Thursday, January 7, 2016

Winter Skies

"In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity." ~John Burroughs, "The Snow-Walkers," 1866

"In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." ~William Blake

 It has not felt much like winter for most of the past few weeks. Temperatures have been some 12 degrees higher than normal, and this has led to many flowers and plants being confused about what time of the year it really was. Roses and pansies and some lilies have thought that spring was coming again, and so they started blooming. There were other plants that did not die away when or in the fashion we are used to them doing in early and mid-December. This intrigued and puzzled us as we traveled around, strangely wearing only jackets and without our heavy coats and gloves. It was another sign that the world was slightly out of whack. We had a few days that seemed normal-January 2nd-6th seemed as if winter remembered what it was supposed to do and what it was supposed to feel like. But that was apparently temporary-the next 10 days after that are forecast to be in the 40's again, and we are not scheduled for any snow for a while. The winter we have come to expect, the winter our calendar always tells us to look for, has not come. It has passed us by this year. At least on this earthen level we have not had much of a winter at all.

 There is one place, though, that the season has been doing what is has always done; that winter lets us know it is here.  Around 5:30 PM a wonderful curtain of darkness comes down and settles in, and for some 13 or 14 hours we are in the grip of one of the most dramatic and beautiful scenes on the planet-the winter night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. That seasonal combination of the absence of leaves on the trees, the sheer number of hours of darkness, the presence of so many dramatic constellations, and the visibility of the planets makes the winter sky among my favorite celestial happenings. Yes, there are nights when it is cloudy and not much seems visible, but even then the greys have their subtle shades and shapes that seem mysterious. And when the sky is cloudless, then things are amazingly stark and dramatic. Even in the city nature's lights in the sky stand out. Some of the  constellations are clear and almost shouting in their brightness: the Dippers in the north,  Orion to the southeast, and Cygnus to the northwest are simply brilliant and delightful. The moon is also fascinating. The crescent and quarter moons give way to a new moon by the end of the first full week of January. The Full Moon will be on January 23rd, and this will be easily and proudly visible. Visible, too, for the month is Jupiter, high overhead and in the northwest sky. And there is the comet, Catalina, that appears in the middle of January that is visible with binoculars as it passes by the Big Dipper. These are all treats and wonders for us to behold, and they all remind me of the wonderfully paradoxical position of humans in this universe. We are really quite insignificant when you observe all that is going on around and above us. I mean there is Jupiter or a comet, and then there is us. But we are also powerful because we can observe, think about and make some type of order out of all of this. We can even name these things. That too is amazing-we are simultaneously powerless and powerful. And we also get to stand back and enjoy it all.

So even if what is happening on the earth seems strange and out of place, the sky provides us with some certainty and plenty of beauty and enjoyment. We can get outside, look up and have an immediate immersion in the wonder of winter. It may not feel or look much like winter down here, but it definitely does up there. Enjoy it.