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.
One unmistakable constellation rules the cold sky: Orion. He casts his leg above the midnight hill in the fall, and marches earlier and earlier as the frost comes on. His shoulders and head are ill defined — when I was a little boy I thought he must be wearing a conical helmet, like a lampshade — but his belt and the sword that hangs from it can neither be missed, nor imagined as anything else. He is the warrior, the enforcer, the man who means, if not trouble, certainly business.
If I were both patient and mathematically inclined I could make of my skylight a clock, the branches of the trees marking intervals of time, the sweep of stars through them its passage. Specific stars would appear and disappear at different times as the season advanced, but their rate of motion would remain the same. My eyes and mind, two trees taller and older than I am, and several dozen stars light years away and galactic years older all carry the same watch. In a great sonnet, George Meredith depicted Prince Lucifer, “tired of his dark dominion,” rising up in rebellion one more time, only to be disheartened by the constellations:
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
Einstein would pop up to point out that the stars and their observers on earth, both humans and hickory trees, carry different watches. Small comfort to Lucifer.
Every so often we are promised a guest star, an auxiliary in the army of unalterable law: the Comet of the Century. The latest was comet ISON (for International Scientific Optical Network, the Russian star trackers who discovered it), which however seems to have been dismantled by its swing around the Sun. I hoped to see Halley’s Comet the one time I had the chance in 1986. We had no country house then, so my wife and I arranged to stay with a friend upstate and the three of us went out into a freezing field one morning before dawn. But the sky was so clear and the comet so faint that the visitor was lost in a field of glory. A beautiful sight, spoiled only by expectation.
The great rival of the winter stars is the winter moon. When the sun is lowest the moon is highest. Leafless trees let it stalk the woods. With snow on the ground, its light is redoubled. Getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night in midwinter can be a startling experience. Who cued the floodlights? You could not read this article by the glow, but you could certainly read the headline.
Seeing a star in the city is an event. On the clearest nights, some planet, Jupiter or Venus, may fight its way through the ambient glare. So we have our own stars: The time display on the clock radio. The message window on the answering machine, which always reads 0 messages since no one phones anymore. The green dial of the humidifier. The tower of the PC. (I know, I know, so retro, but whatever replaces it probably has unwinking, all-seeing eyes of its own.) Down in the street and over the roofs, the thousand lights of the never-sleeping city. Night-shift traffic; walk / don’t walk; scattered apartments whose inhabitants are doing what exactly at this hour?; a few belated Christmas trees; lights in stairwells; lights in office buildings as the janitors make their rounds; 24-hour diners; signage; the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, futures of the past.
Perhaps the most charming stars in the city are the constellations on the ceiling of the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal. Grimy from years of smoke, they were restored in 1998. These are golden on a greenish background, with the things and beings they represent drawn in (Orion, helmetless, raises a mighty club). There is one flaw: Don’t take them outside for a star chart, someone put them up backwards.