Nearly everyone is familiar with Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, a painting which can leave a person staring at the celestial scene for long periods of time. People my age are also quite familiar with the song of nearly the same title by Don McLean, the lesser-known of his two biggest hits, a song which attempts to immortalize van Gogh in haunting and unforgettable musical phrases.
It is rather easy to understand the master’s fascination with the stellar display, something which captivates me on clear nights as well. During the late spring, summer, and early autumn months I frequently pull my Adirondack chair from my front porch out into my yard and simply gaze at the stars. My first recollection of the night sky derives from two experiences: a visit to a planetarium in Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was very young, and nearly weekly visits to the drive-in theater as a child during warm weather. Even at a young age I attempted to comprehend the vastness of space without success, but firing unquenchable inquisitiveness.
Something happens to many people when they reach the “responsible” age when work takes paramount importance in their lives, and many people likewise compound the seriousness of work with raising a family. Sadly, something as simple as walking outdoors on a clear night and looking up at the night sky and the majesty it displays falls away from a regular routine. Our generation likewise has in great manner abandoned a tradition of our parents of sitting in the front yard in lawn chairs and wiling away the evening talking with each other or the neighbors and observing the world around us.
A few minutes ago I walked out the front door to see if the night was clear 15 or 20 minutes after sundown. The familiar friends were there: Venus shining brightly over the northwestern horizon, just a few minutes from setting; Saturn making its recent nightly trek close to Spica; the Big Dipper directly aligned with the driveway, its traditional spot; Polaris in a line from the cup of the dipper; Arcturus in another line from the handle of the dipper; Vega, another bright star nearly overhead but to the east; and Altair. To the south there was Antares, the defining star for me in the constellation Scorpio.
In a short while I shall return outdoors and watch the actors of the night move to their marks on the sky’s stage and perform their celestial play, and as I have always been from my youth, I shall watch in amazement. I shall attempt once again to comprehend the vastness of the universe and I shall fail, simply leaving me in a state of awe and wonderment.