19 June 2011

Things That Are True - Stargazing

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)

I cannot read this poem (and I read it often; I adore Whitman) without thinking of my dad.

My father is a gentle man. Thoughtful in his approach to everything, he lives his beliefs and treats everyone he meets, even when he disagrees with them, with respect and dignity. He has taught me much - even though when I was 18 I thought he was kind of an idiot. It's amazing how wise he has grown in the last twenty-odd years.


My dad is both an auto-didact and a raconteur. With no formal education beyond high school, he was the source of all information as I was growing up. There was nothing he couldn't explain, and he treated all my questions - and there were a lot of them; I was the quintessential "but why, Daddy?" child - very seriously, and did his best to answer in a way I could understand. Now that The Imp has reached the "but why, Mommy?" stage, I'm learning first hand how hard this is to do consistently, and my admiration for my dad grows daily.

Dad loves astronomy. In the family library of my childhood, I remember a well-thumbed book of star maps. As a small-town prairie kid, the skies must have been vast indeed for him as he learned the names in the heavens. But for me, as a young child in the Yukon, when it was warm enough to stargaze, there was 24 hour daylight and the stars didn't come out to play. When it was dark enough to ponder the universe, it was mind-numbingly cold.

Me, my Dad, and my sister with the family car parked under the avocado tree, 1979

But then, when I was eight years old, we went on an epic family adventure, and were lucky enough to live on a tropical island for a few years. The switch from day to night at that latitude is instant, there's no twilight. We lived in a tiny village (link in French), so light pollution wasn't a huge concern. And it was warm, gloriously warm. Warm enough for my dad and I to head up the hill behind our house and out into the sugar cane field, and for him to teach me the names of the stars and constellations. It was the southern hemisphere, so everything was different from what he knew. In that pre-internet era, Dad must've had to buy a whole new star maps book for this unknown celestial territory.

We tracked the progress of the Southern Cross together, caught glimpses of Orion's belt (the only constellation in the southern hemisphere that followed us from the north) on the horizon, and learned the names of unfamiliar groupings of twinkling lights. And together we sat, in that "mystical moist night-air", and "look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."

Those evenings are my favourite childhood memories. I only hope I can give The Imp the same appreciation of vastness and wonder that my dad shared with me.

I love you, Dad. Happy Father's Day.

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