“The Night Sky As View” from The Night Sky
Categories: Excerpt Science & Cosmology
by Richard Grossinger
In the following excerpt from The Night Sky, Richard Grossinger takes readers on a poetic journey through the constellations. You can read “Summer” to find out more about what the coming season’s sky has in store for us.
Tags: Richard Grossinger Dana Wilde
The Night Sky As View
It is a clear moonless night, a few smudges of man-made light. Against your skin a breeze awakens memories brighter than daylight.
This is not the start of a mystery novel.
But it is.
The mystery is eternal and goes on generation after generation, unsolved.
Countless detectives lie in cemeteries on planets in systems of planets.
Newborn frogs appear on the margin of the pond, in fresh weed, chirping in the radiance of their moment.
They are suspects too. And they are agents . . . spies.
Who brought these creatures here to enact this episode?
Do they know how moist and dark it is inside?
The sky is a black translucent sea on whose edge you hang upside-down, a sea pocked with stars beyond number, beyond comprehension. The Pleiades sparkle in a flecked cluster. Bright Sirius glints at the treetops, first white, then greenish, then bluish, then with a hint of rust. Through the clearing, Regulus sits at the heart of a Lion, dozens of faint stars in his fur and on his paws.
Cassiopeia tips in her cradle across the axis of her plane, still whirling from the force with which Poseidon hurled her in her chair into the heavens. Once queen of Ethiopia, wife to Cepheus, she boasted recklessly of her own beauty and that of her daughter Andromeda, offending and later betraying the sea-god. Though her throne was exiled among the stars, she kept her glamor and pride:
The longer you stare at Cassiopeia, the more beautiful she seems, despite her enormous, lonely distance. The stars of her chair range from fifty to about five hundred ninety-eight light-years away. . . . They shine there all night, year after year, backward and forward across the millennia. It all glitters with some inescapable meaning. 
The meaning may be lost in a haystack, the clock may be broken and discarded by dawn, but it resurrects itself anew each night.
A sudden streak of light strikes like a giant match through the troposphere—a meteoric fireball. Its metallic pebble, igniting in the oxygen-nitrogen veil, likely originated in the solar disk 4.5 billion years ago and has been rambling happily ever since till this very moment.
The head of the Scorpion uncoils from the roar of the brook, Antares tattooed on his shell. Ophiucus, sprawling and shapeless, seems to push the Scorpion from the ecliptic, as it itself twists across the sky. A satellite passes through Virgo, bright and swift, then dissolves into its sunset. An airplane follows, the grind of its metals blending with the scratch of terrestrial water over rock; it passes between the evening star Venus and the photons of distant suns, skirting the Andromeda galaxy at the same apparent size.
On the old Great Lakes, native Americans saw an eagle, a snake, and three deer. In Brazilian jungle clearings, they were a jaguar and a peccary, as the Amazon roared through eternity. These forms cannot abbreviate the mystery nor replace the actual inscription.
Starlight carries subtle phenomenological qualities too that arise from their fires’ composition and temperature. The brightest star in Eridanus, blue Achernar (Arabic “End of the River,” Chinese “Crooked Running Water”) is considered cheerful. Yet Thuban, the Arabic “Snake,” casts a cold bluish-white glow, long considered evil. A dim glint in Draco, it is one of the few white giants visible from Earth, warning us that interstellar space is cold but the heat of a dying sun is even colder. Algol, a variable three-star system, has a red tint appropriate for the eye of the Gorgon and Demon Star in the West, Tseih She, “Piled-Up Corpses” in China. Aldebaran, the fierce eye of Taurus the Bull, is orangish. In prehistoric Mexico it sent its burnished glow to the seven women of the Pleiades giving birth. In aboriginal New South Wales as the star Karambai, it stole another man’s wife, hid in a tree, was tracked down, and then the tree was set ablaze and is burning still.
The universe passes from muteness into knowledge back to hieroglyphic muteness again, and again, as stars are born and die. Beyond every galactic center, every climax forest of stars, lies another. Continuous. Simultaneous. Unrelieved. Unforgiving but only and always forgiving. What joy is there, but what sorrow too, what infinite sorrow!
The glinting scepters, scattered in their black pool, speak both for and against the warriors bloodied and mute on the hillside. When the dead leave us their bodies, where do they go? The stars do not answer, but they alone stand for an answer. Remote and enigmatic, they are all we have, all we’ve ever had.
When we stand beneath the night sky, we stand beneath the history of the whole of Creation. It is a miracle that so much of it is perceptible—a miracle we might appreciate more if it had not occurred and we did not have senses to discern it.
Figures in a deck of cards shuffled for an instant, we see by a lantern that has already been extinguished, yet which we breathe into being.
Spica, sparkle. Ear of Wheat in the Virgin’s left hand. Chaucer’s Raven, the Roman Crow, wings spread, ferries Algorab. Bo.tes hunts Ursa. Not only Arcturus, Keeper of the Heaven, Great Horn, but Muphrid, the Officer who accompanies the Emperor. To the West he is The Solitary One.
Nekkar sits beyond this pair: head of the Hunter, a Female Wolf. A Crow forbidden to drink from her own cup. A prank she played, exiling her to the sky. From Hittite times. A Bear chased toward the Pole by Hunting Dogs.
These thousands of lights, standing for trillions of others, at the moment we view them are the Creation. Each breath of ours matches their counter-breath. See them as sound, see them as light; see them as harmony, see them as consolidating chaos: it doesn’t matter, for we see something that is more than any of these things, more than all of them. They are primal fleece, as no other thing is. The solar wind blowing against Earth’s upper gases and particles creates a faint ionization, giving them extra bioluminescent pop.
The collective silence of their roar is deafening. Heard on a radio telescope, they are eerie and alien. We are left out, but, in another sense, the thing we are left out of is the thing we are.
We weep for the cities of Antares as we do for Minoans and Picts. We weep for how deep in our own body we feel what it is we know. Not what we want. Not what we desire. It’s what we know. What we know we know. To set it square, right; to come out of this undiminished.
The night sky looks like infinity to us, infinity at a scale that dwarfs all human endeavor and meaning, the largest canyon, the deepest sea imaginable—but it is only the beginning of the real infinity, the journey into, across, through, and up to an unimaginable vastness keyed at an omega point of space, time, and everything else at which everything is transformed into what it actually is, for the cosmos itself as well as for its self-identified beings. That is the only long-term agenda.
Daylight has faded and we stand on the beachhead of the cosmos. A few twinkles appear, then thousands of them. Without a moon the desert sky is as full of stars as a meadow of wildflowers. Formerly arid zones burst with unfamiliar patterns, wisps of galactic haze. Seven Sisters of the Pleiades are suddenly surrounded by dozens of fainter maidens. Together they ghost-light the desert—illuminating tiny white blossoms on cactuses, casting shadows from succulents and rocks. As the galaxy’s robes sweep the mountains, sage sweetens the air. Meteors race among stars.
Monuments of Hohokam peoples stand against an eternity they thought once to measure and tame. They are now ruins, but Sun and Moon and near planets return to portals between upright stones hauled into position to serve as star gates for pre-Papago priests. How many such temples and clocks sit on deserts entangled in second-growth shrubs of other worlds, having outlived their makers, continuing to seine cycles and pivots against the hieroglyphic backdrop of time?
There is no landmark or scale-guide to explain our place here. “One sticks a finger into the sand to tell by the smell what land one is in,” said Søren Kierkegaard. “I stick my finger into existence and feel nothing. How came I here? Why was I not consulted?” 
How dare they? But dare “they” do. Cosmologists have given the Sun and us inherence in the same cloud but, in so doing they have solved nothing, passing the real question on to a time before the conflagration, and the conflagration before that. This entire universe could be an atom in the eye of a “ladybug” in another universe, which is an atom in a grain of sand in another, and so on. Who can extricate us from such a labyrinth?
We have moved north to the Bay of Fundy. As the starry curtain rustles against a tidal din, trees answer manifestations of gravity rolling through the cosmos.
Lightning bugs swim in the altered air. Their lives are short, a few weeks; but all lives, the great books tell us, are the same length. They “see” everything, they know all there is to know.
We are the gods whom those in darkness have set against the darkness. They bear a candelabra through halls of nectar, though we cannot detect them or be so assured. They cannot espy us either. Perhaps they don’t exist.
The mission they pose for us is not to stumble blankly back. When we signal them from bare turf under a cosmological sky, their answer is the obvious one: terror is a luxury too. Behind our despair is a witch who will not take us, no matter how we submit. But then we are all afraid of the same thing—that we will not be afraid in time.
There is no other life, not only for us to live but to refuse to live. Better to plunge into that dark pool, to risk being pulled up out of it like a rat on the end of a cyanide pole.
It is all held together on invisible threads, great suns as well as lightning bugs, each where webs of gravity and fractals of shear force open to their own prophetic shapes. As the Milky Way twists around and behind us, out across the sky, its center is viewed across the 100,000-light-year plane of its own tail. It touches us on the forehead, between the eyes, tickles our dantian, even as it spirals umbilically outward, meeting its own curl. Moon rolls in Bay.
It happens here, from the birth of the cosmos to its rebirth in the ellixis alleghensis of light.
Dusk is a time like no other, a transition of kingdoms; it turns Earth into a temple, as it calls beasts to reverence and prayer. When the Sun drops behind our world’s deepening shadow, the black syrup of interstellar space pours in. The water colorist who has been daubing yellow onto her cotton rag begins adding red, then umber, then cobalt blue.
The wind stills. Swallows and swifts chirp and dart, bobolinks sway precariously on weeds . . . the sky goes deep slowly, violet all along the eastern line of trees, reddening, and then silvering puff clouds to gray-blue in the west. . . .
[T]he field has that cool nut smell of fallen leaves, the air is sharp, the alfalfa’s cut, and the grass is brown and stiff. . . . Dogs bark occasionally in the nearby dairy farm, and their voices carry for what must be miles. Owls hoot, and loons ululate desperate from the lake half a mile down the camp road. . . . [T]here is movement sometimes in the alders a football field away, or in the brush beside the barn. The darker it gets, the louder every sound seems. 
The light technician in his booth switches from white to indigo to gold. Soon he will direct only a thin silver pencil on the stage, replicating the lunar mirror. The temple is replaced by a sarcophagus, a crypt that encompasses the entire universe.
Look back at Earth in the Martian sky. Filtered through oceans and forests, old Terra’s plankton-aqua spark twinkles, its shades of sea and sky a singular glow among birthstones. We have an aura, a bioluminescent mist.
All creatures whelped in Earth’s porridge are linked to its whey by matter strewn like sour milk in a black sea. Strands cling to prior strands: the red fox limping through the morning, a giant crow picking at a woodchuck corpse, clams breathing in caves of muffled gravity, minnows flitting in fleshy flurries.
Our planet gives off a tone, a hue, and a vibe, and those elsewhere in Creation hear it and feel it and know in an instant who and where we are and what must happen here.
This is all the initiation we will have. We are no different from firebugs. As carriers of light, this far from a homeland, we stand in a nocturne unabsolved.
“The sky over a modern city is occulted by smoke & industrial throwaway, its proper atmosphere,” writes poet Robert Kelly.  As robot lanterns turn themselves on at dusk, strips of phosphor ignite down snowy thoroughfares, for cities are celestial replicas, as the view from an airplane reveals: the nervous system of a great creature as well as the center of a miniature galaxy. Men and women have constructed a proxy cosmos, synapse by synapse, star by star.
Once, the night sky was the original cinema we attended each day after the Sun set. “Countrymen are unlikely to forget,” adds Kelly, “how after a quarrel with the wife and a quick getaway, they came out to see the Pleiades flirting in & out of sight at the top of a cold sky. Or ‘Orion blazing.’” 
The shimmering firmament smashes gossip and fuss into a billion shards of sparkling revelation. Now it is vapor lamps, neon, commercial smudge.
For a boy or girl growing up amid urban smog, the land of the stars is reassembled in a planetarium: a theater surrounded by silhouettes of the local skyline, an impaled robot casting the heavens onto a dome, as timeless music simulates nightfall. Suddenly the buildings are gone and the disk is full of antique stars, as when Indians lived by the river. These ersatz heavens deliver the same chills down the spine as their template, for they forge the unmistakable scroll the universe casts against the flat screen of our cosmic view. That portal is even older than our planet.
Outside the star room is a night-sky museum: hunks of meteoric rock; scales for taking one’s weight on the Sun and the Moon and other local planets; dioramas of remote galaxies, exploding nebulae with their reds and blues and aboriginal white in spiral motifs as exotic and primal as sea anemones and crabs in the next-door aquarium.
On a child’s baptism into a rural sky, an adult tends to single out the scion of the Big Top:
We call it the Big Dipper because its seven brightest stars visually resemble a ladle. A thousand years ago, Britons called it the Wain because they thought it resembled a wagon—at least, so goes the theory. But poking a little past the merely visual, the Big Dipper’s scientific name, held over from Latin, is Ursa Major, which means the Great Bear. The constellation covers not only the seven stars of the cup and handle—which are also the bear’s body and tail—but about fourteen other stars outlining the head, neck and legs as well.
The Greeks at some point called this constellation Callisto. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, had changed her into a bear for not remaining a virgin, and Zeus had rescued her by placing her in the sky. Callisto’s child was named Arkas, giving rise to the Greek word “arktos,” meaning bear and becoming associated, at some point, with Polaris, the North Star at the tip of the handle of our Little Dipper, Ursa Minor. . . .
Arab astronomers also associated Ursa Major with a bear, calling it Al Dubb al Akbar, the Greater Bear. A vestige of these words remains in the name of the star at the top right of the dipper’s cup—Dubhe. Arkas is also heard in “Akbar,” a clear indication that there was some link between Arab and Greek mythologies. . . .
In winter, goes a Micmac version, the bear (represented by the four bright stars of the Dipper’s cup, upside down) is on her back in death. Late in spring she begins to stir, as about midnight the stars in the cup are beginning to tip down. The stars in the handle are hungry hunters who decide to chase her. All summer they pursue her, their track bending downward, and some lose the trail and disappear below the horizon. By fall, the remaining hunters corner the bear and kill her, the blood spattering over the autumn leaves. The bear dies, sleeping her death sleep through the winter. In spring, the cycle begins again. 
But then giant windships arrived with a replacement coverlet, turning the bear’s hibernation into a funeral pyre while transmuting the hunters into musket-bearing sorcerers who made the tracks disappear.
1. Dana Wilde, Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography (Troy, Maine: D. Wilde Press, 2012), p. 72.
2. Immanuel Kant, “Space, Time, and Transcendental Idealism,” in Critique of Practical Wisdom, 1788, translated by Paul Guyer and Alan W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
3. Søren Kierkegaard, “Repetition” (1843) in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited by Howard V. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
4. Wilde, Nebulae, pp. 52–53.
5. Robert Kelly, “Re: The Occult,” Io, no. 6 (Ethnoastronomy Issue), Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1969, p. 107.
7. Dana Wilde, “The Great Bear in Maine,” The Antigonish Review, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, no. 137, Spring 2004, available online here.
Excerpted from The Night Sky: Soul and Cosmos, Updated and Expanded Edition by Richard Grossinger. © 2014, North Atlantic Books.