Monday May 26
I SAW OMEGA CENTAURI TONIGHT!!!
It had been a long day. I chose to use this day off to get a head start on adapting my “Moon Mapping” presentation for a general audience. I did make some progress, but had progressively more annoying problems with LibreOffice Impress: a free open-source presentation software in which I'd done the original program. In the last hour I worked, I finally just decided to go back and transfer everything over to Powerpoint instead. Worked much more smoothly after that. I'm all for open source, but when faced with persistent glitches that force me to redo several slides SEVERAL times...well...I just don't have the time to put up with that.
I finally decided to give it all up for the day, and went over to the lodge for a Ranger program about Prairie Dogs and other mammals that live in Bryce. I've occasionally seen these cute little critters poking their heads out of burrows in the meadows lining the main roads of the park. In a couple of spots we have Prairie Dog Crossing signs posted to ensure people are that much more inclined to follow the 30mph speed limit. Cute & cuddly? Without a doubt...well...maybe not so cuddly. They've got really sharp teeth and might sooner take a chunk off your finger than cuddle. They're also surprisingly verbose. With a complex repertoire of barks, chirps, and squawks they can communicate a lot of specific information about incoming predators. “There's a red tailed hawk closing in from the southwest.” “A pet dog is snuffling around the burrows.” “The harmless human with the red shirt is passing through again.”
After Prairie Dogs the stars of the show were Pronghorn. An incredible animal more closely related to Giraffes and Okapis than Antelope, Goats, or Deer, Pronghorn are built for speed. With oversized lungs, trachea, heart, and eyes they can sustain high speeds for long periods of time—around a half hour—while taking in a wide magnified panorama. At just over a week old, fauns are capable of outrunning bobcats, mountain lions, and coyotes...though not quite the Golden Eagle—a bird capable of taking down even an adult Pronghorn.
After the program I drove out to Paria Overlook: one of the few viewpoints I hadn't seen yet, but one I heard was ideal for stargazing. The planets were just peeking out as I walked the length of the sidewalk. Bats squeeked in moving stereo just on the edge of hearing. A light wind hushed through the trees. I found a spot at the end of the walk and laid down to watch the sky appear. After the petty stresses of the day I could almost feel my mind opening. Releasing. Under a darkening sky big thoughts rise and play a little while, but pointed emotion seems just to dissipate into the space above. I am aware without wanting. Can consider the course of my existence without judgement, fear, or pain. I am here in this moment alone.
A green light bobbed along the path. “Am I disturbing anyone?” he asked. “Nope,” I replied, just here for the stars.” A photographer. Here to capture souvenirs of Bryce's premium night sky. I remained laying in my spot as he set up. Shutter clicks. Waiting. Shutter clicks. After a while I stood up to survey the scene. Milky Way constellations were all around the horizon, but the Milky Way was still mostly lost in the thick low atmosphere. There was one constellation in the south I was unfamiliar with. Just around the bend from Scorpius. I picked up my binoculars and scanned the area. Above the rim of a distant plateau an enormous mass of “faint fuzzy” glared back. I reached for my star atlas and flipped on a red light to investigate. The unfamiliar constellation was Centaurus, and the big glowing mass was Omega Centauri.
Really...Omega Centauri..the biggest globular cluster visible from planet Earth...and one I thought I'd have to go to Australia to see! Bryce canyon's miraculous high elevation spring sky had revealed a treasure. Giddy with the thrill of discovery I wandered over to the photographer and asked, “So do you know the sky well?” “Not really.” was the response, “I'm just beginning.” “Well, just so you know, right now there's an incredible southern hemisphere object visible...Omega Centauri...a massive globular cluster. You can check it out in my binoculars if you want.” He took the binoculars and I directed his sights as best I could without a laser. “Huh...interesting.”
We chatted for a while. He'd come west from Pennsylvania on a spontaneous post-breakup vacation and snagged a camera before he left hoping to try his hand at night sky photography. Just starting to learn the sky was an understatement. He couldn't recognize the Big Dipper, and only knew how to find Polaris by taking long exposures and watching for star trails. But of course we all start from nothing. The important thing is just to be curious. To want to get started. I pointed out what I could, and encouraged him to come back tomorrow for a proper constellation tour and telescopic observing at the visitor center.
What is it about being out under a starry sky that enables such easy sharing between strangers? Without appearances encouraging instant judgement and easy dismissal, the darkness seems to invite simple contacts and exchanges. There's no pressure. Only a basic kinship of wonder that drew each individual out into the night.
The glow of the milky could now be seen circling around from north to east to south. A pleasant goodbye. And home to bed.