PITTSFIELD, VERMONT–On a cloudless winter night, the stars in Vermont put on a good show. In the cold, clear air, they cease to twinkle and shine instead with dead-on sincerity, like a third-place candidate. And stars of lesser magnitude that are usually swallowed up in the darkness enunciate their places in the larger constellations.
These astronomical facts struck me with renewed force the other night when I got out of bed to toss another log into the stove. It must have been about 2AM as I checked the thermometer (-20º) but as I did, I noticed how clearly Sirius, the bright star of Canis Major, was shining in the west. It was as flat and bright as the moon, though a lot smaller and–could it be?–it had a face like the man-in-the-moon too. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. No doubt about it: Sirius was grimacing down at earth with bulging eyes, open mouth, and an expression of unbridled rage that made it a dead ringer for Governor Howard Dean.
Remarkable, I thought. Maybe this has something to do with the Internet. But of course it made some sense. Governor Dean’s anger always had a touch of the transcendent, and I suppose that, while it is unlikely the heavens were imitating him, he might well have borrowed his celestial fire from the remoter north. That would explain his otherwise inexplicable cry of triumph when he lost in Iowa: communication with the mother ship.
While I was shivering through these speculations (the log had not yet caught), something else caught my eye in that peculiarly luminous sky. A little higher on the Western horizon the constellation Canis Minor seemed especially peckish. Its sole bright star Procyon looked out of temper. As I focused I was surprised to see that Procyon too had a miniature man-in-the-moon face: broad-brow, deep-set eyes locked into a what-am-I-doing-here? stare, and lips slightly parted in quizzicality–yes, it was the spitting image of Wesley Clark.
Now it is one thing to see Howard Dean coasting through the cosmos on a cold Vermont night. But seeing Wesley Clark up there too–well, what do you suppose the odds are? Something odd was clearly happening in northern New England. I bundled up, grabbed my binoculars and stepped outside in the frigid air.
I was right. Sure enough, Regulus, the bright star in Leo that looks like the dot beneath a backwards question mark was wearing the sad face of Senator Lieberman. And there was Reverend Sharpton smiling some witticism from Aldebaran in the middle of Taurus. Dennis Kucinich took a little more hunting, but I spotted him in the dim constellation Crater, just about to set over the Green Mountains.
Senator Kerry? Found him in Capella, the bright star of Auriga, the charioteer, looking as though he were leading a funeral cortège to some northern necropolis. His hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and long face always seem to suggest Senator Kerry is harboring some of the secret grief of mankind and, making allowances, I took his celestial expression of dismay as one of his more cheerful moments.
And Senator Edwards? His boyish grin was on the face of Algol, bright star of Perseus, the dragon slayer. Where else, I suppose, would you be likely to find the trial lawyer champion of the little people?
But even a few minutes of this stargazing chilled me to the bone and I hurried back inside to stand by the stove and watch the peopled stars drop over the horizon one by one. I looked in the local paper the next morning to see if anyone else had remarked the strange masquerade in the night sky, but no, there was not one word.
I am mostly puzzled that the universe would take such a lively interest in the run up to the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. In broad daylight it seems pretty clear none of these guys is going to be president.
–Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.