NATURE NARRATIVES: The Stardust constellation
By Melissa Walker
When I was a young girl and first vacationed in Colorado with my family, I was astonished by the vast blue-sky views, the towering snow-capped peaks and the rushing streams. But what surprised me the most were the stars. Like every child, I sang the rhyme “twinkle, twinkle little star… up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.” Now the song made sense. Here, the sky looked as if it were filled with glittering diamonds. I could even see the sheen of billions of stars in the Milky Way. Back in my hometown in Louisiana, the few stars I could see were more like pale pearls, and I had never seen the Milky Way.
About 10 summers after my first encounter with Colorado, I worked as a riding counselor at Cheley Camps on the east border of Rocky Mountain National Park. Almost every evening was spent outside around a campfire, and I led weekly overnight camping trips via horseback. My horse that summer was named Stardust, a well-trained quarterhorse the color of dark red bricks. Stardust had such an energetic walking gait that I had to rein her in often or we'd quickly leave the other riders far behind.
During the overnight camping trips, the stars were sometimes so vivid that the campers and I would find patterns in the stars and name our own constellations. The constellation I found looked like a horse galloping above the southern horizon, its head held high as it raced eastward. I named it Stardust.
Eventually, I consulted the star charts in H. A. Rey's guidebook The Stars and learned that most of the stars in "my" constellation were part of the official constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer. Those who originally named Sagittarius had perceived a different pattern of stars in their own imaginations.
The clear nights of September are a great time to scan the sky for constellations and planets. During and after twilight, you will see brilliant Venus "like a diamond in the sky" above the western horizon. About 9 p.m., you will be able to see Sagittarius and Scorpio just above the southern horizon, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper in the northern sky, and many other constellations.
I still think of Sagittarius as Stardust, and it is my favorite constellation. If it has been awhile since you've gazed at the night sky to look for patterns and shapes in the stars with just your imagination, the next clear night will be your chance. All you have to do is look up.
Walker, a long-time area naturalist, posts regular entries in her online blog at naturenarratives.com. She has given her permission to reprint selected pieces in the Westside Pioneer.