Watch the Skies!

by wjw on October 17, 2007

Saturday night was spent at the Enchanted Skies Star Party. Traditionally this has been held at a nearly-inaccessible ranch in the Magdalena mountains, but this latest was held at the Camino Real Heritage Center, a remote state monument. I was able to drive to it in my car rather than having to take a shuttle bus.
What happens at the Enchanted Skies star party is that you show up and are given a BBQ chuckwagon dinner with all the trimmins. Then you sit on hay bales around the campfire circle, eat your dinner, and watch the sun set over the San Mateo Mountains while cowboy singer Doug Figgs entertains you with western ballads. (“Let me tell you ’bout the horses on my strang.”) This year he brought a fiddler with him.
Next, as the sky darkens and the tiny crescent new moon drops below the horizon, you listen to storyteller Great Bear Cornucopia (he answers to “G.B.”) tell Indian legends about the stars. He’s the “night sky interpreter” at the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, living among Anasazi ruins and the Navajo Nation, and he knows a lot of Indian legends about the stars. These always include the story of “How Coyote Fucked Up the Stars,” which is told in so many variations that it doesn’t get boring when you hear it year after year.
(Navajos have astronomers/astrologers, by the way. Their purpose is to study the stars in order to tell sick people which variety of healer to go to. A list of Navajo constellations may be found here.)
G.B. concludes his stories when it’s good and dark. Then you get off your hay bale and go wandering off to look at the sky through other people’s telescopes. You also spend a lot of time cursing as you stumble into prickly vegetation.
I haven’t been to the Star Party for a couple years, and there have been some changes, both unfortunate. The weather has been bad for the previous three years, so people have got out of the habit of attending. Saturday night the sky was perfect, but there were only about half a dozen telescopes to enjoy.
The other thing I noticed was that many of the scopes were automated and computer-guided. This isn’t bad in itself, but it meant that the operators, instead of memorizing the sky and manually shoving the scope where it needed to go, had to spend a lot of time programming their computers, and waiting for their computers to orient themselves, and cursing their computers when the computers failed to operate or got something wrong. The result was that we parasites, who brought no scopes of our own, didn’t get to look at the sky as much as we would have liked.
Oddly enough, I didn’t once see my old friend M13 in Hercules, which is probably the most-watched nocturnal object, because it’s a big globular cluster and it’s easy to find. When I go to star parties, I generally spend half my time watching M13. (It’s the cluster in the photograph above.)
I never get bored watching M13, because I’m always watching it through different scopes, and the view is always different and interesting. I could easily watch M13 through half a dozen scopes and not yawn once.
Which brings to mind an interesting problem in fiction. It’s awe-inspiring to view M13 half a dozen times, but try writing half a dozen awe-inspiring descriptions of M13. Does your reader yawn or not?

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