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Creek Running North

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November 21, 2003


Beth sent a note tonight about watching the Pleiades from her perch in Vermont. The Seven Sisters is one of those reliable winter constellations. They rise a mere one or two campfire beers before The Hunter, Orion, which everyone who knows two or more constellations can find, thanks to that conspicuous belt. Three stars - Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka - bright and close and in an apparent straight line: easy to spot.

That's only an apparent straight line: reality is an illusion. Alnitak and Mintaka, at opposite ends of the belt, are actually closer to one another then either is to Alnilam, which is much further away and much brighter: only distance fades its fury to match its companions.

The Pleiades, on the other hand, are an actual cluster. An "open cluster," in the parlance of the astronomers, the Seven Sisters actually contains about a dozen visible stars (depending on your vision: I see ten or so with my glasses on) and more than a hundred viewable with optics.

Coming in a neat package the way they do, the girls rarely merit mention by their individual names the way Orion's Betelgeuse and Rigel do - not to mention his faithful companion's brightest star, Sirius. This is odd, as some of the mythological Pleiades' names are rather familiar to the modern ear. There's Alcyone (whose name gave rise to the word "halcyon"); Electra (whose name translates literally from Old Greek as "amber," and who should not be confused with Agamemnon's daughter of the same name); Maia (mother of Hermes). Atlas and Pleione are two bright stars in the cluster, named for the Seven's parents. Among other worthy pursuits, the sisters helped to educate Bacchus, which on desert nights I commemorate by opening another beer as Orion's devoted pet Canis Major leaps over the horizon with his bright eye shining.

Today, I planted a Magnolia stellata: a star magnolia. It was an impulse purchase I've been planning for a couple decades. The plant I found is rangy and contorted: ample material for a few years of experimental pruning. The star magnolia, native to Japan, is deciduous in winter, bearing bright five-inch flowers on bare wood in January or so. Not all winter constellations are found by looking skyward.

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 21, 2003 10:08 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


Nice. I especially like the twist to the star magnolia at the end.

Posted by: Rana at November 24, 2003 11:57 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

hi - may i print this to paste in my journal? the pleides are my favorite. and orion marks my time of year. thanks in advance. i'll wait to hear.

Posted by: Anne at August 24, 2004 01:08 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs