Comet Hale-Bopp has finally left our evening skies, and while I managed to see it a good many nights, I never did see it perched in a truly dark sky. This is a great pity, as you will know if you were lucky enough to do so.
I did have the good fortune of being in a place with very dark skies just as comet Hyakutake was making its appearance. I was on vacation in Costa Rica, and two nights before, I had gone looking for the comet without success. Finally on the last night of my trip, I saw it almost by accident during a late night walk. Here is what I wrote down the next morning:
Saw comet Hyakutake last night! It was sitting just near Arcturus after the moon had set. It was ghostly with a long streaming trail — at first I thought it was a search light shining from something in the sky — a helicopter? Then when I realized what it was it was just an incredible sensation of awe and mystery. Of course it was silent, but somehow its powerful silence is what I remember most vividly, as though something so dramatic should roar like a waterfall. But it sat quite still and looked at me, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I wanted it to announce itself, but it just stared back, its ragged coattails streaming in the wind.
This is the same sort of sensation excited by eclipses of the sun, or by the titanic smashing that comet Shoemaker-Levy gave Jupiter last year: something obvious is going wrong in the sky. A good reckoning of the heavens is the first great accomplishment of any civilization, associated with the rise of agriculture, so when something so weird happens in the sky, it can be disturbing at a very deep level. You can begin to see why both comets and eclipses have caused (and continue to cause!) such fear and disruption.
For me, comet Hyakutake underscored the fact that we are not projected onto a backlit screen. We are solid creatures that literally fit into an encompassing three-dimensional cosmos. During an eclipse, the point is driven home that I am here, and the sun is there, and the moon is there. The three of us have come together in a way that suggests the sun knows about me — for an instant an invisible axis, a spindle, passes right through me. It tells me that these celestial bodies are enormous actors that shape and inform the rocks we stand on. This is not a painted backdrop or a great big screensaver. These celestial wanderers write our rules, and any minute a giant rock may tumble from the sky and carve a jagged hole in our planet.
During eclipses, people react strongly. Some are stunned to silence, others are overcome by giddiness. Why? The shining sun was here and then it was blotted from the sky. This is the difference between knowing and knowing. I know that the earth waddles around the sun with moon in tow. But slide the moon between the me and the sun, and by God, I KNOW it.
But moving beyond the physics, we count on the regularity of the sun to fill the great void, and when the sun vanishes, the void beckons. Science cannot fill the great void! The void is an empty spot behind your eyes beyond the reach of reason. The raw reptilian brain that understands this is comforted by the richness of the creatures that live in our sky’s imagination. Show me Perseus and Pegasus!
That night in Costa Rica, I felt the weight of Hyakutake’s eyes on me. It was watching me. The experience took me straight to the place where our forebears and forelizards spent their entire lives, a place where the heavens were animated with living presence. The event reminded me how close the skies are, and how much they matter. How much we owe them and how much they own us.
So now, if I told you that I could reconstruct for you exactly the configuration of the planets and stars on the day you were born, would you be curious to see the result? This is the kind of thing that astrologers claim to do all the time, but astrologers have, by and large, fallen out of the sky, which is to say they have lost the connection the actual relationship between the stars and the planets. Their zodiacal signs are tokens, which, like Tarot cards and tea leaves, are as useful for divination as anything else close at hand. But the astrologers do not speak for where the planets were actually swimming when you were born. The horoscope is out of step with the sky on two counts: the signs have been shifted by precession and their width has been regularized.
The earth is a spinning top, and as it spins through daily rotations, it also nods very slowly first this way, now that way, inclining its head toward successive members of the zodiac. Precession is the name for this lazy nodding. Though too slow to notice in one person’s lifetime, it has added up to a very noticeable difference since our constellations were defined some 3000 years ago. For example, the first day of spring used to occur when the sun was in Aries, but it now occurs when the sun is in Pisces. Some time in the next century or so the first day of spring will occur when the sun is in Aquarius, and the age of Aquarius will at last have begun in earnest.
This is a representation of the sky at the very moment I was born (see if you can work out how old I am!). I find it strangely satisfying to look at. It uses symbols familiar to astrology, yet it is an altogether accurate diagram of where the planets were relative to the stars in the constellations of the zodiac.
If you were to see this model, this birth-sky, for your own birth date, what would you think? An astrologer would use it to read omens, but I think that any of us, even the most hard-hearted, would be inclined to behave like all pilgrims do at the end of the journey: we would look around and say, “Hmmm. So that’s how it was.” Somehow, it matters enough to be worth knowing.
Learn more about the Birth-Sky diagram.