Stars, Fog, and Owls

30 years ago, in the days (or rather nights) of my innocence as an amateur astronomer, I was still trying to acquaint myself with whole classes of deep-sky objects. I was messing around with telescopes I knocked together from parts, using money scrounged from the usual sources available to a high school or college student (plus the sale of a painting now and then).

As a total dweeb, a category which encompasses pretty much all stargazers in one way or another, I like to name my telescopes. Being especially pretentious, I like to use names from Tolkien. For example, there was Remmirath, a 6-inch f/5 reflector on a cast-iron Edmund equatorial mount. This simple telescope would seem pretty humble to me today. But what a marvel it was at the time! Remmirath, Tolkien's "netted stars", an apt name.

There was Upper Lisle Park, an obscure but magical place where land, water, and sky are intimately mixed.

And then there were planetary nebulae. I'd already seen some of the showcase planetaries...the Ring, the Dumbbell, a few others. But my atlas was sprinkled with symbols for planetaries which I simply could not see, no matter how I tried. I would turn my telescope to the right place, to see only a field of stars. What was I missing? On one memorable night I finally made the mental leap that revealed my mistake. I recalled my first-ever view of a planetary nebula, the Ring, seen through an 8-inch f/15 Cassegrain when I was about 12. I had almost overlooked it in the eyepiece, expecting a small, colorful image like the pictures in books. Instead I saw a large, faint, grey donut. As I searched for these new targets, could I now be looking for something too large? I returned to the rich starfields of Cygnus and examined those stars more carefully. One of them suddenly stood apart from the others with its weird turquoise glow. I had discovered a tiny blue gem. After that, those minute planetaries were among my favorite targets. They were downright spooky, peering across thousands of light years like the reflection in a cat's eye.

The subtle beauty of deep sky objects is an acquired taste. From their appearance alone, most deep sky objects seem insignificant. With few exceptions, they look like mere smudges of pale light. One might wonder what would lead a person to spend time and money in pursuit of flecks of light barely perceptible to human vision.

For me, one motivation is the challenge of simply finding these obscure objects. The sky is a sea which I navigate with more assurance than I do the complex human world on Earth. I take pleasure in my ability to stalk these "forests of the night".

I like telescopes for their own sake too. They're elegant devices, of enormous precision for all the simplicity of their design. Consider the Dobsonian reflector. A simple thing of wood, metal, glass and plastic, easier to build than a canoe. Yet it sets our eyes and minds free in the Milky Way and beyond.

Anyone with a few hundred dollars can buy or make a simple six or eight-inch reflector. A galaxy 50 million light years away sheds enough light on that small disk of glass to be directly perceptible to the human eye. That's worth contemplating.Think of all the galaxy-light that falls unheeded on the soil. It seems a shame to waste it. I try to gather as much of it as I can, rather than let it fall on unappreciative beetles and microorganisms.

A good observing session can be a mystical experience. I have fond memories of summers spent camping at Upper Lisle. When Canadian highs came southward I could have several dry, clear nights in a row. At dusk I'd drive to a secluded gravel quarry away from the few lights of the campground and set up the scope. It was completely quiet except for the hooting of owls.

Alone under that dark sky, I would lose myself among the stars and find peace for a while. Globular star clusters looked like swarms of golden bees. Galaxies were so thick in some parts of the sky that 5 or 10 were visible in a single eyepiece field. I often found faint galaxies that weren't even plotted on my atlas. It could be chilling to gaze out across that void at a breath of haze so inconspicuous, and yet to realize that entering my eye was the combined light of billions of suns, each shedding its light on more mysteries than we will ever uncover. The sheer number of places that each galaxy contains is incomprehensible. These are places totally and forever beyond human influence, yet created and governed by the same physical laws that operate on our own world. They are alien and familiar at the same time, impossibly distant and also very much part of our surroundings.

Even now, when romanticism is more elusive, sometimes when I'm in a dark place with the gleam of a distant galaxy in my eye, I achieve a glimmer of understanding of the oneness of everything that exists. The fog rising from the lake, the owls hooting in the trees, and myself, are no less cosmic than these stars and galaxies. We are all in the same place, parts of the same thing. I can never hold onto this awareness for very long, but the memory stays with me.

It was the hooting of the owl at Upper Lisle that first brought me this revelation. I heard the owl, and at the same instant I saw the planetary with its cold blue light. Both were equally real and present to me for a few transforming seconds.

These are the things that keep me observing. Not the visual skill of finding things, nor the allure of the equipment, but the rare flashes of insight that I am part of something great and strange beyond my understanding.


Copyright by Joe Bergeron.