Saturday, September 12, 2009

Out in the Starry Deeps

The Horsehead Nebula
(Barnard 33)

In the early hours of a mid-September day, I rise and stand with my tea in the garden looking up into the region of the autumn stars. A waning moon is dancing almost directly overhead in the darkness, and I bow to Her in greeting. What am I doing outside in the darkness at this hour? I haven't a clue, but it feels good to be out here.

Just dancing his way above the southern horizon, the giant constellation Orion is brandishing his club, and four stars form the outline of his body: red Betelgeuse, Belatrix, Saiph and blue Rigel. Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are his twinkling belt, and dangling from the belt to form his sword are four solar entities: the NGC 1981 star cluster, Orionis, the Orion Nebula, and Hatysa. Just below Alnitak resides one of my favorite celestial objects ever, the Horsehead Nebula, and I make a mad dash back into the little blue house to find my souped up astronomy binoculars and have a good look at it. Orion and the Horsehead Nebula were the first stellar entities I was shown as a child, and seeing them remains a great pleasure, even after all these years.

The stellar entity called the Horsehead Nebula is actually named Barnard 33, and it lies within the brilliantly hued IC 434, part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. It (the Horsehead) is a dark nebula, an interstellar cloud so dense that it blocks out the light of background stars and other emissions. The splendid magenta glow is from hydrogen gases behind the nebula ionized by Sigma Orionis close by.

Oh world of wonders! The Horsehead Nebula is a kind of cosmic nursery composed of gases and dust, and the points of light visible within it are new star life coming into being - infant stars are dancing their way into existence in the gorgeous predawn sky. It is sobering and wondrous and breathtaking to realize that what I am seeing this morning is at least 1500 light years away from this dear little earth on which I am standing, and that what I am witnessing happened long long ago. It makes one aware of just how tiny and insignificant a part of the celestial equation she is, but we too are creatures made of stardust, and we belong here. I once wrote a very bad poem about it, but Joanna Macy said it best:

"Since every particle in your body goes back to the first flaring forth of space and time, you're really as old as the universe. So when you are lobbying at your congressperson's office, or visiting your local utility, or testifying at a hearing on nuclear waste, or standing up to protect an old grove of redwoods, you are doing that not out of some personal whim, but in the full authority of your 15 billion years."

Orion is one of an illustrious celestial company. Southeast of the giant is the dog star Sirius, and northwest lies Aldebaran. Eastward across his massive shoulders lies Procyon, and north are Castor and Pollux. Winter is surely on its way, for the Winter Circle is coming into view - an asterism which includes these stars: Riel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor, Pollux and Sirius.


Anonymous said...

Cate, I loved this--the gorgeous photo, the interesting and lovely text. The thought provoking and inspiring quote. Thank you.

Barbara Anne said...

Magnificent!!!!!!!! In all ways, from the picture to your wonderful words and the final quote!

Your blog helps me dance. Thank you!

Tsutsu said...

Great photo, Cate! I used to be an amateur astronomer when I was a boy. My father even built a little observatory for my telescope. I used to get up very early in the morning and scan over the dawning eastern sky to search for unknown comets. I never found one. But it remains one of my great childhood memories.

Artiseternal said...

Amongst all my father's learning, astronomy was an essential element. He used it in land surveying at a time when all the current day gizmos were not available. I have forever felt sorry that I didn't learn more of it from him.
He surveyed the Canadian North when there was very little out there, going with French Canadian guides to places still uncommon to our ears.
Your words reminded me of that; and made me think what a pity it was that we city and semi-rural dwellers miss this awesome beauty by our excessive use of municipal lighting.
Thanks for continuing to provide such beautiful blogs - visually, intellectually, poetically, spiritually.