Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Can it be?

CHDKable camera, tripod en route from Vermont (early Christmas presents). I believe I have spotted Canopus nineteen minutes of latitude (22.5 miles) south of where it is impossible to see. Monterey Peninsula stops in time, and the fog held off for at least the forty miles across the bay to allow me to make it out--I used beta and eta Columbae as pointers.

If I can figure out the weather and the mechanics (should be in the same position four minutes earlier every night) I might even get a picture. I wouldn't hold my breath, but I am fairly elated for three in the morning.

(Just watch me find out tomorrow it was a boat or something. Seemed too steady for that; I got a good fifteen minutes of observing in.)

[Edit: I was going to teach myself how to calculate star transit times, but Wolfram Alpha seems to know how to do that. What I saw was in the right portion of the sky at the right time...]

Saturday, November 21, 2009


The stars you can see at night depend on the time of year and the time of night, of course, but also on your latitude. Burlington's at about 44°28' north, about halfway between the equator and the North pole. As you go south, you can see things closer and closer to the south celestial pole, within certain defineable limits.

Santa Cruz is at 36°59'--I'd been able to figure out it's farther south than what I was used to but I hadn't known the details until this morning.

Canopus, the second-brightest star in the north sky is theoretically visible from lat. 37°18', The existence of Monterey and the hills behind this probably wash it out, or did last night--I figured out I could get painfully close. I guess I should check out other locales (up the coast) which leave the south view as free as possible and check on some celestial mechanics.

On the plus side, I've never gotten better views of Canis Major, and I've been figuring out some of the smaller constellations around it. (Lepus and Columba last night).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

105 words, 11/15/09

The sun is low in the horizon blasting directly onto the eleven maples lining Gault Elementary: one block of peak foliage in the middle of November thousands of miles from (and a month later than) my formative autumns.

As I round the corner and my chin swivels up, my jaws close in astonishment, clicking together as if to grip this scene in my teeth, as though I am (it occurs to me) an expectant dog, trying to grasp the situation that has presented itself beyond my nose.

I keep a leaf to burn in meager re-enactment. Should I rend it with my teeth first?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


     You cannot yet say that the year is ending; there is a lot of life yet outside in the fields and meadows; the goats and cows are grazing hurriedly before they are locked away in the barn to impersonate the manger in Bethlehem; the white campion are still blooming, the Virgin Mary's tears, the ragwort still glitters of gold, and the cinquefoil is still of a mind to flower. As far as the ground is concerned, that is all prepared; it is all turned, plowed, and softened, and now takes in moisture and air, scents and aeration, sighing and disappearing into the loose topsoil. The morel still drips in the woods, the golden chanterelles slowly dry, white mushrooms draw unnameable fairy rings on the forest floor, and there are flushed old men everywhere hewing wood, collecting it, and tossing the fragrant firewood onto carts. Surprisingly, there are even more animals than during the summer; clusters of partridges whirr out of every furrow, the hare weaves through the woods, the wings of the grouse beat heavily, and the white tails of the deer gleam in forest clearings. So, as I have said, there is still enough life to it, but sooner than anyone expects it is gloomy twilight, lights glittering here and there, and an unaccustomed orphanhood settles over the world; a wagonload slowly scrapes towards the village and a lone man heads somewhere rapidly and silently, his hands in his pockets. The year is not ending, but the days are.


     It is a futile splendor; autumn is dark, but even so it is still well-outfitted. Were that not the case, the last colors of autumn could not blaze so pathetically; the crimson of the dogrose, and the rich red of the bunchberries, and the scarlet of the tops of the cherry trees, the dark yellow of the larch and the firm golden color of the fallen chestnut trees (look, the dark brown of the chestnuts themselves are peeking out from their ruptured cases). And without the darkness, the proper and most glorious light of autumn would not shine out so strongly; the light in the windows at home.

     It is said that nature lays itself down to sleep in the autumn. This nears the truth, but it lays itself down to sleep the way we do, dragging its feet, undressing itself with lackadaisical enjoyment, still of a mind to talk about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow, and before it falls asleep, it intermingles memories of time gone by with plans for the coming day. The summer foliage has not yet fallen, and the hard heads of next spring's buds already stud the twigs and branches. And now we can go to sleep, for even sleep is forward motion.


     Through all of this, I have saved for the last the true annual breakthrough of autumn. It is the discovery of one's own down blankets. It is the annual return to bed. You never sleep more gratefully and toss and turn less than when the days are short. All poets laud things, but I don't know if any one them would sing the praises of an ordinary warm bed instead of the bust and heavenly phenomena. Enough already has been written about dreams, but who as yet described the smooth comfort of the pillow and the faithful cupped hand of the groove underneath us as we sleep? Let us therefore add praise of human bedding to the praises of autumn, whether it be good for the sleeper, gentle for the infirm or strengthening for the weary; and may the hare find a good oven, the stag a dry hollow, and the sparrow a good nest under the eaves, amen.



Tuesday, November 03, 2009


     These are still golden and cerulean days, for there is nothing more golden than the November sun. But November's true hour is not in the break of day swathed in food or even the golden noon, but at twilight. Twilight, redolent of potato tops, the cool gloom which reaches out coldly for you, the thieving darkness, flickering with the light of someone's far-off fire. Homewards, homewards! How pretty are the walls, the lamp, the armchair and the books! You only really notice the glory and perfection of human dwellings in these long hours of darkness--how they glow! 1


     But there are such short days; another of autumn's gifts. The darkness comes on so quickly that you don't even notice it at first, and then you are already planted in it as in some dampening, thick matter, in which everything slows down, even time itself. People even start to live and speak more slowly; they do not think about exploiting advantages, pulling off any quick schemes or getting up to things behind anyone's back. They rest as though fettered, and the things they say to each other are somehow more private and softer than those they speak under the influence of the sun. I think that even if murderers and traitors were inside like this that they would be similarly enlightened. Devilish notions are just the sort that come up if people withdraw from the light into darkness to conceal themselves. But this darkness is not a mask behind which anyone can hide, but like a moss which grows over him. It is, if I may say so, the moss of timelessness, for timelessness is dark. It is for just this reason that people talk about serious and private matters at times like these. I think that the council of ministers should keep hours from time to time; they should assemble in the growing dark, lit only by the burning tips of a few cigars. One minister after the other would fall into a quiet melancholy. "Boys," the prime minister might softly say, "I've had it up to here with this politicking. You know, if we stopped lying once in a while and just said what we really wanted..." "Yes indeed," someone else might sigh, "I sometimes feel like governing is a hell of a responsibility. It weighs a person down. If only it just...worked without all these machinations and contrivances...if only people were more transparent..."

     "I think so too!" a third would say.

     "What we could accomplish if we all believed in each other!"

     "Yeah," a fifth would say, "but politics is such rubbish. If we just only thought more about our huge responsibility and less about politics..."

     "So," the prime minister would ask, "can I turn on the lights yet?"
"Not yet--we're doing such a good job!"



     It can truly drive a man crazy when a coal cart goes rattling down the street. Nothing clangs and rattles so terribly as coal; perhaps they have made it out of some sort of especially resonant wood, like primitive drums.2 Half of our municipal psychoses must certainly have their origin in a rattling coal cart. The pedestrian regards the coachman with a murderous hate without the slightest bit of effect, and the two stiffs up above jouncing along on the pile of coal, and looks to escape this clanking beast either ahead of it or behind it or around the corner (of course in vain), for wherever he may turn, he finds himself in the active radius of at least one coal cart with its coachman and helpers.
     This wild hatred of the city dweller vanishes in a trice, however, when he comes upon a coal wagon in the winter. Then and only then does it seem to rattle triumphantly, and clang righteously, boasting of its fully-laden nature--even the shovelers leap about somehow solemnly, as though the crushing din exhilarated them. And then the cart stands before your gates, the horses stuff their noses into the bags of oats, and exhale deeply, the two stiffs climb down and set up their lunch pails on the softened sacking, and the coachman spits magisterially and unloads coal with a wide, ringing shovel, and the coal is already rattling and drumming down into the cellar, the coal dust rising as though from a mine, and thank goodness is there ever a lot of it, that will do for me until spring, and that is coal for you, sir, black and shiny as pitch.
     But if you went out tomorrow and saw one on the street, you stare at that rattling coal cart with murderous hate; you'd flee before it, seething and spitting, that people suffered such a clangor on the streets! They should just ban them and be done with it!



1The Czech word for "they glow," září, is the same for the month of September, and etymologically created. It is my assumption that the coincidence is intentional. (Czech months are based on old Slavic etyma instead of being borrowings of the Roman months)
2 Čapek has an adjective here which is probably directly translated as "Negro (drums);" I'm cautious enough to bowdlerize it a bit but literalist enough to need to footnote it.