The July 4 week has a way of sending Americans outdoors, into the late hours, under a deep night sky.
Looking up into the vast silent depths of a starry dome is one way to escape, while still standing within the homeland, the current fever pitch of turmoil keeping Americans at-each-other’s-throats, divided by rogue provokers, distracted from the purpose of our nation and even life on planet Earth.
If it’s your form of escape, this July 4 week, weather depending, you can enjoy extremely clear views of planets and constellations. The moon will head into its darkest phase July 2, “appearing” all day in the proximity of the sun, rather than at night.
In fact, the moon will be occluding the sun for a total solar eclipse, that day, but visible only from parts of Argentina and Chile. In the U.S., that daytime moon will leave the night handily dark for a look at distant stars.
For anyone new to stargazing, the first step in fact is to find some blessed darkness from which to view. Kill the floodlights for starters.
If they’re the neighbor’s, try for a change actually conversing with this fellow human who, being indoors 23/7 or more, may not realize their all-night floodlights have obscured everyone else’s view of the heavens (besides confusing the birds, amphibians, trees, plants, their own body clocks and any other photosensitive life form).
You could perhaps take them a pie, garden tomatoes or some blackberries from Earth and go from there. Thus the stars will have brought a few humans into dialogue, and not for the first time in history.
Next it’s helpful to recognize a few prominent year-round-visible stars to orient yourself. Why not start with our own?
It’s my sense that every kid or adult should be shown sunrises and sunsets, and be thus helped to locate east and west, the southern noon sun and north-pointing shadows.
It would surely surprise people like Moses, Plato, Harriet Tubman, Sacajawea, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that most Americans today have no clue what direction we’re looking or traveling toward, by night or even day. Is this one more reason of late we feel disoriented, if not lost in space?
Knowing a few night stars from one’s perch on earth can likewise help restore a sense of place. If you can learn the Big Dipper, and the North Star its cup side points to, you may see the Little Dipper as well.
The North Star (“Polaris”) remains relatively fixed from our view on the turning, sun-circling Earth, and so it’s historically been helpful to humans of every time and land in their navigations, mappings, travels and star studies.
The Hindus called it “Dhruva” (or “Immovable One”). The Old English, with roots in a Norse Germanic word, called it the “lodestar,” a “guiding star.”
Just recognizing these age-old, unchanging celestial anchors, you’ll have a north-staked compass that can work on outings or travels when techno devices don’t.
The Big Dipper can also help you find other year-round constellations that turn like clock hands through the night. Cassiopeia is easy to learn, the nearby sprinkle of the Pleiades, and between them Perseus, a large northern constellation in whose part of the sky from which those Perseid meteor showers seem to bloom every August.
Find these images on your phone, look up and smile in amazement to see them overhead—the same ancient constellations viewed by your earliest ancestors.
The starlight reaching you, in fact, left these distant suns long before our ancestors walked the Earth. It helps put time—and our human hurry/worry—into perspective.
Summer visible constellations also include Sagittarius and Scorpius to the south. In these parts, you’ll likely be viewing them over whatever mountain ridge rises to the south of where you live or pitch your tent.
Then there’s the joy of bright Jupiter, which you’ll see near the night moon July 13 and Aug. 9. At that time, those Perseid meteor showers may inspire a campout on Iron Mountain, Rocky Knob or Mt. Rogers. They peak Aug. 12/13, a bit obscured by the waxing moon, but still able to leave you star-struck and restored as autumn grows near.
Contact Liza Field at firstname.lastname@example.org.