long . lines and ripples

Ben Ehrenreich on Seeing Next Season’s Stars

Ben Ehrenreich writes in his recent book, Desert Notebooks, about learning the nighttime constellations. He mentions one obvious but overlooked fact: there are actually several skies worth of stars in any given night.

“Orion disappears beneath the horizon in the spring and rises again in the autumn, though I learned sleeping outside in the hammock on hot nights that even in August, he appears before dawn. If you stay up late enough, you’ll see the next season’s stars cycling past.” (32)

What Ehrenreich writes is true. At the darkest period of winter, when the mid-latitudes in the U.S. might see 15 or 16 hours of darkness for 8 hours of light, the night sky at 5 A.M. shows a wildly different scene than the sky at 5 P.M. The winter nighttime just contains more stars in the sky.

If you know enough to recognize the major constellations throughout the year, then the early-morning sky is a strange event, like time-traveling into a near future that dissipates, just as you are getting used to it, with the morning. The disorientation intensifies because the observer has to be awake right before dawn, when civilizational hyperactivity slacks off a little.

By four or five A.M., ancestral fear of the dark has given way to apprehension about the day. People settle down while they can. Even the insomniacs have collapsed. An hour before sunrise, there is less light, and more quiet, than at midnight.

The observer is likely to be watching alone, not fully awake himself. Everyone else is asleep; the stars seem like a dream. Maybe it was once normal to dream of the stars, like the now-common dream of falling forever or forgetting something.

What could the equivalent be if you don’t look up at night? Try looking at a rocky mountaintop in July from down in the valley, and watch the snowpack at the top fall down down into summer. Or take a flight of just a few hours, from high up in the Earth’s northern hemisphere, to low down in the southern latitudes. There ought to be a word for this type of scrambled time, a subset of anachronism: any effect of nature that causes the seasons to collapse into one another.


Ben Ehrenreich, Desert Notebooks (Counterpoint, 2020)