Pagan Streams

What happened to that sense of wonder, on yonder hillside getting dim..
I never know, when I visit the observatory, whether I’m going to come away elated or frustrated. I think tonight veered towards the latter. I went over thinking I’ll not worry so much about observing tonight, I’ll use the time to finally master the go-to mount.
Of course, I didn’t. At one point it started zooming off in totally wrong directions, (was it my fault? Did I touch a button to many?). Then it powered down for five minutes for no reason. I dunno.
I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just get a nice big mirror’d dob and leave the go-to mounts to the people that enjoy tech, (and there are such people, I’m told).
But then there’s the fourteen galaxies I saw last week, in Coma Berenices and Virgo, which I’ll happily admit I’d never have found star-hopping. I was buzzing when I found those. Or should I say, when I saw those.
I did drive away tonight thinking about finally renovating my old 10″ dob, which is in the garage. I’d rather be a victim of my own clumsy map-reading than my techy inadequacies.
But there’s another thing niggling.
When I had my lovely 10″ dob, back in the mid 90’s, I was finding all the bright objects, and finding new, interesting objects every session, (I still have my observation logs). Now, some twenty five years down the pike, I’ve seen all the bright objects, and I’m looking at fainter objects, it’s becoming a game of diminishing returns.
I sat in the park for nearly two hours today drawing up a chart of Messier objects. Ones I’ve seen, and ones I’ve seen only at the observatory. It’s quite a formidable list, and that’s not including NGC numbers. I’ve had perhaps the busiest 18 months, observation-wise, and I do wonder where to go from here. The observatory sky is class 5 Bortle, which isn’t great, but it’s much better than where I live. I’m wondering if the answer is getting out to darker skies?
Which, of course, I normally do. But it’s lockdown. The campsites are closed. Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling this slight despondency.
One night last year I watched the Milky Way move overhead. I sat in a Shropshire field and the whole river of stars seemed to slowly perceptibly move. I first sat with it in front of me, then I had to change the chair position, as it moved overhead. It was graceful and serene and I really felt plugged into something cosmic. I sometimes wish there was a word for appreciation of the heavens outside of science. I wonder if other languages have a word for it?
Steven James O’Meara, in his superb book on the Messier objects, asks at the end of the book, why we bother ourselves with faint galaxies seen only through glass, when our own galaxy stretches overhead, closer and brighter than all those telescopic galaxies.
Well, he doesn’t so much ask why, he just finds the irony in it. And I agree.
Heck, I’ve been to Stonehenge on solstice morning, and the sunrise on a clear day is comparable to a solar eclipse, that whoosh, that trip.
Perhaps it’s the crowds? Nah, it can’t be just that.
We travel the world to see solar eclipses, (if we’re lucky), yet how many times do we make the effort to see a clear sky sunrise?
How many have I ever seen?
I bet I could count them on one hand, two perhaps. Yet when you see it, it’s the most amazing thing. The first sighting of the golden Sun on the horizon, spilling its life-giving beams across the landscape. The welcome birth of a new day.
Is that astronomy? It certainly ticks the boxes. A visual observation of the changing relationship of celestial bodies. Blah blah.
But … what name should we give that feeling of awe as we watch it?
Our light pollution has pretty much put paid to the Milky Way these days. But can you imagine how it looked in the Neolithic times? A great Heathen river, and winding pagan stream… It would have been worshipped by people a lot more plugged into the night sky than we’ll ever be.
In pre-Roman times, it’s said the people on these shores worshipped the Sun. That’s got to be better than some jealous monotheistic invisible sky-god, right?
I’m digressing.
Over the past few years I’ve seen lots of different people in ‘astronomical circles’ and they all seem to come at this thing in a different way. Some get off on physics lectures (that I don’t understand at all!), and I bet they see as much beauty and wonder in that, as I do with the night sky. In the same way that people who really understand maths can see beauty in it. Can you imagine seeing beauty in maths? I can’t, but I can.
My point is – and there is a point behind all this – when we find a hobby, we need to be mindful that the magic doesn’t disappear. I wasn’t finding much magic in the go-to mount tonight.

I think I need to repair, and see that Pagan Stream overhead sometime soon. No telescopes, no tech, just the night as a starry dome, like Joni sang about.

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