NR Digital

Heaven’s Array

by Richard Brookhiser

Our house in the country grew over time, long before we bought it. First it was a hunter’s cabin. Then the owner added a living room with a fireplace and chimney. Finally he put on a separate bedroom, no bigger than a slot (a king-size bed would fill it almost wall-to-wall), but in some burst of inspiration he put a large square skylight in the roof. It needs to be hosed off periodically, and every so often it springs a leak at its edges, but we are blessed to have it. For half the year, half of it is filled with the leaves of a pair of hickory trees that grow in front of the house, but now that their branches are bare, on clear nights you can look through them at the stars.

When I was a Boy Scout, I earned the astronomy merit badge at summer camp in the Adirondacks, where the night sky simply blazed; consequently the summer constellations are the ones that remain most vivid to me. Some of them closely resemble their names. Sagitta the arrow has two points defining its shaft and two more marking its feathers; Delphinus the dolphin has a neat little rhombus of a body with a fifth point suggesting his tail; Draco the dragon curls like the beast on imperial Chinese postage stamps. The names of other constellations put on airs: Big Cross and Small T must not have seemed romantic enough, so these shapes became birds in flight, Cygnus the swan and Aquila the eagle. Popular sentiment keeps two fancy names in check: Ursa Major and Minor, the great and little bears, really don’t look like bears at all — their tails would be much too long — so we call them the Big and Little Dipper.

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