Night skies are filled with more than just a moon

The moon may not be a star, but it is a recognizable subject in the night sky.

Take a look around. If asked you to point North, could you? Would you need to take out your phone and look it up, or could you use the context clues in the sky to figure it out? People have been trying to pinpoint where they are on this planet and figure out where they are going for centuries, and eventually the terms north, south, east and west popped up to lead people around the globe. Today there is always the handy compass to point you exactly 56 degrees to the northeast, but stop and think about the cycles of the sky and you don’t need a compass to find the general direction of north. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, so if you find the setting sun and stand with it to your left, you will be facing north. Keep standing there, and as the sun continues to set, other pinpricks of light start to pop up in the sky to help you find your way..

Long before we had compasses, and even after they were first invented and used, people were using the stars to navigate. Historically, Polynesian and Micronesian people are known for navigating thousands of miles across the oceans using star maps, and early Greek and Mediterranean cultures had written documentation of their use of constellations as navigation tools centuries ago.

It is likely you have heard of the North Star. It is called Polaris, and although it is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper, it is not the brightest star in the sky. However, this pole star and those directly around it can be found all year round and as its name suggests, finding Polaris means you find north.

The night sky, while helpful in its use of navigation, has also captured my attention for less practical reasons.

There is a feeling of serenity and awe as you look at the Milky Way without the interruption of street lights and buildings. Unfortunately, this winter has not been particularly ideal for stargazing, as it has brought an abundance of cloudy days quickly dimming even further into cloudy nights. In the end, the night sky is just as unruly and unresponsive to human requests as the rest of nature. The stars are still there though and if you get the chance to view the vast expanse of the night sky in full dark you might understand just why there are so many stories, myths, and legend associated with them.

Throughout history and around the world, people have looked at the night sky and tried to make sense of the twinkling lights. The stars are so far away that their magnitude and the idea that they have a life cycle and are not simply an unending and fixed object is difficult to grasp. Eventually science brought us to the realization that they are big old concentrations of gases and plasma and gravity, but many myths, stories, and beliefs are born from a desire to explain some phenomenon or aspect of nature. It makes sense that the night sky would be no different.

Anyone can look up and make up their own constellation by connecting the dots. I actually invite you to try it, but I am willing to bet you already know some.

The first one I always find is Cassiopeia. She, like many of the constellations we are taught in the United States, is from a Greek myth. As a person, at least in this myth, she is vain and arrogant and was only put up in the sky by Poseidon as a punishment, but she is also the one I find first so she is still my favorite.

For a far wider range of people, the first constellation found in the night sky is the Big Dipper. It is amazing how many cultures and groups independently took this shape and created stories from it. It is a ladle and a plough. It is a small mammal called a fisher that helped bring summer to the dark, cold north. It is the hindquarters and tail of a large bear in the constellation Ursa Major.

There are numerous constellations and stories to accompany them, but there are also stories that tackle the mystery of what they are even doing up there and how they got there. One of my favorites is about a hummingbird who poked holes in the blanket covering the earth to bring back the light. It’s a long one, so I won’t tell it all here, but like many stories it has a moral or something to be learned from another’s misstep.

Like the nature we see around us during the day, the night sky is also seasonal. There will always be familiar friends. Cassiopeia and Cepheus, Ursa Major and Minor, and Draco are our circumpolar constellations. They are tightly circling Polaris and can be seen all year round. Other constellations come and go as the seasons pass. One such example is Orion, the boasting Greek hunter, and Scorpius, the scorpion sent to stop him, chasing each other across the sky, making the slow switch every spring and fall.

There are websites, books and phone apps to help you learn more about these constellations and stars along with the planets, asteroids, galaxies, satellites and abundance of things that are out in space. We still have a lot to learn, but what we do know is still pretty amazing.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.


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