Becoming a Star Navigator and Welcoming the Darkness of the Night
What a mystery the stars are for us. We, along with ancient people, have always been fascinated with the stars. They are far more than just balls of gas, though they are that too.
However, as a lover of the outdoors—enjoying a campfire, a night paddle or just sleeping out under the stars—there is a rich adventure awaiting us and our families.
Especially for children, it’s important to have a relationship with the night and having friends up in the sky that are familiar and always with us. By creating routines of awareness of these prominent features in the night sky, we become more at home and enjoy the night, which could be a scary thing; however, having the night come alive with stories and maps that are right there for us, we tend to search out the stars.
Putting the SEARCH back in research and having an irresistible pull as the twilight emerges and then the dusk sets in, our adventure begins!
So Where Do We Start?
We start at the beginning; well, we start during the period of the sun setting and twilight turning to dusk. Dusk is the time of the darkest part of twilight before it gets really, really dark. In the morning, before sunrise, there is a dusk too; however, this is where dusk is before it gets light and before the sun rises.
So after the sun sets, and it begins to get dark, the brightest stars are visible and easily seen. This allows us to focus only on the major features of constellations or groups of stars. This is where we learn how to read the night sky—when it is not so dark that all the other stars are showing and can make it difficult to see only the ones we want to study and become familiar with.
What Do We Do before We Look up?
The sky has been studied for so long and by so many cultures. The most impressive primitive navigators I have heard of are the Polynesian pathfinders; these early explorers traversed thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in small vessels and were masters of navigation through nature study, bird migration routes and knowing the distance different kinds of birds could fly and how far away from land they could go, wind patterns and especially, the night sky.
Of the sky and in many native stories, there are maps that are woven together within the story that will help find shelter, water and good places to hunt, fish and gather, and also to have a vision quest a form of rite of passage.
There are countless stories you can learn about, and if you listen for the descriptions in them, you can find the hidden maps and special meanings in them.
Do I Need any Special Equipment or Resources?
Many people use telescopes or binoculars; however, becoming a star navigator, you do not need any special devices. This allows you to utilize this special skill when you are lost as well.
One of the most important things you want is a mentor or teacher…someone to guide you on learning to SEE with the naked eye. If you can take classes or become part of clubs that study astronomy, this could be helpful and I highly recommend it. The Northfield Mountain winter sky class by Kim Noyes (a friend of mine) is very well done, entertaining and informative. There are also planetariums and special events like Earth Hour at the Trustees’ Bullitt Reservation where they had people from Arunah Hill Nature Center bring telescopes and had two very knowledgeable experts teaching. This was another great class.
What Do I Really Need?
There are many books and guides out there, and one at the top of my list for beginners is H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them. You may be familiar with the author because he wrote Curious George, which you may have read as a child. As an artist, he has created images with the stars that make up the constellations as characters to easily remember and make it FUN!
It is one thing to look at all the images in the books, but it takes on a whole new way of learning when you make them on paper and connect the dots. Then it is also a way of connecting to your cellular memory. So take some time and sketch out a few. I suggest starting with the Big 3: Big Dipper, North Star and Cassiopeia.
The Secret Way of Remembering Is Using the Mind’s Eye
Once you draw the picture from looking at the book, close the book and re-picture in your mind from memory, then draw it as you remember on a blank sheet, then re-study the picture of what you missed and fill it in. The next time you draw it, you will remember those certain parts you missed. Open your eyes again and add the pieces you missed then close eyes again and re-picture until it is clear. Viola! This is mind’s eye learning and can be applied to anything.
OK, Now We Are Ready to Venture Outside with Our New Skill and Find NORTH
It is time to get outside and assess our skills. Now find that GIANT group of stars known as “the Big Dipper;” at the end of the Dipper, find the last two stars creating the ladle effect (see photo). These are known as “the pointer stars” and are your guide to finding the North Star. If you look across you will find Cassiopeia.
Now you are following in the footsteps of the old explorers and our ancestors. You are now on the path to becoming a Star Navigator! Good Luck!
Many thanks to the countless friends who have shared their passion with me, and especially my friend and inspiration, Gail Parsloe, who has come to our programs and shared a FUN way to learn this. Thanks Gail!
Until next time, enjoy the outdoors!