By Franklin Burroughs
In college, I learned that Thales of Miletus was a pre-Socratic philosopher who considered water the primary principle of life. On that basis, I felt an affinity. More recently, I discovered he was also an astronomer who described how to use the pointer stars of the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, True North.
January, when we inaugurate our presidents, may be the finest month for star gazing. Night falls early; dawn comes late. Go out just before bedtime and again before breakfast and you’ll find the darkest darkness. The stars glitter with the cold, remote precision of the sciences our species derived from them: navigation, chronology, spherical geometry, calculus, physics, cosmology, and so forth. They wheel majestically and mysteriously over us through the night. Before bedtime in early January, Orion’s downward-pointing belt is just above the southeast horizon; before dawn, it is setting in the southwest. But other constellations — the Big Dipper, to name one — move west to east between sunset and sunrise.
Like many of my generation who pass as well-educated women or men, I know next to nothing about the stars. I can recognize Orion, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and, of course, the Big Dipper, faithfully there winter and summer alike. In the fall, I’m often up early, in a little boat, motoring down a small, winding, marshy river to go duck hunting. Mostly, I navigate by the treeline and stick to the outside curves; but when the river opens into the bay, I am, to a degree, at sea, especially when a thick mist lies over the water, as is often the case. Before bedtime, the Dipper hung low above the northern horizon, its handle pointing west; now, it stands boldly upright on the handle, looming high overhead. It gives me Approximate North (AN). I pick out something bright near the opposite horizon
— Jupiter, perhaps? — to give me Approximate South (AS) and a couple of other conspicuous luminaries to fix AE and AW. If we are at half-tide or better, those coordinates will get me where I need to be by the time — an hour or so before sunrise — I need to be there.
I like — love, in fact — doing that. I can appreciate all those unknown generations who, in every corner of the globe, in a world of great depth and great darkness, observed the night sky so religiously and rigorously that Thales, 2½ millennia ago, was able to predict a solar eclipse. Seven hundred years ago — the Dark Ages to us — one of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, uneducated in any bookish way, glances up, sees the shadows of the trees equal to their height, and knowing (how?) that it is April 18, exclaims that it’s already 10 o’clock in the morning, and time’s a’wasting. At any hour of night, any season of the year, he could have glanced at the Dipper — “Charles’s Wagon” to him — and known how long ’til sunup.
But on a lower tide, when I’m trying to stay within a narrow, sinuous channel through flats covered by a foot or less of water, my seat-of-the-pants celestial navigation doesn’t work. I need, and refuse to own, a navigational system with a robotic voice saying turn left here, go 200 yards, bear right, etc., etc. I am under the stars, benighted in the shallows, churning up mud, with time and tide running out. It feels like an old man’s life; it feels like contemporary history; it feels like the dark ages and the human condition. Calm down, I tell myself, we tell ourselves. Consider your situation. Consider: con = study; sidera = the stars. There’s a strange solace in it.