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Creek Running North

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January 26, 2006

Dark

The moon will be new on January 29. I will be outside, in the desert.

In 1997, when I spent a month out there, I got used to the slow, swinging rhythm of the night sky. The sun dropped down past Barstow and the planets began to gleam through the twilight. Over the shoulder of Kessler Peak they marched: the sheep, the bull, the sisters. Then the hunter Orion bearing a club, a priceless jewel hanging from his belt, strode in pursuit. It would be a mistake to confuse Taurus the Bull with the placid ruminating dullards that now roam the desert. Taurus was an aurochs, the wild progenitor of cattle, which survived in Europe until the Iron Age and was immortalized in constellation form. In the caves at Lascaux, an aurochs painted sixteen thousand years ago stands near a sprinkling of dots that just might represent the Pleiades. Taurus is fierce and dangerous, well able to kill a careless hunter, and Orion brave for his pursuit.

And then following on Orion's heels, his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. (Keeping close to Canis Major on the southern horizon, a constellation that provides my favorite astronomical pun: Puppis.) Canis Minor is one of those constellations that makes you say "yeah, right": two medium-bright stars. The brightest, named Procyon, gives this naturalist's brain a cramp: Procyon is the genus to which raccoons belong. Clearly, Orion needs to find a more reputable breeder of hunting dogs.

Canis Major, on the other hand, now there is a dog to be reckoned with, with actual feet and a tail. His nose is the second-brightest star in the sky, the brightest being the big one that burns your shoulders as you hike in the desert. A quarter century ago I lay out at night, on a fire road in the hills behind Berkeley, and watched Sirius blaze its shimmering, changing color. I tried to read sense into the changes, lying there with my naked eyes. Twenty-five years later I'm still trying.

The Moon sets three quarters of an hour later each night. The Moon will be new on January 29, and I will be outside, in the desert. I will stay, shivering in a sleeping bag, above five thousand feet. I will bring these. Maybe I'll make some sense of Sirius this time.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 26, 2006 05:10 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Thanks for reminding me of old friends with such eloquence.
I've got those Nikons Chris, they're great! So is the night sky here this evening. Clear and vibrant. The only problem is that it's 4 degrees with a -15 windchill.

Posted by: OGeorge at January 26, 2006 06:04 PM
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Almost forgot...Make sure you're awake for Venus and the crescent moon at first light.

Posted by: OGeorge at January 26, 2006 06:07 PM
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Funny thing- I just read the chapter in Sarum that mentions an aurochs.

Used to know lots of the constellations too. Not so these days.

have fun out there.

Posted by: Keir at January 26, 2006 10:43 PM
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"Maybe I'll make some sense of Sirius this time."

good luck with that one, chris. and if so ... be sure to share.

Posted by: Jean at January 27, 2006 12:17 AM
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Oh, those clear desert skies - there's nothing like them in the world.

(Uh. You know what I mean.)

Posted by: Rana at January 27, 2006 07:50 AM
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If you power your binoculars with enough imagination, you might be able to see Polaris A, B, and C.

I'm sirius--it's a tri-star system!

Posted by: Rain at January 27, 2006 08:03 AM
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The Dog star is supposed to make sense?? Only in the dog days of summer i think, although this Sunday night it will hold a slightly more prominent position. Under this new moon we move from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog. Long may the Puppis run!!

Posted by: spyder at January 27, 2006 01:21 PM
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I'm looking forward to the year of the dog. It's my year, after all. ;)

Posted by: Rana at January 28, 2006 12:19 PM
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Chris,

Nice picture!

Say, how far inland do you head to get non-light-polluted views of the Perseid, Leonid, Geminid, and other meteor showers?

BB

Posted by: Bill at January 30, 2006 06:37 AM
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