Last night was the “grand conjunction” of planets Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets were just .1 degree apart in the sky just after twilight. This is the closest conjunction of these planets since March 5, 1226. The most significant grand conjunction occurred in 7 B.C., and another in 3 B.C. , thus scientific support for the reference to this as a “Christmas Star.”
As twilight fades, stars of the night sky begin to appear, drawing attention to the magnitude of the brightness of these two planets in conjunction.
A pastor friend of mine offered the following information regarding the connection of this conjunction to Christmas: “The last time a “grand conjunction” between Jupiter and Saturn occurred was 1226 A.D. Previous to that was 7 B.C., which was followed up by a very similar conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 3 B.C. Johannes Kepler, a major figure from the scientific revolution which began in the 17th century, the scientist who first correctly explained the motion of the planets, referred to this as a “triple conjunction” because of the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and the sun. He pointed out that this triple conjunction occurred three separate times in 7 B.C., a view confirmed by modern science. For dedicated, serious ancient stargazers like the Magi, this might have been just enough for them to saddle up their horses – or their camels – and take the long, long ride to Israel to check it out.”
The magnified conjunction, showing Jupiter and its four largest, most visible moons on the left, and Saturn to the right.
With the coming of the Christmas holiday, and the new year right around the corner, it seems fitting that I share a poem that I wrote 30 years ago about my feelings toward Gaia, or the health of our planet, and where we’re going as caretakers of this marvelous creation. This year of 2020 can either be one of despair, or it can be one of awakening.
I wrote this poem sitting on a rock in the high desert as a clearing storm painted a rainbow across the early morning sky, and the photograph below was taken at that time on a Minolta 35mm camera using Kodak Kodachrome 64 transparency film. The words came flowing out, sitting on that rock, and writing on an old notebook with a stub of a pencil (you do remember pencils and paper, don’t you). It really was a time of reflection, and discovery, and hope:
Epitaph for Wild
There’s a Kingdom where the ravens play with rainbows And the mountains kiss the sky, As the dancing crimson sunbeams paint the heavens Where the Angels learn to fly; Where the silence of a moonbeam echoes wildly Through the caverns of my mind And this cool September morning fills my marrow With a high desert high.
A siren’s song is taunting from The pinnacles and valleys of this land; The desert’s silent melody is calling Like a lover or a friend, And yet this fickle lady wipes my footprints From her shifting, blowing sand As though I never was…so like The flicker of a firefly on the wind.
I walk among these canyons where the Ancient Shaman lived, and loved, and died; I feel Him walking with me, I see His tears And hear His mournful cry; But not a sorrow for Himself, Nor for a son, or for a daughter’s child… These tears are shed for Mother Earth, For Bear, and Hawk, and Wolf, and Father Sky.
The Shaman’s cheeks are pitted, as from poisoned tears, So like the acid rain That falls upon the scorched earth where the Graceful raptor’s shattered bones are lain; Where once God’s mighty warriors of the mountains roamed, Long absent from their dens, As wildness lies bludgeoned unto death… What a treacherous lot we call men.
Behold, the changing colors in the clouds Forever heralding the rain, The lifeblood of the desert, coursing Wildly through her arteries again; Life has been renewed and resurrected, All forgiving of the pain; It seems to me a promise, Not a legacy of ages lived in vain.
There’s a Kingdom where the ravens play with rainbows And the mountains kiss the sky, And the dancing crimson sunbeams paint the heavens Where the Angels learn to fly; Where time and space rejoice in singularity As once it all began… And starlight waltzes lightly with my soul, As God proclaims, “I Am”
This planet has endured and evolved, and will continue to do so in spite of our treatment of her, and will adapt and change and continue to evolve with or without us. As we move into a new year, with new opportunities for understanding, and new opportunities for change, we must do so, or we will find that we really will have lived in vain. I still choose to see the glass half full.
This year’s Gemenid Meteor Shower did not disappoint. Featuring a projected 103 meteors per hour, there were a few really spectacularly long, bright streaks across the Milky Way. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture those because of timing or camera orientation, but here are a few that did come across my lens on a chilly but clear midnight vigil:
As Neil deGrasse Tyson used to say on his nightly PBS show, “Keep looking up.”
For years, I’ve hiked and backpacked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. This is the only mountain range totally contained within the boundaries of any national park in the U.S., so it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an isolated habitat. That said, I’ve gone years between black bear sightings there, and it’s not due to a lack of bears; rather, to an abundance of habitat that is removed from human contact.
But that is changing.
For the past 6 months the trails and remote backpacking campsites have been closed to humans, due to closures for Covid-19. October 1 the backcountry sites were re-opened for backpacking, and I took advantage of the first sites available. I was curious to see if anything in the high Chisos complex had changed with a lack of intrusion by humans, and boy, has it ever. BEARS WERE EVERYWHERE.
After reaching my campsite, a wonderful, secluded site down a side trail in Boot Canyon, I unpacked and set up my tent. It was late afternoon, so I sat on a stump with my book, and unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for a snack. Nothing out of the ordinary attracted my attention, but for some reason I looked up from my book, and to my shock, I was being watched by one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen…a mere 25 feet away, right in my camp…and sniffing the air and licking his chops with an eye on my sandwich:
A beautiful male animal of 300 pounds or more.
He had walked into my camp without making a sound…not a twig snap or a leaf crinkle, his huge paws caressing the ground like cat feet. He watched me with curious interest, and showed no fear when I stood and waved my arms and shouted for him to move on. That’s not a good sign. He slowly moved off through the juniper grove and disappeared. I fully expected him to return in the middle of the night, but thankfully I never saw him again.
I put a bottle of water and my camera into a day pack and headed up Boot Canyon toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, the high rim that drops off into the desert and overlooks the mountains in Mexico. I had gone less than a mile when I walked up on this very large bear in the middle of the trail, having quenched his thirst in the water contained in the tinajas from the last rains. This was definitely not the same bear that came into camp, a slightly different color, but was similar in size.
Very health and fatted up for the coming winter.
A short distance on up the trail in the upper reaches of Boot Canyon, I rounded a corner and walked up on a sow and her cub, just off the trail, drinking from the only dependable water source in this part of the mountains. This is usually a bad scenario, so I was careful not to approach, and certainly to not get near the cub. I worried that the youngster might approach me out of curiosity, but it kept its distance and shortly moved off up the hillside, showing a little fear of me.
A sow and her cub along the trail, drinking and snacking on a sparse crop of berries. One of this year’s cubs, still dependent on mom, but gaining in size.
On the way back to camp I was startled by two rare Del Carmen Whitetail deer. These deer are found only here in the Chisos, and across the river in Mexico in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains. These deer have spent generations among humans on this mountain and have no fear of humans.
The situation with the bears coming down using the trails in the absence of humans is critical. If they lose their fear of people, it’s only a matter of time before a careless hiker feeds them and they begin to habituate to humans as a source of food. Even if no one is injured by the bears, increased sightings and close proximity contact will surely lead to artificial control of the bears through removal or destruction.
The Perseid meteor shower peaks in the early-morning hours. This is the finest meteor shower of the year for northern stargazers, with 40-60 meteors per hour visible at the peak in the hours before dawn on August 13. Once called the Tears of St. Lawrence, this meteor shower occurs as the Earth moves through a stream of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.
This year, the Moon is at third-quarter, not ideal for seeing the faintest meteors, but get started watching before midnight, away from city lights, and you will be rewarded with a bright meteor every few minutes or so.
The Perseids are also a long-lasting show, running from July 17 through August 25. So if you miss the peak, you still have a good chance to see some meteors.
So far this month, August 2020, we’ve been treated to Comet Neowise, Perseid meteor shower, and a bright planetary show of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. In these times, there are still lots of reasons to be thankful for the world, and universe, around us.
At summer’s midpoint, it seems appropriate to post a couple of images representative of the environment of the Big Bend regionof Texas at this time of year.
First, an iconic critter with a badly maligned nickname of “horny toad.”Another name for his animal, taken from the 1887 yearbook of Texas Christian University and later adopted as the athletic mascot, “Hornfrogs” has stuck as another piece of misinformation. This wonderful little critter is neither a toad nor a frog, but is in fact a lizard, known officially as the Texas Horned Lizard, or (Phrynosoma cornutum).
The Texas Horned Lizard is listed as a threatened species in Texas, and its numbers were declining so fast in Oklahoma that the legislature tried unsuccessfully to have it listed as an endangered species. When threatened, it freezes perfectly still and does an amazing job of blending into its surroundings. Like all lizards, it’s a welcome addition to our yard, due to its ability to gobble up insects at an amazing rate. The biggest problem is that it tends to freeze motionless and blend into its surroundings, and is therefore difficult to see and avoid when walking around its territory.
Another summer icon of the desert is the rising full moon over Tabletop Mountain east of Marathon.
In addition to the full moon, late July and early August is a fantastic period of summer for stargazing. We were visited by the comet Neowise for several weeks, and one of the best meteor showers of the year is beginning now and increasing to its peak in the early morning hours of August 12-13. Also, Jupiter and Saturn are putting on a great show in the southeast, and the Milky Way is reaching its peak show for the summer during August and September. So, get outside after dark and KEEP LOOKING UP!