Figures in the Sky
Let's compare 28 different "sky cultures" to see differences and similarities in the shapes they've seen in the night sky. Ranging from the so-called "Modern" or Western constellations, to Chinese, Maori and even a few shapes from historical cultures such as the Aztecs.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 (vol. 48, no. 4) issue of Mercury magazine, an ASP members-only quarterly publication.
As a tool for artists, perspective made its appearance consistently sometime in the early 1400s. It was not long before both linear and aerial perspective were utilized, giving depth and dimension to the scene, providing a more realistic view of the world.
For many years I have pondered the relationship of art to science, and cultural change in general. Is it art that drives change within culture, or are the artists merely reflecting on new ways of thinking and giving them manifestation? As scientists, it seems we would like to have the science driving changes in perception, however I suspect it is the artists who are leading us towards a more realistic way of seeing nature.
Of course, this may break down with the modern abstract and minimalist schools of art. Though the roots of these predated the now pervasive quantum physics, and its emphasis on probability, and uncertainty. So, perhaps the artists were a step ahead, preparing our perception for the coming change in scientific paradigms.
Teaching and learning are cultural processes. As such, they do not express themselves the same way in every society. Just as individual artists have different ways of expressing themselves, so too do cultures. Many times, this is evident within individual classrooms, as learners from diverse backgrounds bring with them different ways of knowing, and responding, not only to the culture in which they find themselves, but also to the natural world they are studying in science courses. At times it is difficult as educators to recognize and respect the differences, particularly because we tend to give preference to a rigid idea of what it means to learn science. As with the rest of our society, our western European roots are well established in not just the science we engage in, but also in how we teach, and learn in the formal classroom.
Many students, particularly those from indigenous cultures, have a different approach to nature. While students brought up in a western European style culture take a taxonomic approach focusing on the properties of individual parts, learners from indigenous cultures take a more nuanced approach, emphasizing relationships within systems. Cultures taking a relational approach to nature also tend to have a rich history of storytelling, bringing together different aspects of nature to create a coherent narrative.
In some ways, these two approaches to nature are at the heart of every interaction and controversy having to do with conservation of natural resources. In these cases, the approaches are manifested in a tension between seeing nature as transactional versus relational. The transactional approach to nature is rooted in the viewpoint it is there for humans to make use of, to always think of the value we extract from either the place itself or the underlying resources. The relational approach recognizes deep connections to nature, with humans intimately connected to the Earth and the other lifeforms who also call it home. History is rife with the tension between these two viewpoints, with many members of the dominant western European culture crossing over to advocate for the more nuanced, relational approach to nature, resulting in legislation such as the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, the Antiquities Act, and others. Of particular note are those who advocate the most strongly for the transactional viewpoint continue to fight for the exclusion, and rescission of any protections placed on land and species in an effort to add them to the inventory of places available for resource extraction.
In so many ways there is little difference between the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, Bears Ears in Utah, Standing Rock, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass National Forest, and the summit of Maunakea. In every instance, not only is there a tension between a transactional vs. relational approach to the land, but there is also one between the dominant western European, and an indigenous culture.
For an educator, providing a transformational experience for learners focused on relationships within systems can create a greater awareness of perspective than when focusing on individual elements. Many times, such an experience requires a slowing down, to decrease the sensory load, allowing nuances to emerge of how component parts interact in relationship. The creation or appreciation of art can provide such an experience, and park rangers in their interpretive practice do this on a regular basis as they tap into visitors’ affective realm. While a seemingly ordinary venue may provide such an experience, many times it is in the most spectacular places where we feel closest to nature. Indigenous peoples certainly recognized how some places evoke a greater feeling of relationship and perspective than others. Once such a place is gone, it is no consolation to point to it as an object lesson of what could have been.
Slowing down, one might sense the interconnectivity within a forest, or observe the sophisticated dynamics within groups of communal animals. To truly see the night sky may require stepping away from the eyepiece, taking in the depth of the vistas before you. We just might discover the truth John Muir knew: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Maunakea: A Matter of Perspective?
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has provoked a good deal of controversy. The process of getting the telescope constructed on the summit of Maunakea has seen both approvals and protests. Without a doubt, the telescope would provide a valuable addition to the tools astronomers use to explore the universe. When thinking about perspective, the TMT would certainly provide additional depth to the vision of our place in the greater cosmos.
As detailed in this issue’s feature about the TMT’s stalled construction, the summit of Maunakea is already home to a suite of instruments, so one might think the environment is already degraded, with little left to protest.
In recent years issues of human rights, and in this instance, the rights of indigenous people, have attained greater prominence in our consciousness. Or at least in the minds of those who take a broader perspective to see the land, and those who live there, are not just resources to tap into for monetary profit—or, in the case of the TMT, adding to human knowledge, which in a way is a different kind of profit.
Normally, I would celebrate the growth of knowledge, particularly when it comes to having a greater understanding of the universe. However, many times profit and knowledge come at the expense of another group’s rights and ability to practice their culture.
Perhaps the scientists, much like some sects of the religious majority in our country, would decry this point of view, claiming they are the ones who are made to suffer persecution. The last I looked, no one is suggesting the destruction of a place sacred to the majority; no observatory is scheduled for construction on the grounds of Notre Dame, or the Temple on the Mount, or in Mecca, for example.
The TMT is slated for construction on a mountain sacred to a particular group of people. It is not for anyone else to say what qualifies as sacred ground. To many of us, all ground is sacred, and worthy of protection from unbridled development and profit taking, no matter what form the profit takes.
As John Muir said about the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley: “These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Brian Kruse manages the formal education programs at the ASP. Read more articles by Brian.
TORREY – Wayne County has some of the darkest skies in the continental United States. And, from October 4th to October 6th, enthusiasts from around the world will converge on Torrey to celebrate the wonder of those star-studded heavens. This annual Heritage Starfest encourages participants to enjoy the dark skies of the Colorado Plateau, to share the heritage of night skies, and to preserve and protect the nighttime environment.
Capitol Reef National Park will sponsor Heritage Starfest events on Friday, October 5th. Activities at the park include a daytime astronomy event and an evening presentation by Zach Schierl, the Education Specialist and Dark Skies Coordinator from Cedar Breaks National Monument. Stargazing will follow Zach’s discussion.
Saturday, October 6th, events sponsored by the Entrada Institute at Robbers Roost in Torrey begin at 7:00 with a children’s activity and prizes. Zach Schierl will be the guest speaker and stargazing will follow.
Finally, everyone is invited to join dark sky monitors in Teasdale between 9:30 and 10:00 PM. From the home of Gary Pankow and Barb Walkush, they’ll travel to five sites in the area using sky quality meters to assess the sky’s darkness.
Put these dates in your calendar. Plan to join in the fun. Call 435.425.2228 for more information.
Evolving Culture at Winter Solstice
On the longest night of the year, under a full super-moon, a ritual evolves in a small Utah town.
Mark Bailey, thotsandshots.net
A full super-moon rose as complete dark enveloped a crowd gathered in the December cold around campfires and torches to celebrate the longest night of the year with art, culture, and sculptural pyrotechnics.
For those like me who are not motivated by the Christian religious myth of Christmas, Winter Solstice is the natural time to celebrate the turn of the seasons. A ritual is called for and one is evolving in rural Bluff, Utah, with all the resulting tensions that come with change and growth.
Bluff is a newly incorporated town of some 320 souls in San Juan County in the far southeast corner of Utah. Like Torrey, it is an oasis of progressiveness in a desert of right-wing politics. Bluff supports Bears Ears National Monument and has launched a popular new education center to promote visiting Bears Ears with respect while the political system sorts out the restoration of the monument. Belligerent San Juan County commissioners (see Malicious Prosecution in San Juan County) were the primary antagonists to the formation of the monument. They infamously celebrated with Trump by getting their white cowboy hats signed by the nakedly racist president at the Republican monument destruction proclamation ceremony in Salt Lake City in December 2017.
Native Americans were the primary advocates for the history making monument. 30 Tribes have formally declared their support for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition‘s effort to protect the Bears Ears landscape for all future generations. Half of San Juan County is Native American.
For seven years now, artist Joe Pachak has been creating sculptures made of local branches and brush to ceremonially burn on Winter Solstice. Upcoming Torrey House Press author Zak Podmore tells how Joe did not start out with a Native American theme. In 2011 he built his first sculpture to burn in honor of an elk he’d bow hunted that year. The next year he built a mammoth. The sculptures got bigger and so did the crowds. In 2017 he built a 40 foot tower of two dancing bears in a connection to the Ute bear dance ritual. This year music and dance were performed by Navajo groups and Navajo medicine man Curtis Yanito was invited to offer a prayer.
My guess is that around 300 people were gathered for the burn, a majority of them white and many, like Kirsten and me, from out of town. It was dark, and chilly, but I did not see many white cowboy hats. My sense, again a guess, is that most of those in attendance were supporters of the Bears Ears National Monument. The monument is to protect the natural landscape and its myriad cultural resources. The land is so resplendent with ancient Native American artifacts that it should have been the first national monument and not, 110 years later, the latest. At a celebration of land and culture it makes sense to invite Native Americans to share their culture. But the crowd and Yanito had different expectations for the evening’s program and not all Native Americans were comfortable with appropriation of their culture as entertainment for the evolving ceremony.
Max Oelschlaeger in his magnificent work, The Idea of Wilderness, expresses his hope that a new creation story will develop in way that rings true in the postmodern age which necessarily has, ” . . . both scientific plausibility and religious distinctiveness.” I have been besotted with the notion since I first read it at my son’s suggestion a dozen or so years ago. I founded Torrey House Press based on the same hope. A solstice ceremony is primed to have both scientific plausibility and religious distinctiveness. It is not the celebration of an implausible virgin birth, but rather of the shortest day of the year caused by the earth’s axial tilt. It is a celebration of the dark, of the assurance of a return of the light, of waiting and of receiving, of reflection and of promise.
The Native American creation narratives of human-kind emerging from the earth is much closer to the scientific story of our evolving from it. In both, creation is the creator and in neither are we created separately from the earth. Yet science cannot explain how life came about, nor what our consciousness is or how it came about, and a sense of awe is called for of the unlikelihood of it all. If you believe we were created by the Earth then you have a sense of natural source and connection. If you believe you were placed here by a super-natural being, a something or someone that is beyond nature, and ordered to fill and subdue the Earth, then you have a sense of a disconnected relationship. From this divide comes conservationists like me who think we need to revere and protect that which created us, and extractors, like the San Juan County commissioners who think they will get their end reward only after they have logged, mined, drilled, drained and grazed every last fragment of creation.
In Bluff at Solstice this year there were a couple of metaphorical crossroads. One was the diagonally opposed desires of conservationists, both Native American and non-native, in favor of Bears Ears National Monument, and the desires of the extractors opposed to the monument. Then there was the more nearly parallel crossroads of the Native American traditions and of non-natives in search of ritual who both revere and respect the land and celebrate the natural seasons.
Of the more nearly parallel paths this year, the medicine man Yanito and at least some of the crowd seemed to have differing expectations for the burn ceremony. Last year for the first time a short Native prayer was offered and translated. This year the dancing performance and the story of Coyote went on for much longer. Navajos may have a different sense of time than the impatient, and chilled, visiting non-native crowd. Perhaps a Navajo origin story should not be abridged yet many were there only for the spectacle of the burn. It is likely that both Pachak and Yanito were at least somewhat offended by the crowd’s rowdy impatience. Later, on social media, there was reticence expressed by Native Americans about incorporating their sacred traditions as performance in the context of a secular burning ceremony. The burn is a non-native’s idea and how to blend in Native tradition appropriately has yet to be fully determined. It is a creative and spiritual tension from which something original will evolve.
Where there is creative tension there are creators. Artists, poets, sculptors, and writers were all there. Kirsten mingled with writers in search of future words from the land. She will be there again. I may drop her off and observe from a quieter, more solitary vantage point. I like to listen in the dark silence for the music of the spheres. But I am eager to see how this ceremony with both scientific plausibility and a religious distinctiveness evolves. Under a coincident full super-moon, on the longest night of the year, how could something new not emerge?
Whats in the Sky Tonight?
Telescopius (formerly known as DSO-Browser) is a great tool for astrophotographers who are planning an astrophotography session. It provides a lot of useful information regarding the deep-sky objects visible from your location, and hosts an active community to share your work.
Getting started with Telescopius:
The first step is to enter your precise location (GPS coordinates or the name of your city), and Telescopius will give you a list of interesting objects to observe or photograph. It also displays useful information, such as the apparent magnitude, the elevation and the size of your target.
Telescopius has a comprehensive list of objects: galaxies, emission and planetary nebulae, star clusters, supernovas… Powerful filters allow you to search for your favourite objects, with criteria such as magnitude, elevation, brightness, constellation…
Clicking on an object reveals a lot of useful informations and additional features. For example, you can check the elevation (how high an object is in the sky) at any given time of the day, which is helpful to know if the target will be high enough in the sky. The background indicates the periods of the day: night, sunrise, day and sunset.
The monthly elevation graph tells you the maximum elevation of the object during the year, at a given time. For instance, in Germany, the Andromeda galaxy is a late summer object and is best seen from August.
As for the data sheet, it shows other interesting information. For example, the red shift indicates the speed of the object compared to the speed of light. Here, a negative red shift of -0.0010 (which is actually a blue shift) means that the Andromeda galaxy is actually getting closer to us, to a speed of 300 km/s!
THE TELESCOPE SIMULATOR
Another great tool is the telescope simulator. It allows you to preview how the object will look in your telescope, binoculars or camera sensor.
This is great for beginners, for whom most of the objects are totally new. Not to mention that some of these objects are actually much bigger that what we think! For instance, the Andromeda galaxy is about four times wider as the Moon.
How to use the telescope simulator:
If you are registered on Telescopius, you can save the lenses and telescopes that you are using, as well as the cameras, and select them easily in the simulator.
THE WEATHER FORECASTS
Yet another interesting feature on Telescopius is the 7-day hourly weather forecast. This page presents an overview of the meteorologic parameters of the upcoming nights, based on your location. It also displays the phase of the Moon, which is useful since our satellite is a source of light pollution.
The bands at the bottom represent the hourly evolution of the main parameters, such as seeing, wind and cloud coverage, as well as the sun- and moonlight. The colour code is simple: black is optimal, red is the worst.
For example, at 4pm, the sun is still up, so the darkness is obviously red. At midnight, the darkness is optimal (i.e. black), but the Moon is rising and will create a bit of light pollution, so the band is slightly reddish.
Of course, this is a forecast, and by definition, it’s wrong! But it is usually accurate enough for you to plan your session in advance.
Despite its convenience, I rarely use Telescopius’ forecast, because I prefer the more detailed astroforecasts of Meteo Blue.
A community to share your workLast but not least, Telescopius also hosts a community of astrophotographers, which you can use to discover the work of very talented photographers.
International Dark Sky Association 1/12/18
If an entire community could earn a gold star for good conduct, then the town of Torrey, Utah, has done just that. IDA awarded that star today by officially recognizing Torrey as Utah’s first International Dark Sky Community. Only 18 communities in the world have achieved this distinction.
An IDA International Dark Sky Community is a town, city, municipality or other legally organized community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education and citizen support of dark skies. International Dark Sky Communities excel in their efforts to promote responsible lighting and dark sky stewardship, and set good examples for surrounding communities.
Torrey is situated adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park, which was designated an IDA International Dark Sky Park in 2015. It is the first such U.S. national park ‘gateway community’ to earn the International Dark Sky Community designation. Torrey’s new status is therefore key to preserving abundant natural nighttime darkness in Capitol Reef.
“As Torrey joins the IDA family today, together we take a major step forward in achieving an important goal of the International Dark Sky Places Program to join parks and neighboring communities in dedication to preserving their shared night skies,” said IDA Executive Director J. Scott Feierabend. “Torrey has proven its commitment to protecting this resource for the benefit of both its residents and national park visitors.”
The stars began to align for Torrey when Capitol Reef was designated an International Dark Sky Park. This prompted Torrey residents, friends, and citizens from across Wayne County, Utah, to hitch their wagon to the International Dark Sky Park by working toward International Dark Sky Community status. In turn, the Torrey Town Council implemented an outdoor lighting ordinance, which requires street and building lighting to be shielded and directed toward the ground.
“While those who came before us left us our dark night skies to love, now we leave a legacy to generations of future residents of this special place we proudly call home,” explained Torrey Mayor Scott Chestnut. “We’ve often been accused of being ‘in the dark,’ but now we’re being honored for it!”
In a partnership with the Torrey-based Entrada Institute, engaged citizens raised money to replace the town’s high-pressure sodium streetlights with dark sky-friendly, fully-shielded light-emitting diode (LED) lights. The success of this campaign, along with education events and publications, made it possible to bring darker skies and brighter dreams to Torrey.
A unique group of leaders supported this effort: town council members, Torrey Town and Wayne County residents, local business owners and friends from across the country. Their enthusiasm and advocacy make it possible to preserve the stars for present and future generations.
“My 72-year-old heart skips a beat every time I see the glow of the Milky Way core rising from behind the silhouettes of hills where I know there is no nearby city to explain the intense brightness of this glowing,” said Torrey resident Bonnie Kaufman. “It is eerie, breathtaking and spiritual!”
To maintain its International Dark Sky Community status, Torrey must continue to preserve its night sky through education and awareness materials, dark sky events, exhibits, and programs. An official celebration will be held in Torrey during the Heritage Star Festival on October 5 and 6, 2018.
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”