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Star Gazing

By Nathan Coker
In Born on the Bayou
Feb 25th, 2014

Star Watching
article by Mary Napoli | illustration by Austin Bantel

My grandparents’ home in rural Tensas Parish was a magical place to visit. During the sunny hours, my favorite cousin and I would chase each other through the cotton fields that my grandfather farmed and explore the overgrown creek bank to dig for worms in the soft mud. We cooled off by drinking purple Kool-Aid on the front porch and listening to my grandfather enter-tain the adults with stories of bygone days. It was truly an idyllic setting. As the afternoon hours waned, we looked forward to watching the sun sink into the horizon of the cotton fields. The vi-brant colors cast across the sky were breathtaking, but my favorite part was always after the sun went down.

As the sky darkened, the stars would come to life, shiny and twinkling. Out on that country dirt road surrounded by miles of farmland, I saw a different sky than was visible from my backyard in my neighborhood in Monroe. The night sky was a glittering work of art in my young eyes. Staring heavenward, I would imagine God sitting happily on a fluffy white cloud with a bag full of stars in His lap. In my imagination, He would reach into the bag, scoop up sparkling stars by the handful and cast them out into the air. They would scatter in the darkness and land suspended in the atmosphere. This dreamy scene was similar to the real life observance of watching my grandmother feed chickens by tossing corn that she held in the lap of her apron. But in my mind, this was how the Almighty decorated the heavens. To this day, when I sit on the porch of that old house, I still think of that childhood memory as I watch the sun approach the horizon.

As much as I have always found the heavens to be fascinating, I have never taken the time to learn much about them. I know the basics, but not as much as I would like. The bright lights of big cities obstructed my view for many years, but coming home, it reminds me how beautiful the starry sky truly is.

I have a friend who grew up gazing at the stars above his family farm in Richland Parish. As a kid, his interest in the stars was piqued during his years as a Boy Scout. Flying with his father in their small private aircraft, he became fascinated with what was visible in the night sky. My friend grew up to become a successful commercial airline pilot and is known as “The Captain” in our house.

The Captain has seen the sky from nearly every vantage point possible during his flights around the world, and he is quite knowledgeable about what he sees. Recently, I was visiting with him and his beautiful wife on a cool winter night and when the subject of stargazing came up.

“So much more is visible when there is no ambient light to interfere with your view. It magnifies what you can see in the night sky. The view from 35,000 feet in the cockpit is quite impressive. There is no ambient light and less atmosphere to interfere,” said the Captain.

Part of what is intriguing to me about staring into the heavens is that it gives me a comforting feeling. The world we live in changes every single day, but the stars remain constant. The North Star that we see every night is the same that sailors guided their ships by hundreds of years ago. It is the same star that my grandmother saw and the same star that my future grandchildren will wish upon.

“You know, the North Star is only visible within the northern hemisphere,” the Captain said. “It is also known as Polaris, the star that has been used for centuries for navigation.”

He explained that it is possible to determine your latitudinal location by measuring the distance between the horizon and the North Star. In Monroe, the North Star is visible thirty degrees above the horizon. Thus, we are located at thirty degrees latitude.

“What do you know about the Southern Cross?” asked the Captain.

“I’m not much of a singer, but I love the original version by Crosby Stills and Nash. Jimmy Buf-fett has a great version, too,” I said in all seriousness.

“I meant the constellation,” said the Captain. “The Southern Cross is the principal navigation point in Southern Hemisphere and is made up of four stars built around the central star, Crux. Both the Southern Cross and Polaris remain stationary. Although it appears that the sky is moving, it’s actually the Earth that is.”

The air was cold, but we went outside to take a look at what was visible. The sky was somewhat cloudy, and it wasn’t easy for an amateur like me to make out the constellations. The Captain took his iPad out from under his arm, opened an app called Star Walk, and held it up to the sky. To my utter amazement, the screen instantly became our own personal planetarium. Looking at the iPad was just

like looking through a window to the sky above, only each constellation was identified and labeled. Orion, Cassiopeia, Aquarius, Andromeda…they were all artfully displayed before us. The guide followed our every movement in real time and updated the map to reveal and locate every celestial body in the night sky.

“What is that bright star over there?” I said pointing over the trees to my left. The Captain moved the iPad in the direction that I was pointing until the star that I was curious about was visible on the screen. Instantly, the app identified it.

“That is actually Jupiter,” explained the Captain. “You know, we can even find the International Space Station with this. We can find satellites or see what the sky looked like on a past date or in the future. Look, here, at the moon. This tells us that it is 97% full tonight. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?”

Star Walk is an incredible way to view the constellations and to learn about the world above us. This is 21st century star gazing. So much precise and extensive information available at our fingertips–it is difficult to wrap my head around.

Technology is often mind boggling to me. It changes the way I view the stars, but not how they make me feel. When something memorable happens, some people remember what they were wearing. Others relate memories to songs. For some reason, I always seem to recall what the sky looked like when something fantastic happens. As clearly as I can see her soft, chubby, little face and bubble gum pink lips in my mind, I can see the technicolor sunset on the day I brought my first daughter home from the hospital. Early last Spring, I remember the bright, full moon overhead and the happiness I felt cruising down the Ouachita River on Glen Northcott’s yacht after a photo shoot with my BayouLife friends. The night breeze was chilly, but we kept warm huddled together under blankets and laughing at each other. And the night I ended up off the beaten path and way out in the sticks, when I first realized that it might be possible to fall in love again, I remember how amazing and breathtaking the stars looked. At that moment, the night sky looked hopeful and full of possibility. Stars and sunsets–those are as much a part of my memory as the actual event.

As much as the precious memories that come to mind, the beauty of a dark night reminds me of the countless lifetimes that have been lived under that singular sky. The stars and planets remain long after we are gone, connecting us to our personal past and the generations of the future. Looking up at the heavens above, the night wraps itself around me like a dark blanket, dotted with sparkling stars that watch over us and whisper promises of a new day.