Saturday, March 01, 2008

Seasoning the year

March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb. We all know what that means. Sometime during the month -- in the northern hemisphere -- winter slips away and we catch the first whisperings of spring; the month begins with a roar and ends with a bleat. Guy Ottewell, that inestimable connoisseur of stars, suggests a another source for the phrase: In the evening sky of March, Aries sets in the west as Leo approaches the zenith.

There was a time, I suppose, when everyone carried in her head a mental map of the stars. Every human culture we know of had constellations -- arbitrary groupings of stars made recognizable by association with familiar objects, lions and lambs, for instance. Those of us who derive from European culture take our constellations mostly from the civilizations of the Middle East. When Europeans first ventured into southern seas they mapped the stars as well as continents, giving us such constellations as the Microscope, the Telescope, the Clock and the Furnace. Such a shame that they didn't bring home the constellations of the indigenous peoples of southern climes.

I learned my constellations from my father, who informed himself with A Primer for Star-Gazers by Henry Neely (the book is now long out of print, but my father's copy is still in my possession). I've tried to keep the tradition going with my own children and grandchildren, but it is probably doomed to extinction. Artificial light makes the stars increasingly unapproachable, and the proliferation of indoor electronic amusements makes learning constellations seem an oddly quaint pastime.

Still, whether we watch or no, the Lamb goes tripping westward, following winter into the wings, and the Lion -- with a roar -- takes center stage.