Seasons Beneath the Stars

by Joe Bergeron

As the last leaves of Autumn are blown from the trees by wintry winds, I find myself looking back at the observing season just ended. Though an upstate New Yorker, I'm no cold-weather astronomer. To huddle against the wind, eyes watering, in dread of having to dismantle a large mass of frigid metal with my bare hands, is not my idea of fun. My usual dark-sky observing site becomes inaccessible, the steep dirt road leading to it covered with snow, ice, or mud. With the exception of a sortie to the Winter Star Party, I do little observing for five months of the year. I return to my site only when Winter recedes, and I surrender again to its authority soon after the leaves are gone. In the seven months in between, the seasons flow by with a comforting predictability, each lending its own personality and riches to the starscape that floats overhead. Discovering how the nocturnal cycles of life on Earth run in synchrony with the seasonal passing of the stars was a great wonder to me as a child. Now these cycles are a source of comfort, even though they spin by faster as I reach middle life.

Last year I made a courageous first reconnaissance to my hilltop site in late March. These are the last brooding days of Winter. The nights are silent, free of the choruses of animal sounds which give way to one another through the year's greener seasons. The two ponds still glimmer white and frozen in the starlight. The ground may be free of snow, perhaps for the first time in months, but the grass is pale, and the earth is frozen hard. The site is an orchard. The branches of the apple trees are stark, dry, and bare, all promise of renewed life still concealed. Orion stands tall, but he is contemplating his imminent dive into the sun's glare. Leo towers overhead, while Arcturus, a beacon and harbinger of the warmer, softer nights of Spring, is barely over the horizon. The land feels only half awake, and wary, not yet ready to stir. It would be all too easy for Winter to strike again, even yet.

All this abruptly changes some weeks later, perhaps in April, certainly by May. Suddenly a night on the hill is far from silent, but is filled with the massed tinkling of hundreds of tiny bells and whistles. The Spring Peepers have awakened. Life has made a miraculous resurgence in this place where silence reigned for so many months. The ponds are ice-free, if still cold. They spew tiny frogs into the grass and trees around them. Their urgent reinvigoration, and their need to proclaim it, outweighs any need for stealth against predators...or even against amateur astronomers who loom nearby. I peer into the eyepiece at flocks of remote galaxies even more numerous than the peepers. Their song is a comfort to me as I look across these chilling spaces, into the utter mystery of far-off galaxies, each of which contains more places and enigmas than I could possibly imagine in my lifetime. The frog chorus is cheerful, insistent. Although the individual voices are fragile, the song itself is compelling, almost overwhelming, a chant in celebration of life. Peeper Season. A time of hope and promise.

Sometime in June the peeper chorus falls off, taken up by the sporadic solos of larger frogs. The sound of the peepers is replaced by the light of mating insects. Fireflies, swarming up from the green, grassy earth in their thousands. By now Arcturus is high overhead at dusk, while Leo dives head-first into the evening twilight and Hercules and Lyra bring their summery riches into view in the east. The nights are gentle, sweet with the scent of apple blossoms. The long summer is still ahead, and the earth is gracious and generous. For every twinkle of starlight overhead, a flitting beetle gives off its pulses of greenish light. Firefly Season.

The fireflies fall dim in July, resuming their normal inconspicuous existence. Their "lightning" is replaced by that which spears and rumbles out of real thunderstorms. On still, gentle nights, often hazy in the heat and humidity of High Summer, there is a lull, with no animal chorus, either vocal or optical. It's broken now and then by the more solitary animals who share the hilltop with me. The throaty "gunks" of green frogs. The chain-saw snort of a deer startled by the sight of a man sitting at a tall telescope. The hooting of an owl. In the distance, the wailing of coyotes. Antares smolders sullenly in the south. Blueberry bushes provide a light breakfast, should I care to stay overnight for a morning swim, or to study the pebbled-glass texture of the sun through my telescope. Blueberry Season.

Cricket Season begins in August. Now with increasing frequency, the skies are blown clear of haze by masses of dry, chilly air sinking down from Canada. The Milky Way stands overhead in all its richness. This is Summer's peak. Life is rampant, at its full strength for the year...and therefore, about to decline. The cricket song, reenforced by the music of katydids and cicadas, lacks the quality of joy that the peepers had earlier. It's an older sound, dryer, more restrained, alien as the starswarms of globular clusters that throng in my eyepiece.

By October the insect sounds have all but ended. The trees take on the hot colors of the spectrum, their leaves now both unnecessary and unsupportable, about to be cast off. The sunlight which paints the hills as I drive to my site has a peculiar clarity, a unique stillness. And it carries a warning. Life must tally up its gains and losses for the year in preparation for the harshness just ahead. The Pleiades float in the east. Orion marshalls his strength just below the horizon. Fall nights on the hill are peaceful, yet almost ominous.

After the leaves are shed, the hilltop is cold and barren, awaiting the first covering of snow. I retreat, stowing away my telescopes and awaiting the distant spring. Orion and his glittering cohorts will soon rule over the snow-covered hill, and over many a frosty night. But I am not there to witness their pageant.

My favorite telescope set up at Lake Eerie, New York, my usual observing site.

Copyright by Joe Bergeron.