There is a high degree of consilience in indigenous and ancestral cultures and in varied spiritual traditions around the world about what the stars actually are, and it doesn't concord with the modern scientific view.
If you want to experience a connection to Nature, to the more-than-human world, go out someplace in deep nature where there is little light pollution during a meteor shower, and Behold. Last summer I was in Maui during the Perseid meteor shower, associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle. This is an annual meteor shower that occurs sometime sometimes between late July and late August. At its peak, you can see shooting stars every couple of minutes. I've had experiences watching that meteor shower where for brief moments the sky appeared to be lit by celestial fireworks.
Last summer, we were staying at water's edge, and at 4 am for two nights I arose, went outside, lay down in the Pacific Ocean, and watched meteors streaking across the heavens. The second night, I brought my daughter, who was 10 years old at the time, and I held her while she lay on her back, floating, and watching the stars. Meteors are not technically stars, but rather pieces of rock that collide with the earth's atmosphere as they hurl through interstellar space. What we see as a shooting star is that rock burning up as it enters the earth's atmosphere, and encounters the friction caused by the envelope of oxygen encircling our planet, after singing through the celestial void at astonishing speed.
What are the stars, really? Some of them, we know through modern measurement methodology, are hundreds of thousands of light years away. To grasp what this means, in terms of the size of the Universe, we must first understand the speed of light, which is the limit velocity in the known universe: 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) in a vacuum: about 670,616,629 miles per hour. Yes, you read that correctly. Light is traveling at more than six hundred and seventy million miles per hour. And you thought a Tesla was fast. (Simply for comparison- the fastest human-created object ever created was NASA's Juno spacecraft, which was traveling 165,000 miles per hour when it passed Jupiter. To exit the earth's atmosphere, a rocket must travel 17,600 miles per hour. The fastest airplane ever clocks in at slightly over 2000 miles per hour-(SR-71 Blackbird). This means that light, in a single second, travels further than the fastest thing we've every built can travel in an hour (and the only reason the Juno spacecraft was moving that fast is because it was outside of earth's atmosphere)). To say this in another way, a light-year, which is the time it takes for light to travel a year, which would be 24 x 365 x how fast light travels in an hour, which is to say 5,874,601,670,040 miles (Five trillion, eight hundred and seventy four billion, six hundred and one million, six hundred and seventy thousand, forty miles). The closest stars to earth are Alpha Centauri A, and B, which are approximately 4.3 light years away: 25 trillion miles. The farthest star known to science, which was spotted by the Hubble Telescope, whose official name is MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star 1, is only visible because it is being magnified by the gravity of a massive galaxy cluster, located about 5 billion light-years from Earth. It's distance would 5.8 trillion x 5 billion miles away.
These numbers are simply incompehensible to the human mind. We can read them, and because we speak some version of math, we think that we understand them, but the kind of distances we are talking about here are beyond the fathomable. I had an experience once, during a ceremony, of beginning to actually feel the size of the manifest universe. During the ceremony, at one point, my consciousness was traveling, probably at the speed of light, through inter-stellar space. It traveled like this, moving at the fastest speed in the universe, and apparently going nowhere. One the one hand, a sense of incomprehensible speed. On the other a feeling of relative stillness in the vast surround. I felt like a tiny boat on the surface of the Ocean. Around me, in all directions, was a humming wave of vastness beyond imagining.
One of the beautiful implications of the awareness of what a light year means, is that we begin to realize that even the closest stars are doorways into the past. The light we see from Alpha Centauri tonight- the closest star in the Universe- exploded off her surface more than four years ago. To look at the stars is to look back in time. Understood as a time map, the heavens are a differential calculus of the history of Creation. A star 2,000 light years away (and there are many) is sending us light birthed when Jesus walked the earth. A star 60,000 light years away, like Theta Cygni, is sending us light from the time when Neandrethals predominated. NGC 1803 sends us light from 200 million years ago, the end of the Triassic period. When you see it's light, which you can do by looking up at night, the earth's continents were still fused together.
This still doesn't tell us what a star is. They say our Sun is a star: the closest star. It is responsible for life on Earth. Without the Sun, no light, no plants, no oxygen, no us. What is this solar light? This mysterious life-giving light radiating down here to where we are, from above? This light that seems to be both a wave and a particle: a thing and a force. How mysterious. What is this light than can dawn in our consciousness, illuminating the inner landscape? In the beginning, Let there be light. Through a lens of connection phenomenology, through relationship, perhaps it makes more sense to ask Who are the stars? Not what.
All of this comes from looking up at night. It is that simple. We gaze at the stars, we ask questions, we listen for answers. Constellating them is only one facet of stargazing: to begin to know the pattern language of the stars. Written in the celestial music is so much more than that....
If you'd like to see one of our favorite science communicators, Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysics the f*ck out of your mind, check out his 10-part series COSMOS (you can stream it on Amazon here. It will blow your mind.
Comet, anyone? If you are in the northern hemisphere, check out Comet NEOWISE during the summer of 2020. You can learn more here.
Related Practices:If we think of stargazing as an elemental pratice, a practice of connecting with the more-than-human world, it is related to Watching the Sun Rise, and the Phases of the Moon. By virtue of being outside at night, it is related to Campfires and Sleeping Outdoors. By virtue of training attention and requiring stillness to do well, it is related to Sit Spot and Quiet your Mind. By virtue of bringing our attention to what is higher, it is related to Look Up. As we begin to build relationships with the stars, it is related to Building Ropes. As we begin to recognize their maps, the constellations, we are learing the pattern language of Nature. By virtue of enabling us to navigate at night, it is related to all Survival skills. Because constellations are visible in different latitudes at different times of year, it also connects us to place.
Who taught us this?
I'm not sure any child who has been outside on a clear night needs to be taught to stargaze. It seems innate. Just like some speices of animals seem to call to children (see Motivator species: lizards, crayfish, Venus flytraps) the stars seems to call to us. What are these bright fiery points burning in the skies above us? Why are they there? I remember learning the constellations as a child, and the startle of looking through a telescope at the surface of the moon.
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Humans have probably always been awed by the natural world.
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Video: Distill | Photography: Stein Egil Liland | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.