What Is The Stars?

If ever I was out walking with my dad on a clear night – maybe up along the Black Path in Portrush or along the beach at low tide in winter, before they installed the lights on the promenade – we would look up into the Van Gogh night and cast our eyes to the stars. He would pick out constellations and planets, teach me positions and names: Orion was easy to get to know, then The Plough, moving up to the North Star, and maybe Mars (if visible), Venus (nearly always visible). And he would tell me the same story that I never tired of hearing. “The first time I showed you the stars was in the back garden of an October night. You were nearly four, but a small four, and I could hold you high on my shoulders so you felt closer to them. It was a perfectly clear sky and I’d been burning leaves and branches after a day of clearing and cutting back; they were still smouldering. ‘Do you like them?’ I asked you, letting you lean back. And you told me, ‘Yes! They’re everywhere, twinkly, I love how they smell.’” He never got tired of telling me his delight at how his daughter could smell the stars!

‘Juno and The Paycock’, a play by Seán O’Casey is set in slum tenements during the civil war in Dublin in 1922. Destruction, poverty, alcoholism, and hopelessness all form the unrelenting backdrop. When it gets too much to bear, Boyle (the main character) transports himself away from his mess of a life by looking skywards. “I often looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question — what is the stars, what is the stars?” That could be my line as a child – as I had no idea what they were, other than calming, sparking jewels that smelt like burning wood and leaves. “What is the stars?” It could still be my line now. I’m not much wiser than Boyle.

All this is coming back to me because last night I watched the film, ‘The Martian’, in which a NASA crew member gets left on Mars (presumed dead) and fends for himself for 18 months before rescue comes. It was more ‘spacey’ than ‘starry’, more of a focus on science than on the wonder, awe and beauty of it all. But it still took me to the stars.

There was a news story last month about an astronaut on the International Space Station who had grown by 9cm while he was in space. ‘Grown’ is the wrong word: lack of gravity lets the pockets of air between the vertebrae expand – he had stretched. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it; it sounded like a painful amount to stretch. It was on one of these science programmes on Radio 4, (the one that does all of the fact checking) and yes, it was true. Apparently this particular man was very tall and so his stretch rate was proportionate. After about three months on earth, his additional 9cm will be un-grown.

Forget physical growth (or stretching), I’m more interested in how much mind / emotional / spiritual growth one must make by going into space. I cannot begin to imagine. Even in those short moments on clear nights when I remember to look up, I can feel changes in myself. Don’t you think it’s true that when we want to get a sense of perspective, we can get it from the sky? It could be staring into the blue sky of morning, to what Wendell Berry calls the ‘day-blind stars’, or into the awe-inspiring night sky with its expansive and indecipherable messages. I think when you feel lost, looking at the stars can make you feel little but whole, insignificant but connected.

Clear skies are off the agenda for a while, according to the forecast, but the cloud curtain can always lift unexpectedly for an hour here and hour there if we stay alert. S. gave me a gift this week of a seasonal almanac. It describes and plots a constellation to look out for in the night sky each month. This month it is ‘Canis Major’, and one of its stars is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Bright because it is so close, only 8.6 light years away! Maybe when I am back in Edinburgh I’ll go into Holyrood Park at night and look up to find it. I’ll even take a deep breath in to see if I can smell it. And I’ll probably talk to my dad. I might even read him a poem.

W.B. Yeats, ‘When I am Old’

“And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”



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