The Kid Who Can’t Grow Up and Doesn’t Want To by Von Del Chamberlain

The Milky Way illumines the night sky over Crater Lake at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. Jeremy M. White / NPS

All of this led to experiences where this small town kid engaged audiences under starry skies in parks, on river trips, cruise ships – including a Halley’s Comet cruise – hill tops, night walks, etc. as well as in planetariums.

On one night walk at beautiful Crater Lake, he put a telescope at the base of a trail going up to the rim overlooking the lake, indicating that those who wanted to could stop and use the scope on the way back. They started up the trail in twilight, stopping to rest here and there. At each stop they looked at stars becoming visible with growing darkness.

Everyone in the group learned the names of those stars. Reaching the top, overlooking that magnificent lake, now under a jaw-dropping dark starry sky, people had a few “friends” up there. If they had waited until the top of the trail they would not have been able to pick those stars out from among the myriads of dimmer ones now visible. They looked around and talked with each other – this was not a lecture – it was an exchange of ideas about what could be seen.

At one point they were directed along the Big Dipper from bowl to handle and on to the star Arcturus, “You can find Arcturus by remembering the phrase ‘follow the arc to Arcturus,’ “ the man said, then added, moving the laser pointer farther down, “and here is Spica in Corvus. Some people say ‘follow the arc to Arcturus and drive a spike to Spica’; others say ‘follow the arc to Arcturus and speak to Spica.” At that point one child piped, “You could say, follow the arc to Arcturus and spit on Spica!”

It was quieter going back down the trail. They walked carefully to avoid tripping, falling and tumbling in the darkness while they thought about how they had climbed a little way up into the sky where they stood on the rim of a crater amazed at the glittering cosmos. They did stop at the bottom of the trail to look with the telescope and continue conversing.

Anasazi State Park Markers HWY. 12. Published by Utah State History; digitized and hosted by J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

The kid spent a decade at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, another at the Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City and he taught a course titled “Astronomy in Our Lives” – no, not astrology, rather basic astronomy of the naked-eye sky – at both the University of Utah and Utah Valley University.

Taking a big jump in time we consider an example of how the two professional passions (encouraging astronomy education in beautiful places where lots of people go and exploring Native American traditions of the sky) of the kid came together. Having just conducted sky interpretation training at Capitol Reef National Park in May 1994, at the urging of a Utah archaeologist, he drove over the Boulder Mountain to Anasazi Indian Village State Park to check on possible astronomical orientations of the site. Knowing that the most important astronomy for any village would likely involve sunrise and sunset observations to reveal times to plant and harvest crops, he walked through and around the village site.

From the village itself it was obvious that the visible horizons both to the east and west were not suited for such observations, but a bluff just west of the village, called “Schoolhouse Ledge” by the local residents, looked interesting. From the top of that bluff there was a perfect, nicely contoured distant horizon in both the sunrise and sunset directions, and it was most interesting to find that there was a tiny set of room blocks on the east edge of the bluff. From up there it was obvious that the entire annual calendar could easily be defined.

So our Colorado Plateau Kid worked with the park archaeologist, climbing to the top of the ledge many times throughout the year to photographically document the sunrise calendar showing that Schoolhouse Ledge was a likely place where the village Sunwatcher could have done his work so that people who lived there about 1,000 years ago could have an accurate reliable calendar to know when to plant, harvest and do other important things.

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