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Night gazers, star wanderers

IT was a late summer's eve, and landmarks were concealed in shadow to our untrained ears and eyes. There were five of us, Nanita, Gerry, Jon, Mitch, and I, night wanderers, groping like moles through an underground tunnel. It surprised me that a place I knew so well seemed such a stranger to me now. Just a few hours ago, I had walked along this same fence line, recognizing every detail. Now, as we walked, the intricacies of sound and sight opened to us slowly, shyly, like a child about to recite the lines of a poem to an expectant audience of strangers. The nocturnal insects were warming up, and this adagio of katydids, crickets, and cicadas blended with our breathless anticipation. What next? What made that noise? Katy did, Katy did.

The spaces around us filled with resonant tones, and as our eyes adjusted to the dark we could make out stealthy forms. Or were we, unused to night stalking, the real intruders? Clinging to the waving rushes by the pond, did the insects look upon us with curiosity, wondering who or what these upright trespassers were? Did the owls and hawks, sitting hidden in hollow trees and on stretching limbs, eye us with the same trepidation? And did the raccoons and possums look at us from their lairs, pausing in mid-sentence, to point out the curiosity to their companions?

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There was just a sliver of a moon that night, but the stars were so many they seemed to elbow each other for room in the sky. We lay on our backs next to the pond, listening to the water lap and tried to count the stars in sections. We made a game of it, each one taking a foot of space, translating what we saw into personal impressions. Nanita and I, ever the romanticists, wondered about the ancients who must have laid on their pallets and looked at these very stars, overcome with the vastness. Jon, practical Jon, said the mystery is gone now that the moon has been conquered and the constellations mapped. But we argued him down. Stargazing will never be obsolete, and none of the mystery is gone just because we have put names to so many points of light.

We traced the stars into patterns. There were Arcturus and Vega, the heralders of summer, Mitch said, pointing east. Following Vega, Nanita made out the ``summer triangle'' of Vega, Deneb, and Altair. I have never known how to name the stars. My sense of cosmic direction is no better than my geography. I get lost just as easily up there as I do trying to find my way through the woods.

We soon turned our gazes back to eye level, for that night we were earthbound. There was too much happening around us for us to visit the heavens for too long. Underneath the stars is a big space, full of its own mysteries. At night, this is even more so, because humans are such somnolent creatures. If we wake at night, we rub our eyes and look surprised. Is it still night? We roll over and go back to sleep. Still, that night we were transfixed by the symmetry of the constellations, and wanted to be in both places. But how?

The farm pond lay smooth in all directions, framed by the outlined ridges of trees. The stars glistened wet and wavering from the depths of the dark water. One by one we turned our gazes to the water's surface, almost gasping audibly at the possibilities. The stars were accessible to us. I stood up and went to the water's edge. How many times had I longed to be airborne, to grasp a star in my hand, to fall to earth on a silvery shadow? I arched my arms over my head and dived into the sky.

The Home Forum page in the March 8 Monitor included an excerpt describing the featured artwork. The information was from the catalog for ``American Women Artists: 1830-1930,'' an exhibition organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C.

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