Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

On Being Hobbitish   Leave a comment

My wife and I just spent another desert spring morning digging up garden soil, getting seriously dirty and sweaty in the process. Birds were singing as we worked. The local covey of Gambel’s quail lurked in the bushes looking for the bird seed we set out, and really wished we would go back indoors and out of sight. Flowers elsewhere in the garden bloomed bright and fragrant, attracting a variety of butterflies and bees. A gentle, fitful breeze cooled us, and white clouds drifted through a high blue sky. Our project involved restoring a long-neglected garden bed that had lost its raised-bed frame and become seriously weed-infested. Hard work, but gratifying in the end. The soil from it needs to be lifted and sifted to remove Bermuda grass roots – a seriously invasive weed – and piled nearby. In due time a new raised-bed frame will be set in place, the soil returned and properly amended, and tomatoes will grow there. Growing plants being the point of a garden, of course. We can buy tomatoes suitable for our cooking needs, but those we grow always taste better, and in any case, watching plants grow and thrive under your care does wonderful things for stress reduction and the improvement of general morale.

There’s a moment early in the expanded film version of The Fellowship of the Ring that shows the look on the face of a certain hobbit gardener as he works with a flowering potted plant. As the narration extols the hobbitish love of things that grow, you see the face of someone following his bliss. I know that feeling well, and it’s a good one. Gardening really can do that for you, if you let it. And don’t mind sometimes getting seriously dirty and sweaty.

I would have no trouble living a hobbitish lifestyle. Some would say I’m doing so now, and I wouldn’t argue. Gardening and cooking (and eating) are among the things that serve to keep me thoroughly grounded while I spin flights of fancy and set them down in words. That process of writing, by its nature, keeps me pretty close to home, and to be honest I’m perfectly fine with that. Well, within reason. The occasional adventure can be beneficial, especially if one manages to avoid interactions with dragons. But for all that there are some trips I’d like to take – more than a few actually – true wanderlust is a thing I rarely feel, and it’s easily satisfied without any need to travel to the ends of the Earth. A need to see mountains again? I have some practically next door, so no problem there. I just go outside and look either north or east.

I can honestly say that if, as life unfolds, I find myself spending the majority of my time in this house writing, and out in the yard around it working a garden and watching things grow, I’ll be okay. I’m enough like a hobbit that such a fate would feel like the right way to live, and not like a set of constraints. The value of home is a thing you never need to explain to a hobbit, and I can certainly relate.

A few more nights out under dark and star-filled skies would be nice, but such a need for starlight is also quite in keeping with being hobbitish. After all, some well-known members of the halfling race were rather fond of night walks with folk of an elvish nature. I suppose such would be considered adventures of a quiet sort, and certainly free of dragons, unless you count a certain arrangement of stars in the northern sky.

Of course, no matter how I live, I’m a little tall to pass for a hobbit. But then, growing up, I had a fondness for forests and trees. Growing up in Illinois, I spent much of my childhood wandering the nearby woodland. Perhaps an Ent crossed my path one day and shared a bit of Ent draught. My parents did seem, for a time, taken aback by how quickly I grew.

Flights of fancy, indeed. You just never know.

Hot August Night   Leave a comment

Astronomical Observations Made On 25 August 2019

I don’t often experience clear nights during the Sonoran Desert summer. This is our season for thunderstorms, when moisture pushes into the region from the south and the east, and clouds rise high and white over the desert. The debris clouds left from these storms, whether I see a drop of rain where I live or not, often make stargazing a moot point. Some summers are stormier than others, and for lovers of the “desert monsoon,” a group that includes me, the summer of 2019 has been a disappointment. Storms have been less than frequent where I live, but energetic enough elsewhere to send clouds over my location all the same. The daytime temperatures have often soared to near record highs, and as a result, evenings have also remained uncomfortably warm long after sunset. I have this thing against sweating onto an eyepiece. Those things are enough trouble to keep clean as it is.

The night of August 25th, 2019, however, was clear and somewhat cooler than those before it. Only a few degrees, actually, but the chance to explore summer constellations was enough to motivate me. The seeing conditions, oddly enough, were predicted to be very good, rather unusual for the season. That news added another bit of motivation. So I decided to fire up the Thermacell mosquito repeller, set up the Old Scope (the 60mm refractor I’ve used since my teens), and see what I could see before heat stroke set in.

Double stars and the moon are the best objects to view with an instrument of the Old Scope’s type and size. Since the moon was not above the horizon while I was out there, double stars made up the majority of my observations on this hot August night. They are particularly rewarding, regardless of the telescope you use, when you work under light-polluted suburban skies. Bright points of light stand out better under such conditions than, say, a ghostly nebula or a distant galaxy. The book that got me started as a serious observer (Field Book of the Skies by William Tyler Olcott) was written at a time when the study of double star systems was cutting-edge astronomy, and most commercially available telescopes were between 60mm and 90mm in size. (Size in this case refers to the aperture or diameter of the lens at the front end of the telescope.) As a result of that combination of then-current interest and available instruments, that book was essentially a guide to double stars, and because I relied on Olcott’s field book, that’s what I observed back then. My interest in double stars has never faded.

It was a quiet night, with no breeze and a clear, calm sky. Normally I find a breeze inconvenient; it flips pages on star atlases and – when strong enough – shakes the telescope.  However, I would have been more forgiving of moving air, any moving air, on such a warm and muggy night. No such luck. It was so quiet I could hear the Thermacell unit softly hissing away as it heated the repellent-soaked pad that drove off mosquitoes. I rely on that device during mosquito season. Without it sending its chemical signals that baffle and repel the little blood-suckers, I’d need long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I’d be seriously over-dressed for a night during which the temperature was likely to remain above 90°F, which was the case this time.

It was, in fact, rather too warm for my liking, regardless of manner of dress, and I honestly wondered why I was bothering. And then I put gamma Delphinus in the eyepiece.

This star is in a summer constellation that actually looks a bit like its name – a dolphin. Both components of the double star were easy to see, and gamma Delphinus was worth the sweat. When observing double stars, the brightest of the pair (assuming a difference) is generally labeled “A” and is referred to as primary, while the secondary is usually labeled “B.” It can actually get a lot more complicated than that – but not this time. The two stars in this case are quite close together, and needed a fair bit of magnification to split them (separate to them completely). At that magnification I was also able to see their colors. The primary (A) star was pale yellow, and the companion (B) was an equally quiet shade of blue. The difference in magnitude was subtle, about half a magnitude, but was visible. The sight of these two softly colored gems against the dark sky made me glad I’d bothered.

Another star on my list was a jewel of the Dolphin as well. Alpha Delphinus has a companion too faint for the Old Scope to pick up, but when I was a teenager I very likely didn’t realize this, and would have looked. I’ve recently been revisiting stars that I would have looked at back then, using the same old telescope as before, so since it was on the list I would have used then, I looked at it on this night. Alpha Delphinus was another gem, this one bright and white with a hint of blue in it. It’s a simple sort of beauty, the light of a distant star, and irresistible.

The hot and sweaty night grew older but no cooler, and the stars moved slowly east to west overhead. The planets Jupiter and Saturn were bright and easy to find over the roof of the house, but the heat shimmer from the roof made observing them a waste of time. They looked for all the world as if they were under water.

While star hopping, I found myself in the vicinity of an object labeled on the charts as M 15, a dense gathering of stars called a globular star cluster. I’ve seen this thing with a larger telescope and been amazed by the sight. What amazed me this night, using the Old Scope, was that I could see it at all. The gray patch of light that seemed to fade gradually into the night sky around it may not have been visually impressive, but seeing it with such a small telescope in a relatively bright sky was a pleasant surprise. You just never know, so you might as well try. And doesn’t that just sound like a life lesson?

I split several double stars in Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Pegasus (the Winged Horse of myth), and Andromeda. Of them all, the most noteworthy was gamma Andromedae. It was a tight pair of stars, as viewed with the Old Scope, and displayed more conspicuous colors than gamma Delphinus. The brighter of the two, in this case, was a clear golden hue; its companion was a gleaming blue. I keep calling these stars gemlike, but in truth, there are no gems on this Earth of ours that can compare. If you ever have the opportunity to look at such a sight through a telescope, be sure to take it. I think you will agree with me on the subject of the beauty to be seen in starlight.

The Stars I’m Under: Observations of the Night Sky   Leave a comment

“I got into science fiction by being interested in astronomy first.”  – Terry Pratchett

When I first opened this weblog, it was my intention to include far more astronomical content than I’ve managed so far. The main reason for this not working out until now has been a dearth of observations to report. Until a few months ago the time and energy needed to be out under those desert stars was in short supply.

I resumed amateur astronomy activities in 2003, after a long hiatus, and did so for some less than straightforward reasons. On the surface, it simply seemed that the time had come. That’s true, as far as it goes. I’ve always looked back fondly on that episode in my life, when as a teenager I spent so many hours under dark, rural skies with a small telescope (a 60mm refractor). The desire to revive this pastime remained with me for many years, until at long last, in ’03, I found that I had the resources, and could afford a good telescope of respectable aperture. I lived in a city with enough light pollution ordinances that visual observing would be worth the expense of time and money. The time had come indeed, and the time was right. (The details of how this all came about are to be found in my book Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession.)

But there was was more to it than that, a matter that I did not include in the above-mentioned book. After almost twenty-five years of admittedly sporadic attempts to be published as a writer of fiction, I’d given it up. The indie publishing revolution had not yet developed, and I was heartily sick of rejection slips. So, I quit. Since so much of my life had been shaped around writing, I was a bit untethered, and astronomy proved to be just the thing to fill the gap. Long story short (see The Process, chapter ten), while astronomy provided the necessary outlet for a while, in the long run it wasn’t enough. I needed to tell stories, and holding back from that proved unhealthy. Fortunately, before things became too serious, publishing directly to ebook and print-on-demand gave me the outlet I needed, and I started writing fiction again.

It was like pulling a cork out of a badly rattled bottle of sparkling wine. Words burst forth, forming books and short stories that seemed eager to see the light of day. A couple of the books were even astronomy-related. The release of pent-up creative energy took several years to settle down from a flood to a steady flow. But although astronomy didn’t fade back completely into hiatus status, I was far more interested in spending the time I had outside the day job writing than peering into an eyepiece. And even when evenings were so clear and mild that they seemed to call me out under the stars, I seldom had the energy left over to set up even that 60mm refractor, which has remained with me since high school.

A dozen publications later, and with the need for a day job behind me, I find myself looking at things in yet another new way. The need has asserted itself for a life that balances energy aimed at writing and producing new fiction, with a different sort of need, that of a craving for dark skies and the light of the moon and stars. Writing is a more relaxed activity now, no longer crammed into whatever time I have after coming home from an office. I don’t finish the days as worn out as I once did. I still have a job, you see, but a job you love doing is far less taxing, and there’s often energy left after a day’s work to set up a telescope and observe celestial sights deep into the night.

And so, belatedly, I’ve begun to develop this aspect of the weblog. I will still write about books and writing, with more commentary on winners of past Hugo Awards. I will also use this weblog to help keep you up to date on new books and stories as they become available. In addition to all that, I will now invite you to join me from time to time under the peace and quiet of the night sky. There will be regular posts about what it’s like out there, and those posts will include a list of celestial sights. The idea is to give you a sense for the experience of stargazing, without boring non-astronomers with the details. The details, for those who are interested, will be found archived on the Amateur Astronomy page of this site.

This is all very much “under construction,” and how I proceed may change as I move forward. So please pardon the stardust underfoot while I work.

Stars in the Balance   5 comments

On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.

I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.

If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.

For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.

An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.

Them! Them!   Leave a comment

It happens late in any summer during which the Arizona monsoon is at all generous with rain. They rise.

The past week or so has been just that, generous, with a significant portion of the summer’s rains falling in recent days. Every morning, out for the walk, I’ve been treated to cool, moist air, amazing cloudscapes and sunrises, and suburban wildlife brought out and active by the abundance of that scarcest of desert resources – rain. This morning, after an unusual day and night of long and steady rains, there was something more than the war between hawks and mockingbirds going on in the air. I set out for the morning walk in a world dripping wet, cool and muggy, and swarming with huge, winged ants. They were literally everywhere, some flying aimlessly in wide spirals up and through the moist air, others flying with clear purpose toward some unseen destination. I looked up to follow their trajectories, and saw thousands more in the air, with brooding thunderheads as a backdrop. The sun was already up, and rays of pale light lanced through the clouds to the east, lighting the bellies of the clouds overhead. Against a sky of black and gray, white and fire, the harvester ants swarmed. There were so many winging through the calm morning that breathing through the mouth was not recommended, as at least one runner I saw learned the hard way.

The ants must have emerged just before I started walking. The gyres of ants I expected to see had not yet pulled together. Here and there a whirling sphere of winged ants drifted over the curb, but it was a good twenty minutes before I saw the expected towering columns of airborne ants spinning like an animation of whirling molecules gone mad. When they finally pulled together, it seemed suddenly the air was cleared of ants. No more aimless wanderers filling the air at random. The main event was under way, the reason they were flying in the first place. The time had come for the males and females of the species to seek each out and mate, which they do in spinning orgies of ants that rise in narrow columns fifteen and twenty feet tall. The bottoms of the gyres are usually five or six feet off the ground and the columns change shape as the ants whirl and dance on wings in search of just the right partner. The ground underneath each gyre is soon littered with pairs of ants that have found what they sought.

Birds, bats, and dragonflies attend the gyres. The winged ants are apparently stingless, and good eating. They take a huge risk, forming these towering gyres whirling in the still air. Some pay the ultimate price for taking this chance, and are recycled into other creatures that share this desert suburb. But not all will be eaten, and new colonies of harvester ants will be founded by these frantic, airborne pairings. Some of the colonies will escape the ire of gardeners, tired of their plants stripped by ants in need of food for their fungus gardens, cultivated deep underground. And next summer, monsoon willing, the gyres will rise high into the muggy air on a morning that smells of yesterday’s rain.

Posted August 23, 2012 by underdesertstars in Nature

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