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Stars in my eyes

When Orion strides into the skyscape each year I feel like I’m greeting an old friend, and I’m reminded of the first time I ever saw him. Standing on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home in Oregon, my mom showed me how to chain together the stars that outlined the hunter’s belt and sword. This was the first constellation I learned, and it still produces a sense of awe that we are so very, very small in the galactic scheme of things. Although daunting, I also find it weirdly freeing to try to wrap my brain around things completely un-Earthbound; the nature of the universe is so vast it swallows my worldly worries whole.

Orion is a great starter constellation because he’s easy to find and is composed of a number of very bright stars of varying colors, plus a famous nebula (star nursery). Rising in the east about 8 pm, he can be seen clearly overhead by 10 pm, and sticks around from November through April. Orion also acts as a helpful guide from which you can identify other surrounding stars and constellations.

Look for three equally spaced stars that form Orion’s belt, then three stars “hanging” from the  left of the belt that form his sword (one of these stars is actually the nebula, but I’ll get to that in a minute). On very clear nights you can see the three stars that make up his comparatively tiny head, an arc of stars to the right that form a shield, and his raised right arm (on our left) holding a club.

The most easily identifiable star in Orion is Betelgeuse, which marks his right shoulder (to our left). One of the brightest stars in the winter sky, it is a red giant. Aptly named, it is both reddish in color and large beyond our ability to even measure accurately (its ever-changing surface gases make it difficult to pinpoint its distance from Earth, and therefore difficult to size). Notice differences in the colors of stars, which indicate varying surface temperatures.

The inset arrow points to red giant  Betelgeuse. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)

The inset arrow points to red giant Betelgeuse. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)

Solar System Ambassador and McMurray Middle School science teacher Evan Justin, a veteran amateur astronomer, helped me get a grasp on the big B. Betelgeuse is 667 Earth suns across, about 20 of our sun’s mass, and about 1.6 billion of our suns (by volume) could tuck neatly into its magnificence.

“It’s red because it has ballooned so much it’s losing energy to space faster, so it has a lower temperature,” Justin explained. “When a star uses up its primary fuel—hydrogen— it starts fusing less energy-efficient atoms together, so multiple sorts of fusion are going on in its core, and all that surface area means the star gets cooler.”

Justin said it’s like putting a wok on the hot burner of an electric stove. The heat spreads out fairly evenly across the wok’s surface. Now put a wok as big as your house on the hot burner and the wok will not be as hot at its edges. Since Betelgeuse’s surface area is so enormous, the energy coming from its core is widely spread out, making it cooler overall. (Okay, relatively cooler—its surface temperature is “only” about 5,000 degrees F.)

One day within the next 100,000 years or so, scientists say Betelgeuse will go supernova, meaning it will eat up all the energy at its core and implode.

“That concussive impact of the core causes a portion of it to be thrust out into space,” Justin says. “A supernova is the first step of a new solar system—it’s a real phoenix kind of thing.” (This implosion could have already happened, but because Betelgeuse is 640 light years away it will take 640 years for us to see it from Earth.) When Betelgeuse goes supernova, it will be so bright as to be visible during the day as a “day star.” In A.D. 185, the Crab Nebula’s supernova event was recorded on tortoise shells by the Chinese—it was visible for about a week as a bright daytime star.

Compare Betelgeuse with blue-white Rigel, Orion’s left foot (on our right) with a surface temperature upwards of 23,000 degrees F. (For contrast, our sun is a yellow star with a surface temperature around 11,000 degrees F.) Rigel is a supergiant—the sixth brightest star in the sky, it is 57,000 times brighter than our sun.

Orion is also known for containing a remarkable deep-sky object. Can you see how the middle of his sword is a little fuzzy? That’s because it’s not a star, but the Great Orion Nebula: thousands of lights years across of exploded stars.

The Great Orion Nebula. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)

The Great Orion Nebula. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)

“It challenges our theories to have collections of nebulae this large,” Justin said. “Hundreds of solar systems are being born there—he has a stellar nursery in the middle of his belt.”

This is where binoculars come in handy. Justin explains that binocular lenses act as funnels, concentrating light into your eyes and allowing your color sensors to transmit more detail to your brain. He recommends a wide lens with low magnification (greater than 20 mm and up to 120 mm). “Wide lenses allow you to see the sky through the eyes of a super eagle,” he says.

Through Justin’s telescope, the Great Orion Nebula appears delicate and diaphanous in 3D. “You can see different colors; it’s like an amoeba with definite texture and depth,” he says.

If you’re interested in taking a closer look at Orion, and you’d like to see the nebula in 3D, Justin will bring out his telescope for free star parties. Call him or email him, 206-919-8553 or ejustin@vashonsd.org, to set up a time for your family or small group (weekends and school breaks are best).

Whatever you do, bundle up and look up. Winter is prime time for stargazing because it gets dark earlier and more moisture content in the lower atmosphere makes the sky clearer. This time of year Earth is facing toward the outer edge of the Milky Way, where there are fewer stars. (In the summer we face the brighter center of the galaxy, with billions of stars creating a lighted haze). Islanders also benefit from darker skies because we lack the constant glow of city light pollution.

To learn more about the night sky, visit the Vashon Library’s science section. The Kids Book of the Night Sky and the National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky are good places to start. And The Starlore Handbook spins yarns about the myths and symbols associated with each constellation. You can carry a star map in your pocket with the cell-phone app Star Walk, which provides a real-time picture of what you’re looking at in the night sky, and can direct you to objects of interest.

There are hundreds of websites that are also helpful; a few of Justin’s favorites are

Sky and Telescope magazine

Your Sky

NASA SkyView—virtual telescope

Munich Astro Archive Constellations

StarGazer Guide

Astronomy Picture of the Day

 

See what you can discover tonight…

Big storm offers big chance to follow new tracks

My 12-year-old has been teasing me about how I’m more wound up about the prospect of new snow than she is…and she might be right (I’m wide awake at 3 am writing this because I’m so excited for the onslaught that I can’t sleep).

There’s something about how snow transforms every tarp, bucket and stump to create a monochrome sculpture park—all is forgiven. I enjoy the minutely exquisite symmetry of a snowflake, and trying to get close enough to discover its individual secret before my breath transforms it into a common drop of water. Scraggly bare branches adorned in frosty coats become beguiling artistic studies. Not to mention the joyful abandonment that is sledding, and the rare island event: cross-country skiing to the neighbor’s for a cuppa.

Waiting for snow also evokes childhood mornings, impatiently listening to the DJ recite school closures…breathless in the kitchen with my sister, poised for the door (snow pants and mittens already on)—please oh please let them call our school…the rush of relief and excitement when they did….SNOW DAY!

In recent years I’ve discovered yet another reason to revel in a snow day: animal tracking. Last winter I had the chance to interview expert tracker David Moskowitz, who shared a few insights into what he believes is an accessible pastime for everyone, and a great way to inspire people to care more deeply about wild places.

“The snow creates a blank slate and these animals come and write their stories onto it,” says Moskowitz, author of the tracking field guide, Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. “Snow provides a very simple substrate where you can detect tracks, and so it’s a great doorway for novices. And because often you get long strings of tracks in the snow, you can literally follow an animal for hours.”

Animals leave more than foot tracks...this impression is an otter slide, created by river otters playing in the snow  (photographed on Lopez Island by Kathryn True).

Animals leave more than foot tracks…this impression is an otter slide, created by river otters playing in the snow (photographed on Lopez Island by Kathryn True).

Stories in the snow

Moskowitz, who teaches tracking through the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, says that tracks tell stories about what happened the night before, and you can go out, pick up the tale, and try to put it all together.

Naturally, heading up into the mountains you’ll see a much wider variety of animal tracks, but the island is a great place to practice your track identification skills, and you might be surprised at what you discover. Looking very closely at some bird tracks in the snow last year I found several perfect imprints of small wings. It looked as if a bird had been making row upon row of tiny snow angels. And even if you only find the tracks of deer or raccoon (or even a domestic cat or dog), their stories can bring new insights into the lives of our animal neighbors.

For example, it’s surprising to discover raccoon tracks heading up the steps to your deck, and interesting to try to determine just which way a deer was headed (the narrow part of the track—actually its two front toes—is at the front). Or take a look at the straight-line tracks of the housecat and consider its gait. And ponder the circling dances of rodent tracks—are they the messages of mouse or vole?

If you don’t have a tracking guide and want to get started now, check out the Alderleaf Wilderness College website for a guide to several common local animal tracks. Vashon Wilderness School will be offering a tracking workshop for teens in March.

Whatever you do today, get out and enjoy the snow like the otters do!

Cycles in nature and change in our lives

This article was re-published by permission in the Puget Sound Zen Center’s blog. It was also re-published by permission in the Wilderness Center’s blog. Thanks to both for your interest in our work!

As the winter solstice passes and the New Year begins, I hear excited whispers about snow and look out to the early blackness as dinner simmers on the stove. The falling leaves, the cessation of growth, the turning of movement from branches to roots, the warmth of decomposition, the stillness of death, the stealth of the hunters, the bounty of apple harvests-all these seasonal happenings carry great metaphors for living our human lives.

One of the biggest metaphors contained in our seasons, and other natural cycles, is that of uncontrollable change. Nature can help us deal with fear surrounding the fact that some changes are beyond our control. At the same time, it shows us that sometimes change can yield unanticipated beauty, and delight us with surprises.

As a new mother, I stumbled upon the power of nature to teach my kids about change when my son Orion was about 3. It all started as I was making him toast one morning. I cut it in four pieces as I had always done. My boy looked at the toast as I placed it in front of him. “Mama, I don’t want it cut that way. I just want it one line down the middle.” I asked him to eat it like it was because it was already cut and promised to cut it in two the next time.

What followed was quite an amazing transformation. My formerly sweet, calm, and patient son turned red, his eyes filled with tears, and he fell on the ground screaming “NO! Put it back! I want it back together again! Put it back together!” I started to explain that you can’t put toast back together after it has been cut but quickly realized that my explanation was not helping in the least. After holding him until he calmed down I suggested that we stick a note to the toaster for next time that said “Mama, please only cut my toast once down the middle. Thank you.” He seemed okay with that. Phew! I congratulated my shaky self on getting through that one. Little did I know it was only the beginning.

Over the following weeks our house became peppered with Post- it notes, each signifying a tantrum or crying bout. On the floor: “Papa, please don’t pick up the train tracks at night.” On the Lego box: “Mama, please don’t take apart any Lego towers even if you are trying to free up pieces for me to use.” On the car dashboard: “Mama, please go home from town by turning at Sound Foods instead of going straight.” Around the same time Orion quit his favorite beach game of throwing sticks in the water: he didn’t want to lose the sticks.

I finally recognized a pattern; Orion was struggling with situations that he could not reverse or control. The toast could never be put back together again no matter what. It upset him that we picked up his train tracks because there never would be another train track configuration exactly the same. If he threw a stick in the water, he would never be able to hold the same stick again. Ever.

On a walk one winter day, Orion and I smelled an awful smell. As it became stronger I realized it was a dead deer. Before I could find it Orion pointed to the side of the road. “Look,” he said.

“A deer” I said.

“It smells really bad!”

We laughed, “yes!”

“What is it doing there? “

“It’s dead.”

“Why?”

“It probably got hit by a car.”

“But, why is it dead?”

The questions kept coming as Orion struggled to understand the idea of permanent change. When he finally started to understand he started crying. He asked everything about this deer, things I would never know about its life. Tears were flowing down his face, but he didn’t budge.

Then I noticed the maggots. I figured that it couldn’t get much worse for him so why not forge ahead? “Orion,” I said, “look at these”. I explained that these maggots and worms– and little things so small we couldn’t even see them– were eating the deer and helping it turn into soil. Then we talked about how the soil became food for the grass growing on the side of the road. Orion smiled and said, “And then! A deer will eat the grass and the deer will be a deer again!” I told him that it would not be the same deer and that maybe a horse would come by and eat the grass instead, or a mouse. He thought about parts of the deer becoming a mouse or a horse or another deer. The tears stopped.

We said goodbye to the dead deer and enjoyed breathing fresh air again as we walked home. Over the next few weeks that deer was a common conversation topic. Orion told his dad about the deer that was becoming dirt, and we went back to look at it to see how it had changed. Orion drew parallels to the fallen leaves.

“Mama, the alder leaves are turning to dirt just like the deer.”

“You’re right.”

“And, then do the alder tree roots eat them again and grow strong?”

Meanwhile, the Post-it notes became fewer and farther between. But they were still there.

At the beach, Orion still refused to throw sticks or stones but he really wanted to. He would pick up a stick and head to the water and then say, “but I don’t want to lose it.” And he’d sit there wrestling with himself. I struggled between the urge to laugh and my strong underlying sense of worry. Finally, I burst out, “Just throw it!”

“What?” he asked, puzzled at my exasperation.

“If you throw it, the stick won’t be here anymore, but it will get to float to new and exciting places. You will have fun throwing it, and you will get to pick out a brand new beautiful stick next time. Things change and are lost, but new things come when the old things go. And those new things can be wonderful too. ”

He looked at me. “Mama, I won’t have fun throwing it.”

“What?”

“You said I would have fun throwing it, but I won’t have fun throwing it because I won’t be able to get it back and that will make me sad.” No sticks thrown that day.

More time went by. The deer was becoming unrecognizable and it didn’t smell as much. Grass and weed seedlings were starting to sprout from the dirt in the areas between the rib cage bones. Orion always stopped to look at it when we walked by. But he didn’t say much about it anymore.

The dead deer several months after we first saw it.

The dead deer several months after we first saw it.

Early one winter afternoon, we went to KVI beach. As we walked over the bridge, Orion reflexively picked up a stick and threw it in the water below. He ran across to the other side and watched it float out. “Look!” he said smiling as he watched it slowly spin and float away. I tried not to look too surprised as we watched that stick spiral toward Puget Sound. We spent the rest of the afternoon there, throwing things off the bridge.

I don’t know quite what it was that Orion finally figured out for himself, or how much the deer, alder leaves, and sticks had to do with it. But I suspect that in some way those experiences in nature helped him learn to deal with changes he couldn’t control, including change in his own life. And through the process, I learned to trust in change as well, and to let my son have his own seasons and cycles. Like all of us, my son still struggles sometimes with big transitions and permanent change but within reason. The Post-it note era is thankfully behind us and I know that our experiences in nature together had something to do with it.

Further reading: The Children and Nature Network is a great resource for the most accurate and current information on child development and nature.