Last night I tried to stay up to watch the Perseids, but I couldn’t make it. Exhausted after a double shift at the café I fell asleep on the couch. When I woke I was too tired to even peek out my door at the sky. Even though we have a couple of street lights in Val Marie you can still see the Milky Way on a clear night. We live in a Dark Sky Preserve, dubbed so by the Royal Astronomical Society od Canada. There are a handful of these preserves in the world, a large proportion of them in Canada. Here is where astronomers can come to map out the skies, nocturnal animals can live as their very natures necessitate, and gazers such as myself can be rendered ‘right-sized’ again, check their egos at the door, relax into being humbled by the enormity of space and time and the ways both merge when talking about the galaxies.
Every year in mid-August we pass through the Perseid meteor-showers, and every year I do my best to witness it. I met an old boyfriend during the Perseids and we were lucky enough to be in the Gaspe Peninsula, where a short drive up Mt. St. Joseph rewarded us, and others gathered there, with a light show of wondrous proportions. When wonder is present, romance manages to hold its innocence, and so it felt that night, when our first touch happened as I managed to trip backwards while trying to watch a meteor-tail trail to its conclusion and literally fell into his arms.
But my greatest joy, when it came to star-gazing, was when I would visit my parents in Kelowna in the summer. After watching “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” together, Dad would head upstairs to bed and Mom and I would go outside with our ‘blankies’. Arranging the deck chairs into optimal viewing positions, we would gaze up at the stars. Every once in a while we’d emit a sigh or an “oooooh!,” or Mom would recall a bit of poetry or song involving the heavens. My mother was christened Aurore: the rising star of dawn. I think of her every time I see a falling star or the flaring, dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis, and every time I make a wish and pray.
So when the Perseids return every August, I try to get outside. Especially now that I live in a place where all the constellations make themselves apparent, nightly. Last week a woman came into Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, where I work, and “tsked” herself for not knowing more than the Big Dipper.
“But you live in the city,” I offered in her defense. “When you don’t see the constellations every night, mapping themselves before your eyes and imprinting their locations and configurations on your brain on a regular basis, how could you know them? Here, I see very recognizable patterns every clear night, and we have a lot of clear nights, so it becomes pretty easy to name them.”
Of course, it also helps to have people like Caitlin around. Besides being my boss at the café and an ambulance driver, she works for Grasslands Park and is responsible for organizing their yearly Star Party, at least, the astronomical aspect of the Party. Originally Star Parties were all about: get your lawn chairs, bring a thermos, we’ll supply the astronomers and their telescopes. But as of late, the Star Party is attempting to cater to a different crowd, which means bringing in a “star,” usually a country western singer, which means also bringing in amplifiers and lights and of course, a beer garden. Caitlin and her fellow “geeks” still hold the gazing sessions, and folks from the music fest wander over and spy on the universe beyond and above the earthly entertainment. But the sky takes “back seat” now. (As if that were physically possible.) At least when it comes to marketing.
But nothing stops me from walking out my back door and down the gravel road that leads me into the wide open and under the wider, open skies. Nothing except my sleepiness. Drifting off last night I dreamt of falling stars and comets dropping their trailing tails to earth. And when they landed they turned to sticks. “Bundle these as kindling to help your future passions burn longer,” came the words, as they often do when my brain begins its departure from the analytical world and enters the random and haphazard poetics of the pre-dream world and the big snooze.
One night last December, while circumnavigating the village, (a walk that takes less than half an hour),I counted eight falling stars from the Convent Inn to the Cardlock (with the only and brightest all-night electric sign within a hundred miles and which makes little sense because, while it certainly alerts folks to its presence, does not indicate that it serves as a gas station to anybody with a credit card). I was not aware of any celestial event at the time, which made the witnessing of such splendour on an otherwise routine perambulation a delightful surprise.
It seems to me that the combination of sudden surprise and sustained wonder that comes from star-gazing encourages a more expansive kind of pondering – on Life, Love, The Beyond, etc. – than we allow ourselves doing daily chores. I like to call it: ‘a wild surmise’, after a line in one of my mother’s favourite poems: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats. When I was fortunate enough to interview her for a radio program about teachers, she quoted the poem to explain what she hoped she could facilitate in her voice students. I still have her own voice, cracking with emotion, as she recited the last lines: “…I felt like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into its ken/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men/ look’d at each other with a wild surmise, silent…” The poem so moved her – and us – that we read it at her funeral. (And as I write this, viewing the Convent from my desk, I realize she would have memorized that poem here, just across the road.)
I once wrote a song once about the stars, actually, about one constellation in particular: Cassiopeia. It was based on an experience I had in Portugal when I was visiting my sister and her husband in his village, Casegas. I had received a grant to write a book of poetry and wrote the lion’s share there, at a table in the village square, just over the Roman bridge, in front of the Carpinteiro, the village’s café-bar-centre of the universe. One night, a group of us were sitting around a table, staring at the stars, drinking vinho. The scent of baking bread began drifting on the warm breeze down the narrow road from the outdoor oven up the hill. Finally, the local mechanic hopped on his motorbike and returned with a bag of fresh rolls. We dipped them in olive oil and washed them down with red wine and laughed with our mouths full.
After a night of breaking bread with the locals, I returned to my brother-in-law’s house where the others were already asleep. I noticed the gate to his aunt’s courtyard next door was open and I peeked in. There she was, a woman in her seventies, arms as muscled as a truck driver’s from irrigating the olive orchards alone and by hand, crossed over her chest, asleep in a chair. I so wanted to talk with this woman: a solitary soul, never married, in love with the land. I wanted to ask her how she did it, what was the Saving Grace that kept her on her steady course of prayer and toil and away from self-pity? But we didn’t speak each other’s language.
I stood there for a few seconds. She must have felt my presence, because she woke suddenly and motioned me over to her side. As I approached she pointed up to the sky where a starry ‘W’, an obvious constellation, hung over the earth like a crown. And indeed it was. “Coroa”, she whispered, then “Maria”, and then pressed her palms together.
We stood silently beside each other for a while and then she gave me a goodnight handshake. Her grip was knuckle crushing. Before crawling into bed I roughed out a song called “Show Me Cassiopeia,” about my efforts to save people or my tendencies to fall into the intoxicating promise of someone else’s saviour complex. The last words go like this: “Just look up at the stars, she said. / The stars, you know, they never leave the sky. / They’re with you in the night when you need them and / in the day when you can’t see them, / just look up at the stars, she said, /and showed me Cassiopeia and / saved me.”
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, SK. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio.