So it is winter.
I woke far too early and happened to be reading about the winter solstice as it occurred at Newgrange, an elaborate Stone Age ancient temple and passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland. There the rising sun shines into a roofbox over the main entrance, just so, and fills an inner chamber with light for seventeen minutes.
Except that today it was cloudy at Newgrange and the sun failed to illuminate the little room.
Nevertheless, it fills me with intense wonder: the profound Neolithic effort and precision that went into making huge monuments perfectly aligned to capture the solstitial sun—Newgrange at sunrise, Stonehenge at sunset (Newgrange is older). There are more such ceremonial mounds across continents, centuries, and cultures. What did these ancient farmers believe? They were keen sky-watchers. They knew the patterns of the sun. Are these mounds evidence of sun-worship, or thanksgiving to deities for the sun, or hope of somehow harnessing its power? What part do the dead play in this attempt to capture the sun as it “stands still” (the origin of solstice)? How close do our best educated guesses come to understanding?
That’s only the beginning of wondering on this first day of winter, 2020.
The solstice was overshadowed by bigger news: In the evening, Jupiter and Saturn would come closer together than they have for 800 years. The “Great Conjunction.” Some call it the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star.
In my front yard there is a Christmas star. It presides over a Nativity scene once belonging to my in-laws until the year someone vandalized the lighted figures and stole the Baby Jesus. My father-in-law painstakingly removed the spray paint but my mother-in-law didn’t want to set it up again, fearing it would invite vandals to return and maybe do more harm. They gave it to my family when our youngest son was three. He was so captivated by the Nativity that he began supervising the setting-up of it on the day after Thanksgiving, a tradition that continues to this day, twenty years later (with a replaced Baby Jesus, who is, after all, the point).
The Great Conjunction appearing so near Christmas could not be missed.
From the back deck I scoured the night sky, feeling inept, wishing that I could read the constellations and navigate by them the way the ancients did, like astronomers or sailors or stargazing travelers do. I do not have that gift of the Magi … but I tonight I recognized Mars, brilliant and yes, red, rising to the left of the moon. I read somewhere recently that Mars—named for the Roman god of war, the son of Jupiter—will be the brightest star in the night sky until 2035 (I’d made a note. Will research).
And I saw what I thought were shooting stars, something I am not sure I’ve ever really seen before… stars or pieces of stars were moving around the sky. They were. From my vantage point, not far from Mars, which was clearly rising higher… I began to think about apocalyptic literature, the stars falling one by one, the end of time…
I think it is a meteor shower. The Ursids do this every December. I have lived this long and haven’t paid attention, alas. But now, now I stand wondering, beyond my human ability to articulate, about all that is going on in the sky this night. As someone who loves symbolism… well. I cannot know the stories of the stars. If they are writing, it is in a language I cannot read. A mystery too high and yet so deep. Amazing that scientists know what they do about space. More amazing that stars do what they do, with their vast, celestial choreography…
And where is this Great Conjunction?
With some help from the SkyView app I find Uranus. And Neptune. And Deneb, the star at the head of the Northern Cross, part of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. And—is that bright star high in the west what I’m looking for? No… that’s Vega. Meaning “falling eagle.”
There are bald eagles in this area. I have seen them. And just a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was standing on my deck, right here facing the spot where the star Vega is now, except that in the dream it was day and an eagle flew by, precisely there…
I do not have enough lifetime to ponder all the things I so want to ponder.
That is a dark thought on this longest night of the year. Which reminds me of a job the Space Station astronauts have: looking for dark matter. What is dark matter? Scientists are not quite sure. They cannot actually see it in space, but they can see that something causes various effects on other objects, so they know it is there. What ever it—dark matter—is.
These thoughts stir my longing for quest, for story. This is one reason why writers write…but I am already on a quest, am I not?
SkyView says Jupiter and Saturn are behind the pine trees of my backyard.
Nothing for it but to load my husband, son, and Dennis the dachshund in the car to find a wide-open space.
Turns out that the end of our street was good enough.
We got out, looked back, and there—perfectly aligned over the cul-de-sac at the opposite end—the Great Conjunction. Lower than I expected, very bright, infinitely mysterious.
A rare, beautiful light shining in the darkness. Not a star, just two big planets huddled together.
What might Jupiter, the king of the planets, have to say to Saturn, or Kronos, or Cronus—Father Time?
Here’s the thing. They might not be talking but planets do emit sounds… only they may be drowned out by the stars. Stars sing. All the time. Ask NASA. Google it. Read Job 38:7. The universe plays its own symphony…
I am thinking about their song, what harmonics stars might have, as I sit down to write this post. I am saddened, just a little, not to have obtained a photo of the Great Conjunction (if only I had a telescope!). Yet…I saw it. My quest was rewarded; I landed in just the right place at the right time (and century) to witness it.
Which leads me back to the Newgrange site, where I discover that early tomorrow (Tuesday) the Office of Public Works is livestreaming the sunrise again! Will the sun still fill that little chamber? For how long? I will get to see for myself here in a few short hours… and now a photo of the entrance to that ancient mound catches my eye. That megalithic art, those swirls… why do they seem so familiar? I just saw them somewhere here in my house. Maybe in the new illuminated Bible I just got?
—Ah. Found them. Over my fireplace, in a picture I painted at a gathering several winters ago… one does wonder, really, how much of the ancient remains deep within us, even now… we are, after all, made of stardust, and what else is our sun but a star?
Just one more bit of winter whimsy…
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good (long) night.