An excellent guide for learning about the wonders of the night sky. . .

Fall has its pluses and minuses. It’s hard for me to not resent the shortening of daylight hours at this time of year up here in the Pacific Northwest. But within this annoyance there is also opportunity to experience wonder: more hours to observe the night sky.


Sure, if you bundle up first!


Good point, 9. Yesterday morning before dawn the sky was free of clouds. Around 6 AM (snuggled under a fleece throw) I settled in for breakfast on the back deck and looked up at a grand display in the sky. The half-moon was at the apex, flanked by Venus to the west and Jupiter to the east, both at 45 degrees. A pale band reaching up from the eastern horizon backlit the passage of a flock of geese. Sunrise erased the stars and the planets, leaving only the moon.


Sounds exquisite.


That it was, Lily. The Universe – – its size, its beauty- – makes me feel minuscule but also a part of all creation.


What did you have for breakfast?


Oatmeal and fruit.


I would have had pancakes.


And you would have had to do the cleanup, too, 9.


I despise breakfast.



Moving right along, yesterday’s wonder and the time of year brought to mind the most profound visual experience of my life so far.


It happened in the high desert at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. I’d gone to Pasadena for book research (no, it didn’t sell, thanks for asking!). My research was mostly at Cal Tech and concerned world building details for an astronomy professor protagonist. And talk about wonder: rose bushes bloomed abundantly all over campus, and, hey, the sun was out! October in Port Townsend, WA, where I lived at that time (1998) is generally overcast, cool and rainy.


The weather was a lovely break, and I also got a break from a long-time friend who lived near Los Angeles and was an ardent amateur astronomer. It is not surprising that he was the provider of visual wonder, as he worked as a sitcom cameraman. He had a two day break from his shooting schedule (“Veronica’s Closet” and “Friends”) so he rented a Volvo station wagon to accommodate his two monster telescopes and, with me in the passenger seat, headed to the desert.

My host and friend with his Dobsonian telescope. No wonder he needed to rent a station wagon to transport it! Photo by Vernon Kifer.

Just about everything at our destination was a source of wonder. The southwest high desert terrain, the prehistoric looking Joshua trees (in bloom, no less), the funky yet posh 29 Palms Inn where old-time Hollywood stars used to hide from the public gaze. You can see the place we stayed (Old Frame 1 & 2) and lots of other cool stuff here:


But none of this came close to the wonder I experienced that night. My friend ordered sack lunches from the 29 Palms restaurant and we drove up to the park. He set up one of his monster telescopes and we waited, ate our sack lunches, and waited some more for the sky to go dark. I had expected to view the stars with a sense of awe, but the big show for me happened at sunset. There, in the high desert with a broad, flat horizon I viewed the coming of night not as a gradual fading of day but as Earth rotating into its own shadow.


Talk about majesty, and that word doesn’t begin to cover it. The process, the shifts in light, the muting of colors, the visceral anticipation of day ushering in night. Every cell in me was on high alert. It’s no wonder indigenous societies worshiped the natural world before the creation of human-centered religions.


I’ve never seen anything to surpass that wonder-invoking phenomenon, and something my friend pointed out dovetailed with that moment and gradually became the core of my personal belief system: we, and everything we can see and touch, are made from the same stardust. This is what I return to when I start viewing people who are not like me as “other” and when I consider the place of humans in relationship to all other forms of life on Earth.


My generous friend and host on this expedition died seven years ago this month at the age of 63. It is no stretch at all to picture him walking amongst the stars.

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