Thursday, January 7, 2021

Spiritual cramps

Orion; photo (cropped) by Adam Block, via Apod

In late December, I sent individual season's greetings-type texts to some friends during a lull at work. James replied with a message alluding to the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. He knows me well, and assumed I'd been watching for it.

I'm sorry to say that I missed it.

The benefits of my situation in Philadelphia are manifold (though most of them boil down to being able to bike and walk almost everywhere I need to be), but the costs sometimes prompt me to browse housing and job listings from towns out in the sticks, or in smaller cities famously protective of their green belts. Not being able to see many stars was one of the many privations and inconveniences I complained about when I lived on the fringes of Washington, DC (2014). Having relocated to Silver Spring after living my entire life in some suburb or other, a practically empty night sky affected me acutely. If we wanted to dredge up posts from Beyond Easy's first few years (big if, there), we'd find no small abundance of entries about stargazing and astronomy. The places I lived then weren't altogether devoid of light pollution, true, but you could still make out the Milky Way on clear, moonless summer nights. It was easy to notice the stars, especially if, say, you'd fallen into the habit of taking midnight walks with friends to get high in the woods. Once I started noticing the stars, paying attention to them and taking a deepening interest in them followed naturally.

After a couple of years, objects in the night sky took on a significance beyond their interest as mere aesthetic and intellectual wonders as I came to associate them with terrestrial events. When I think of craning my neck to look directly up Vega, I seem to feel the air of a warm summer evening on my skin. Conversely, thinking about Orion gives me a mnemonic chill.¹ Cassiopeia, Perseus, and Pegasus torquing up over the eastern horizon means summer is on its way out; glimpsing Arcturus in the early evening indicates it's finally on its way. And of course there are all the other stellar objects that keep a more precise time or are simply a pleasure to gaze at: Corona Berenices, Draco, Gemini, Lacerta, the Pleiades, Delphinus, Hercules, Scorpius, and so on. 

I had the same problem getting adjusted to Philadelphia after nine months on St Thomas and a one-month sojourn in Jersey. Bright skies, dim stars, and tall buildings. Unless you're standing in the middle of an intersection, it's hard to see much that isn't directly overhead, and even then, only the most prominent astronomical objects pierce the skyglow. Not being able to keep track of the stars' passage without going far out of my way was the source of a dull but persistent spiritual ache, but it was one I had to abide.

Five years later, the ache is gone, for the most part—and that's the problem. I find I don't think much of the stars lately, or even often raise my gaze above the first-story plane, because I've grown so accustomed to not seeing anything. I feel their absence only sporadically, and as a vague and fleeting sense of exiguity, or perhaps of something like hunger, or an endurably faint craving.

When I visit my folks in Jersey, I travel at night, and am usually treated to a pellucid and populous sky after pulling into the driveway. I'm glad for these moments, but they aren't enough. What's missing is the continuity one observes when he watches the stars on a regular basis. The real joy and fascination of stargazing consists in following the sidereal cycle day after day, week after week, and month after month. To use a crude analogy, gazing at the stars on nights spaced several weeks apart is like watching a random sixty seconds of a film you've never seen before. There can be no appreciation of context or succession.

That's why I didn't make much of an effort to catch the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. (And to be fair, I recall most of the nights before and after being fairly cloudy.) It would be one thing to finally witness their pathways converge after following their approach over the preceding weeks. Without that, you're just seeing...what? Dots against the firmament, advertised by the newspapers and Facebook.

Jupiter & moons; photo (cropped) by Derek Demeter, via Apod.

Notwithstanding James's text about Jupiter and Saturn, I think my getting wistful about stargazing in the suburbs is an indirect consequence of my reading Seb Falks's The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science (2020). I'm about halfway through it now, and so far it's been a fun and informative trip. Falk's narrative follows one John Westwyk, an English monk of the fourteenth century who wrote about astronomy and calculating instruments.² Given Westwyk's areas of expertise, and the importance of astronomy to every walk of life during the middle ages, much of The Light Ages aptly focuses on medieval society's relationship to the visible heavens.

I'll understand if anyone is leery of block quotes after the Kant posts, but I promise you'll find the following excerpt much easier to digest than a given passage from The Critique of Pure Reason

All human cultures mark the passing of time by the difference they observe in the world around them. Our choice of which differences to mark depends firstly on what we can observe and secondly on what is important in our lives. How we mark the differences——the shapes of our calendars and rituals——depends on the connections we make between those two things. In the agricultural society of pre-modern Europe, where higher latitudes make the seasons easily observable, it was natural to monitor the solar cycle. Conversely, among the largely nomadic peoples of Arabia, for whom seasonal changes were less significant, the lunar calendar was a more sensible choice. That did not make it inevitable that Islam would use a lunar calendar and Roman Christianity a solar one, but political and religious decisions were made from options limited by geography and lifestyle, filtered through tradition....

Standing in the fields of Westwick, where the Chilterns slop down to the River Ver, with each new day of the autumn [John Westwyk] would see the Sun rise a little further south along the horizon, until the winter solstice, when for a week it rose in the same place, two hand-breadths to the right of the abbey. Then it would begin to move back. Successive Suns would crest the horizon ever more towards the north, rising behind the abbey once again a little before St Scholastica's Day in February and continuing until mid-June, when the Sun came up over the river, just by the mill where the nuns of St Mary de Pré ground their malt and oats. Through the year it covered almost a quarter of the horizon, passing each spot twice and constantly moving back and forth, except for its week-long pauses at the solstices (the Latin solstitium means 'Sun standing still').

Such are the gradual changes that have marked the solar year ever since humans first formed settled communities. This is folk astronomy: not a precision science of careful measurement and finely tuned models but an accumulation of ancient wisdom. Even so, it shared some basic principles with the scholarly astronomy that John Westwyk would later learn. It made predictions; it divided space and time according to observations performed over many years; and above all, it was founded on the common-sense understanding that while things on Earth changed constantly, growing in ways beyond the comprehension of mankind, the movements of the heavens were in a constant, endlessly repeating cycle. It is this understanding that allowed Stonehenge to be constructed in perfect alignment with the midsummer sunrise and——more important to its builders——the midwinter sunset....

When Virgil wrote of the Pleiades setting in the morning, readers knew that he meant the first morning setting——the first date, in the late autumn, when the stars could be seen falling beyond the western horizon just before the Sun's rising glow arrived to blot out their light. We are preserving the legacy of this seasonal astronomy when we call the hottest part of summer the 'dog days.' Ancient astronomers marked this season by the first appearance, shortly before sunrise in late July, of the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

Medieval astronomers understood []——the fact they they experienced the annual cycle in terms of the Sun's apparent revolution around the Earth, rather than the Earth around the Sun, made no difference to observations of relative positions. As they looked up at the heavens unpolluted by streetlights, they awaited the seasonal reappearance of familiar stars with eager anticipation. If John Westwyk was awake before dawn, shivering in the cold of a clear night, he might look hopefully for the warming rays of the Sun, in the direction where he knew it would rise. There, before the expanding dawn blotted them out, he could see constellations rising as the heavens turned. They were slightly different every day. Those stars which were the final heralds of daybreak above the abbey church on St Luke's Day in October could not have been seen at all a few weeks earlier, because they were too close to the Sun. Watching the stars near sunrise and sunset, it was easy to imagine the Sun moving steadily on a narrow annual path through the stars of the zodiac, while the stars themselves stayed resolutely fixed in relation to each other. Although they were invisible to him at that season, John would have known that behind the Sun on the feast of Luke were the trapezoid of four faint stars which form the constellation Libra.³

I'm sure I've droned on elsewhere about the dysthymia I've experienced since moving to Philadelphia, living in neighborhoods with no satisfyingly rich green spaces that aren't a hassle to get to. Going into detail would be doubly redundant—the issue is of a kind with the reduced presence of the stars in my life, the effects of their absence my general emotional and mental states, and the insufficiency of leaving town once every week or two to go on a hike as a solution.

Dickerson Mine Preserve, New Jersey, December

I was exceptionally fortunate to have grown up within walking distance of a 390-acre park, and to be able to revisit it whenever I return to my folks' place. Stargazing and going for rambles in the woods (at least in a temperate climate) are each of them most pleasurable when you can appreciate the progression of recurring cycles. Katydids and lightning bugs are only demonstrative insects, or natural curiosities, unless they're integrated with the daily rhythm of your life. I enjoy visiting my folks for a day or two in the late summer, where I can listen to the crickets' ringing rise to a crescendo at dusk before giving way to the katydids' restless chanting as the night settles over the landscape—but at this point, the pleasure more nostalgic than anything. These things aren't part of my life anymore, the part of my life where I go to work, pay rent, go grocery shopping, take out the garbage once a week, or any of the other banal but necessary activities of subsiding in this world.

The double whammy is, as I mentioned earlier, the mutual implication of the sidereal and seasonal cycles by association. If Orion looms almost directly to the south at sunset, that means you should be seeing skunk cabbage in the woods, and listening for spring peepers in the marshes and riparian bogs at twilight. Lyra directly overhead around midnight means summer is come—the lightning bugs should be out at twilight; and you can look for ebony jewelwing damselflies by small creeks in the woods, and freaky monotropic flowers in the leaves at the trees' feet. If Lyra's directly overhead at sunset, the only katydids you'll hear are desperate diurnal stragglers, the witch hazel is in bloom, and you can expect visits from flocks of dark-eyed juncos on your lawn and favorite footpaths. If Taurus is risen in the east around sunset, I know I can watch the buffleheads in the lake down the road. 

And so on and so forth.

The last paragraph betrays me for the dilettante I am: obviously someone who relied on the land for his sustenance would have a much more intricate knowledge and understand much more precisely what the appearance of a given astronomical body signified with regard to the germination of flora and the behavior of fauna. But we are all of us impoverished in this age.

Troy Meadows Wetlands, New Jersey, July

My use of the word "spiritual" several paragraphs up (postscript: and in the title) was deliberate. To me, and I suspect to many others, the words denotes less of a belief in the supernatural than an intimation of relatedness, an awareness of existing within an intricate and interdependent world-system greater than ourselves and the society and species to which we belong, wherever we are and whatever sort of lives we lead.

I should add that I'm not totally deprived out here. When Shirley still lived in Francisville, I'd bike to her place every other night, and for I time I followed the passage of Mars. My desk sits directly in front of my bedroom window, which faces a weedy vacant lot and abandoned house. Birds frequently visit the space; even now I see mourning doves and cardinals almost every day. During the summer, it was visited by mockingbirds, the occasional chickadee, and the very occasional warbler I couldn't identify. Last spring, I watched Venus setting behind the giant paulownia tree on the next block. Last week I saw a hawk perched for a while in its branches.

I worry how long this lifeline will be available to me. It's probably only a matter of time before someone decides to build a new rowhouse in the space, driving off the birds and blocking my view of the sky. I wonder if that will be what finally spurs me to seek greener pastures.

1. One night during my nine-month residence in the US Virgin Islands, I went with some friends to a bonfire on a beach in late March or early April. People thought me quite eccentric to hear me babble on and attempt to explain why it felt to bizarre to be in the water with Orion in the sky.

2. Westwyk's name would probably be altogether lost to posterity if a scholar in the 1950's hadn't come upon one of his manuscripts and mistook his handwriting for Geoffrey Chaucer's.

3. Until transcribing the passage, I hadn't noticed that Falk consistently capitalizes "sun." I'm looking through style guides, and the rough consensus seems to be that "sun" is "Sun" when used in an astronomical context. Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm going to make a point to capitalize it all the time (except when used in compound words like "sunshine" or "sunbathe." As the closest thing we have to an actual living God, I think we owe the Sun that much.


  1. I felt this post in my soul. Whenever I'm in Amman or a couple of the cities I've lived in across Europe these past years, I go out of sync with the universe. The first difference is that it's so subtle for me that I have *remember* to look up. Once I do, the absence is so acute I wonder how I hadn't noticed it. The second is that your knowledge of nature (cosmic, eco), regardless of your describing it as impoverished, still has the wherewithal to tower over mine. I've been trying to know flora/fauna/stars for a while now—I just bought a book on flowers in the Levant; the Richard Powers novel "The Overstory" is by my bed; I've had a book on British birds for years—but I capitulate to my smartphone's beeping. I sneak out to a darkened hill in an impoverished area to look at the stars through an app; it's rewarding, but an effort. Comforting to know someone a (couple of) continent(s) over shares the struggle, but then this whole blog has been like that.

    1. Thank you <3

      Here's an idea, though I'm not sure how practicable it is. I rarely smoke weed anymore, except when I go for excursions into open spaces. (If I had a smartphone, I'd turn it off.) There's always a lot happening in the natural world—but it happens slowly, and makes no effort to grab your attention. I find that using a mild psychoactive to slow myself down helps me to be more attentive to what's happening around me, and to see and examine things I might otherwise walk right past.