the west, the light above Amagansett, perhaps from the I.G.A. parking lot, catches my eye. Aircraft blink overhead. I look. And I miss a meteor.

It is difficult to imagine what our forebears thought about the stars during the many millenniums of human history. There were, one supposes, as many cosmologies as there were languages. But there must always have been questions:

If the stars were departed souls, as some believed, then why did they only emerge in the dark? Why did the stars move each night, and why at a different rate than the sun or moon? As for the Milky Way, which we now know to be a side view into our galaxy, did earlier people on earth have a separate story for this mystery?

One early European in the New World wrote of discovering that stars that were familiar at home were far fainter and in the wrong place as he neared the equator. For him, this was further proof that the earth was not flat.

Knowing the names of the stars seems to me a gift, a comfort, as we confront the troublesome night. I should learn their names, I think.

William Synge, the great Irish playwright who wrote a book about his time on the Aran Islands, observed that the keening of women at funerals was not so much for the departed as for the terror of the fate to which all were condemned. Hanging on to constellations as if we are ourselves the sword in Orion’s belt may be the same.

We look at the imaginary shapes made by angles among the brightest stars, create familiar forms for them in our minds. When we keep them close and learn their names our attention is distracted from the unknown space between.


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