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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: In “Skyglow,” a look to the heavens for beauty and meaning

Author Kathryn Winograd's selection from her book of essays, “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children,” melds the mysteries of the night sky with the search for truth

“Skyglow”

Sometimes, Leonard wakes me at two in the morning to watch the gibbous moon swallowed by Grouse Mountain.  On winter nights, moonrise starts left of the butcher’s abandoned camper trailer where once our retired neighbor, vanished now, wiggled his ten blocky fingers at me and said, “Thirty years, and not a one lost.”

Leonard and I, too, are only temporary here, sporadic suburban migrants who will drive hours past slow rivers of fly fishermen, their fly lines like gossamer against the rocks, and then climb the deep shadows of Rainbow Pass to alight for a few days at the rim of this small canyon someone long ago named Phantom, that Indian princess, Dark Flower, it’s said, still heard weeping ⎯ if we would only listen ⎯ for her dead betrothed.

According to The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, a chart created to quantify the effect of light pollution on the “observability” of celestial objects, the darkest sky measured at zenith, the most direct point over our heads, is ranked Class 1.

“Theoretical,” the editors at Sky & Telescope call this sky. “An observer’s Nirvana.” 

 It seems that even at 9600 feet altitude, even if our atmosphere were not a morass of human-made spill light and light trespass, the earth itself lights the visible sky with airglow, “planetary emissions.” Electrons lost in the ultraviolet of daylight recombine at night with oxygen and nitrogen atoms to create a green lambent halo from equator to pole, a halo so beautiful that one of the space station astronauts tweeted it to the unseeing world below. 

To hope to see the faint and the far-flung celestial objects in the night sky, one must learn the art of dark-adaption, to quicken the sensitivity of the eye to the dim starlight that exists within this partial darkness.  To hasten dark-adaption, you must use what’s called “averted vision,” and look askance at the object so that its light hits the most sensitive area of the eye and, thus, becomes visible.  The risk, though, is that the light might hit the “blind spot” where the optic nerve is said to “exit the eyeball,” and then, as if you were blind, nothing of the object will be seen.

Finally, light shuts, the last of it caught in the long flat clouds at sunset that my mother calls “weird,” but now, one year after moving to Denver, and years after my father’s death, adds the word, “beautiful.”

“I’ve never seen that before,” she tells me. “All that gold light held in the clouds.” 

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

My mother watches the sky from a ninth-floor apartment in the middle of a town turned bedroom community to Denver. At night the lighted townscape I sometimes watch with her is a tatting of shielded luminaires and pole mountings, a river of headlights, and an orange sky glow of illuminated baseball parks.

The eastern sky from my mother’s window is a Class 7 on the Bortle Scale, Suburban/urban transition, where the whole background of the night sky is a dim white, the Milky Way — that collective star glow that Leonard and I gaze at in the thin air above our mountain cabin — nearly invisible.  The hundred and ten deep sky objects a French astronomer named Messier recorded back in the 1800s with the equivalent of a child’s toy telescope today have vanished from our sight.  “Pale ghosts” is how Sky & Telescope describes what is left to see in this Class 7: diffuse nebular, globular and galactic clusters of stars nicknamed Andromeda, Butterfly, and the Seven Sisters, and the Beehive Cluster, its starlight four hundred million years old and traveling five hundred and seventy-seven years to reach us, only to be dimmed by our excess light.

Science also tells me that I can see 19 quadrillion miles (that’s fifteen zeroes tacked on after the nineteen) or a little more than 3200 light years away.   My mother peers out her window when I tell her this and half-jokingly says this is not quite what she can see. Low-pressure glaucoma. Macular degeneration.

More and more, my mother holds my arm, whether noon or dusk.  

This is the real dark, I always want to think, these forty acres at night beneath our cabin balcony and its tiny shred of nightlight. The earth is an inky pitch here, unfathomable beneath this firmament I keep forgetting in the city with my mother, skyglow and uplight dissembling the very stars our ancients once named into now truant gods. 

I am still trying to understand what a star is. I ask Leonard what constellation in early winter will be most visible at the cabin. Twenty-three hundred years ago, Aristotle believed all “heavenly bodies” floating above our planet were perfect and everlasting, even the asteroids of our solar system that we know now as “shattered worlds,” imperfect fragments of the long vanished. Homer named our wandering star, Venus, both “Phospheros” and “Hesperos,” never knowing his morning and evening stars were the same. Phospheros was the “dawn-bringer,” while Hesperos was named after the stargazer who nightly climbed Mount Atlas only to be carried off by wind to burn forever as the ancient Greeks’ “fairest star” in the heavens.  Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, an observer’s guide that Leonard studied when he first took out his six foot long telescope beneath the stars, is an old book now from its 1979 copyright, but it tells me still of the things I cannot see nor understand, of light years and radiant energy, of star clusters and dark gasses, super giants and red dwarf stars, and of the supernova, the complete destruction of a giant star, its luminosity equaling that of all the other billions of galactic stars out there. Somehow, despite Jung’s admonishment that our sole purpose is to kindle meaning, this light in the dark that we cannot see comforts.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“Orion,” Leonard tells me, the constellation in our southwestern skies marked by three stars, the belt of Orion, that mythical hunter and celestial warrior of ancient Greece, lover of a king’s daughter, I find out, who was struck blind by the king until the gods took pity and sent Orion to stand before the rising sun, his sight returned, everything thought random, I am now realizing, returning to my mother. Before the Greeks, the early Egyptians believed Orion to be the reincarnation of Osiris, god of the underworld, who gave the dead passage:  With Orion you shall descend, The Pyramid Texts of the 5th dynasty say, into the western region of the sky. Here Sothis, goddess of Sirius the dog-star, would guide the pharaohs on what the Egyptians called the goodly roads . . . in the sky in the Field of Rushes so that those dead could become what they thought were “imperishable” stars.  

I think of my father, long dead, waiting for my mother in that small midwestern cemetery I wandered through as a child and when I was a young girl waiting for love, honeysuckle pinned to the fence line between our farm and the toppled gravestones, and of the ashes one day I will gently carry there.

“I don’t care,” my mother says, when I tell her what I want to do. “I’ll be gone.”

Of the 400 billion stars they say exist in the Milky Way, our galaxy thick with dark matter and the dust of the cosmos, I realize I can see not even a fraction. 

And of my mother? Even less.

“Well, I’m here,” she said at the airport that day she arrived, without bag or carry-on, almost walking past me where other plane travelers disembarked the escalators into the arms of their loved ones until I reached out and touched her. When she arrived from her beloved Ohio, my father left behind in that bee-sung cemetery, she was not the woman I quite remembered, her bones either compressed by gravity or broken down by the osteoporosis that is the fate of women in my family. 

“I hope I stroke out before I go blind,” she tells my siblings and me.  

“I’m trying to remember that poem by Keats,” I say to my mother. She has been here almost a year and I sit companionably with her by her apartment window. “The one about that star⎯.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

My mother gets up from her chair before I am even done talking, pulls out a hard-bound book in a worn case from her mini bookcase, finds a page already bookmarked, and hands the book to me.  Bright Star, by John Keats.  Next to the poem is a little penciled-in notation in my mother’s handwriting: for Fanny Brawne, the woman Keats loved and could not marry.  The book?  A Little Treasury of Poetry.

“My mother gave this to me when I was twenty-one.  She knew I liked to read poetry,” my mother says.

I look at my mother. For over fifty years, I have written and studied poetry and she has never once shared this book nor her interest in poetry. Once I asked her about a personal journal of hers I had stumbled on and if she had written others. 

“Oh, I had journals,” she tells me. “Lots. But that’s another life, another time.”  

She jabs her thumb over her shoulder and chuckles.  

“All gone.”

I lean my head back over the balcony railing to watch the moonless sky. Tramp stars, the early Greeks called the wandering planets, and the Babylonians read omens in the stars, believed for so long to be “flawless and eternal.” Minute by minute, the constellations, that these early astronomers, too, watched, drift westward while those fragments of “shattered worlds” pass us by toward infinite space. I keep thinking of Keats, stargazer as my husband and I are, dying in a transient world, who wrote of Polaris, fixed, it seemed then, at the celestial North Pole, and of his “fair love’s ripening breast”: 

Awake forever in a sweet unrest
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Keats believed that “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth —whether it existed before or not.” Billions of meteorites, fine as sand, spark against our air and, if I look long enough, I can track the unwavering pinheads of satellites and space stations beneath the stars. I ask myself what Keats would say now of this “celestial clutter”: thousands of satellites orbiting the earth at 17,000 miles an hour, or of the cast-off nuts and bolts and the one lost glove of an astronaut, or the uncountable paint flecks and the plastic shards said to circle us in Low-Earth orbit? But then I remember that he believed it was the poet’s quest to find beauty in a world doomed to suffering and death. 

“I am certain,” Keats wrote to his friend, Benjamin Bailey, “of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affection.” 

Past midnight, the moon will again circle over Nipple Mountain where an ancient hibernating bear will rouse itself in spring into the cross hairs of a spotting scope owned by Dave, leaser of our fields, who has trained his telescope on this lair for so many years to watch this slow awakening, mythic, we call it now. Then, finally, the moon will descend to moonset, so slowly it seems ⎯ our eyes heavy with sleep, Leonard’s body and mine trembling together against the jagged, frosted air ⎯ until the mountain snags it and we watch a moon so beautiful that even my mother can see it plummet past the visible edge.  

I try not to seem too greedy now and leaf nonchalantly through the little slips of paper my mother has folded up and tucked into the front cover of her Little Treasury of Poetry book: a poem written by my grandmother to my mother on her 21st birthday, poems on loneliness, one by an ancient Chinese poet, and a French love poem, translated by my father, two years before he married my mother, with a little postscript he wrote at the end:  P.S. French.  

On the back of the poem, my mother typed in the English translation, so long ago that I can barely make out the letters where the page folds. 

“Well,” my mother says, “your father was barely passing French, so I had to do something.” 

My mother and I laugh. 

Amour, my father signed. 

Twelve times the moon has orbited the earth since my mother moved here, or thirteen, if the blue moon ⎯ the “betrayer moon” ⎯ rose even once, that bitter Lenten moon of repentance, of reflection I had once forgotten. I think of my mother at her city window, this tiny widow, who once carried me, waiting to be lead through the darkness, and of Sothis, guide I had never heard of, goddess of Sirius, of the brightest star I can see beneath Orion, guiding the dead to an afterworld I once knew nothing of, its stars, once thought imperishable, faded and shattered, but still beautiful. 

To our eyes that must dark-adapt, the moon is amorphous stone the sun lights into scythe and disk, this earthly world in the moon’s marble-cast etiolated except when sometimes spill light from an open window, or a suburban garage, or a faded letter dyes the winter leaves of the old roses green.  

In the darkest of skies, theoretical or not, Mother, here are the words for light I can give you now: effulgence meaning a shining forth. Or incandescence: the emission of visible light by a body. Or, finally, luminescence ⎯ all that gold light we can see, like a husband’s or a father’s, or now a mother’s, that does not need the body’s heat to warm us.

“Skyglow” was previously published in “Fourth Genre: explorations in nonfiction.


Kathryn Winograd is the author of six books, and her essays have been noted in “Best American Essays” and published in numerous journals and anthologies. Her poetry has received three Pushcart Prize nominations and been published in places as diverse as The New Yorker and Cricket Magazine. She currently teaches for Regis University’s Mile High MFA.


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