It was published in the Wapsipinicon Almanac in 2009.
Mourning the Night Sky
by Mary Lewis
It is too dark to see my skis but I feel the hard drifts rising and falling beneath them as I head northwest along a contour across the corn field. We call this the tundra because here the wind runs free and straight with nothing to stop it but the little blips of our bodies clawing along beneath it. A belt stolen from an old backpack attaches me to two long wooden slats attached to one of those orange plastic sleds kids use to race down snowy hills. They act like the shafts of a wagon do for a horse, so the wagon doesn’t run into the horse on the downhill slope. Brandon had fallen asleep in the car and did not wake up as I bundled him into the sled, still small enough to stretch out straight. Another sled follows his, filled with bags of groceries bungied down, though the eggs ride in the backpack for safekeeping. It is not a laundry day or there would be another sled bulging with black plastic garbage sacks filled with clothes fresh from the laundromat. We have no tractor to plough the dirt road that leads across these fields and pastures to our little log house in the woods, so in winter and mud time we leave the car at the mailbox, on the township road half a mile from the house. Even if we could carve a path through these drifts, the wind would soon fill it in with snow.
My husband and I built the house on our southeastern Minnesota land in 1975, from logs we cut on the land and hauled to the site with ropes and pulleys. Our graduate studies in biology behind us, we learned how to live and work on the land and, with the barest of resources, began a sustainable agriculture farm based on hazel nuts and chestnuts. We were always hauling things: firewood from trees we cut in the woods, water from the well, supplies from town, and in a few years, our two little boys.
The dark sky arcs moonless and deep with stars which tell me where to go better than the featureless horizon does. This month, January, at around 6 PM, Orion rides high in the east and I have only to turn towards just north of his belt where Sirius is rising, and I’ll put my caravan into the woods where I guide myself down the curving path still looking up at the familiar patterns the branches of oaks and cherry trees make against the stars. I’m glad to have a sky full of stars to guide me instead of just the one that’s available during the day.
The stars told stories to our ancestors, of Andromeda chained to a rock as an offering to the sea god Cetus because of her mother’s boast of beauty, and Perseus riding to rescue Andromeda on the winged horse Pegasus. Orion with his two dogs Cannis Major and Cannis Minor confronts the charging bull Taurus with a club raised high over his head.
And the stars have stories for us too, if we are willing to listen. We know they are blazing suns incredibly far from us and the pattern they make in the sky can only be seen from this one spot we occupy in the universe. Our sun is a point of light in someone else’s night sky. That thought gives me a shiver, though my body is warm with the work of hauling my train of sleds. But then I shift my mood so the sky becomes again a dark ceiling decorated for my delight by a moving show that shifts throughout the night, like a string of familiar friends. The pleasure of sleeping under the stars is that I can wake on a July night to see that Leo has set and the Big Dipper is spilling out to the east so it must be about 3 AM, or to glimpse the rise of the circlet of Pisces just before dawn begins to erase the darkness. I know no deeper comfort. By contrast, I once dreamt that I woke up to a night sky as foreign as the spots they put in movie theaters to give the ceiling glamour, and such a sense of being lost I’ve never had, for it meant I was not on this earth.
But most people rarely see the stars. We live without their stories and the sense of where we are in the universe they give us. We deny ourselves the chance to turn our eyes away from everyday nearness outward to the farthest fastest flying galaxies, and find out how that can change us. When I am in a city, or even a moderate sized town, I mourn the loss of all but Sirius, Vega, Arcturus and others so scarce you can’t make out a single constellation. Why should we consent to such poverty?
I peek from under my enclosing hood to scan the horizon as my poles dig into the uneven drifts. I ski straight north so now’s the best time to look, before the contour angles me northeast to the unseen woods. A pale cast hugs the horizon, like a thin border where the edge of the sky transitions to earth, invisible unless you looked for it. It may be very distant clouds, but I have learned to look more closely. Centered below Polaris it arcs thinner east and west. I let my legs and arms continue their work of getting me, the sleds, and Brandon across the tundra, but I keep my eyes fixed on this haze on the edge of the sky, hoping, but careful in my observation. The white in it suddenly changes, like a small flickering, so that the whiter places are darker for a moment, and then change back. Little points of white flare beyond the edges of the arc and then die back. It is no longer a bank of clouds, but a thing I have discovered in the night sky because I am far from lights, and out on the tundra. I may be the only one in the county who has seen the northern lights tonight.
As I turn northeast my skis carve through the width of one drift after another, like a boat breaking through the waves. In the troughs only old icy snow remains where the wind scoured away the new snow and piled it up in drifts. The sleds follow me in jerks, but Brandon is quiet. He is used to this rhythm, and it keeps him asleep. Many will be the nights he can see what I see now. And in a few years I will lead him from the woods at 4 AM to catch Haley’s comet, a smudge in Sagittarius in mid March. Maybe he will see it again long after I am gone. I just hope the night sky will still be there for him.