Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The dark cloths of night

Cindy asks how to encourage the celestial curiosity of her daughters. I can only respond with what turned me on: A parent who took me out under the night sky and told me stories.

My father didn't know a lot about the night sky, but what he learned he shared. Among my earliest memories are evenings on the badminton court in the back yard of our own home in Chattanooga, gazing upwards with my father to a drapery of brilliant stars flung across a gap between the dark pines. He told me stories of the constellations. Of Orion and the Scorpion. Of the lovers Andromeda and Perseus, and the monster Cetus. Of the wood nymph Callisto and her son Arcas, placed by Zeus in the heavens as the Big and Little Bears. No child ever had a better storybook than the everchanging page of night above our badminton court. My father also taught me the names of stars: Sirius, Arcturus, Polaris, Betelgeuse, and other, stranger names, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, the claws of the Scorpion. The words on his tongue were like incantations that opened the enchanted cave of night.

A parent can transmit information to a child. Better to transmit a love of the natural world -- stars and star lore in a context of cool night air, bird song, lightnin' bugs, mystery.

How to learn the night? Lyra's idea of an astronomy club is a good one. If there is a club nearby, join, with the kids. Two other resources I'd recommend for the day-by-day: Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, and Starry Night software. Learn to follow the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets. Get a feel for the third dimension of the night. Don't even think about a telescope of your own until the night sky is as familiar as your backyard.

In a poem titled "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven," William Butler Yeats wrote:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
I can think of no better gift a parent can give a child.

(There is a lovely bedroom scene in my movie Frankie Starlight where Bernadette (Anne Parillaud) reads the Yeats poem to Terry (Matt Dillon), in that sexy French voice of hers. More to the point of this post is the scene where Jack (Gabriel Byrne) and the boy Frankie (Alan Pentony) sit on the roof of Frankie's house, and Jack tells Frankie stories of the stars. It is, for the boy, a life transforming experience.)