Starlight Memories: 3: The Hunter in Far-flung Skies.

by Philip Steffey

On October 7 or 8 I happened to get up at 4:30 AM and, on looking outside saw a host of brilliant constellations in the south and southeast. The scene was completely different than the evening sky. Outstanding was the impressive Orion. .... This [view] made one of the most elementary [astronomical] facts clear to me: star groupings could be seen in the early morning hours months ahead of their evening appearance. This was the February evening sky I was beholding.

The above account of my first meeting with Orion, also Gemini, Canis Major and Canis Minor, is from a 1951 last quarter summary I rewrote in pencil in March ‘52. By then I was recording my observations on a daily basis, some in “real time.” This account failed to mention that my awesome encounter had started with a quick view from my parents’ bedroom without awakening them, followed by a rush to get dressed and outside before dawn broke. I made it with an hour to spare, and with several new celestial friends. I regret not having preserved more details.

A few weeks later I saw a late showing of the movie Samson and Delilah in downtown Kalamazoo and was forced to walk home afterwards because the city buses had stopped running. My route took me southward for a mile or so, then eastward for about the same distance. As I started that second leg, the Mighty Hunter was before me, on his side and just clear of the treetops. The weather was Indian Summer, dry and balmy, not unlike that depicted in the movie which was still on my mind. In this condition the view of Orion was overwealming and remained so to me for many years. The connection between the constellation and Samson was almost mystical then, but a quarter-century later I would learn that in very ancient times these stars were held by some peoples to represent the strongman or his counterpart Hercules. (However, the story of Samson in Judges 20 is mainly a Sun myth, probably of Canaanite origin.)

In the autumn of 1951 I read a couple books on astronomical photography with small, ordinary cameras and took notice as well of Sky and Telescope articles on this subject. I just had to try it! My maternal grandmother owned a 30 year-old Kodak box camera that had produced many family pictures, and in November I succeeded in obtaining trailed (but attractive) photos of several constellations, bright stars and Jupiter. For Christmas I bought my household a new Kodak folding camera with an f/6.3 lens wide open with part of the proceeds from selling all my model railroad equip-ment, and in Feb. ‘52 I took a 10 minute unguided photo of Orion, probably on Plus-X film. (Unfortunately my documentation of astrophotography then was little to none.) A print made some years later, when the local photo-lab people could understand what was on the negative, is reproduced following this text.

In the following years I would meet Orion again many times at far-flung places. In
the ‘60’s he dominated my fabulously clear winter skies over Tucson, Arizona, then at the other extreme and until the ‘80’s I saw him in the light-polluted skies of Santa Monica, California or other, mostly worse areas of the Los Angeles megalopolis. In October 1965 I saw him from west of Honolulu, Hawaii, where he climbed the sky in grand fashion to culminate between 60 and 80 degrees altitude. A year later, from extreme southern Brazil, he rose and crossed the sky upside-down (see pictures). Back up north, in late November 1970 the Hunter was already half-upright while rising in the early evening over Seattle, Washington. But none of these memorable views, or others from Mexico or Florida, was as impressive as my many wintertime views from Kalamazoo in the ‘50’s. Orion appearing in a clear, crisp sky above a snowy woodland or meadow cannot be matched by any other celestial scene familiar to me.

That magic comes not much from the constellation’s representation of a human,
which is not very realistic with no clear head, and only partly from its seven very bright stars in only 0.2 per cent of the celestial sphere’s area. To me a big part is the relationship to the northern hemisphere’s cold season, which has changed little in two thousand years. When the Hunter is “getting on his feet” in early to mid evening skies,winter is beginning; when he stands in the southern sky the season is near its midpoint; and when he is tipped greatly to ‘return to bed’ (or his grave) in the West, the season is ending. A real Old Man Winter! Perhaps too, the abstract main figure has an aesthetic appeal. After all, abstract visual art is as old as realism, judging from what archaeologists have so far discovered.

I cannot say, without qualification, that Orion is my favorite constellation. To me the realism of Scorpius is more impressive, and the circumpolar course of the Great Bear is wonderful year after year. Pegasus has priority as a learned figure. But on the other hand my first encounters with the Hunter in the autumn of 1951 did much to make me a lifelong stargazer. And when, soon after, I began serious telescopic ob
serving, it continued to contribute.

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Figure A: Orion rising in Kalamazoo, MI, February 1952, early evening;
from an overexposed print.
Figure B: The constellation well up over Honolulu, HI in late October
1965, near midnight, still only half-upright; from a small color
print made from a slide.
Figure C: Orion rising in Porto Alegre, Brazil, November 1966, head-
stand-bound. The NASA aircraft, used then as a flying solar
eclipse observatory, was destroyed about ten years later by
a collision with a military plane in California.
Figure D: Orion one hour after rising, from the outskirts of Seattle,
WA in late November 1970. Already half-upright. Saturn
was in the upper right. From a Voyager III screen.

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