An Intimate Look at the Night Sky by Chet Raymo
Reviewed by Kate Magargal
When I first held this book in my hands, it immediately struck me as an object heavy for its size. Perhaps it was the week long ordeal of obtaining the book that caused it to distort according to my senses. I was to receive it in the mail; however, the new delivery person for our rural area delivered the original shipment somewhere else. His predecessor, who was familiar with all the nooks and crannies and common misaddressings of this tiny rural community, recently retired after 30 years of service. The book was resent and arrived about a week later. Interestingly, the same quality that causes mail delivery idiosyncrasies in this area also creates a perfect environment for using this book to its fullest. That is to say, here, in rural southern Utah, there isn’t much development—or light pollution.
The physical qualities of the book set up a question and an expectation in my mind: I hoped this volume would provide some new insight, some wealth of knowledge congruent with its perceived heft. I have spent many nights out under the stars and for many reasons. I have lived many of life’s tribulations in conjunction with gazing at the seemingly infinite wonders of the visible universe. Fear, loneliness, love, longing, perseverance all come to mind when I think of the starry canopy. As a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania, I developed a sense of purpose about going out into the night. Armed with a new telescope (the 6” Maksutov-Cassegrain I still use), I introduced many friends to simple stargazing. I loaded the telescope into the trunk of mom’s hatchback and drove out of town and into the woods, often settling on a pier at the edge of a manmade lake about a half hour away. The break in the trees and the lack of artificial light made this new magical world one of necessity for me. On the car tape deck, I played litany of 90s alternative rock seeking songs with tenuous astronomical connections, and gazed at the universe beyond. It took me a long time to figure out how to operate the telescope, but all those nights, alone or with someone, formed a seminal experience. I went on to study Astronomy in university. After working for a research astronomer for three years, I decided against a research career in the field. The irony was that professional astronomers generally do not spend time out under the stars; instead, they analyze data for hours and hours in front of computers. Mine was an outdoor desire – I wanted to develop the experience, not the science. After obtaining a degree in Anthropology with an emphasis on humans’ connection with the night sky, I went to work as a park ranger for the National Park Service, which is what originally brought me to southern Utah. I was hired because of my specialized knowledge and went on to introduce the unencumbered southern Utah night sky to thousands of park visitors. My resume and enthusiasm led to a job documenting the quality of the night sky throughout many parks. I traveled extensively throughout the contiguous US, climbing mountains and finding dark, lonely refuges amongst the magnificent landscapes of this country. There was nothing quite like how the stars speak to me from a bowl of slick-rock, or from the deserts in and around Capitol Reef. Eventually, I returned here, to south-central Utah, where I continue my examination of these strange nighttime companions. Life continuously occurs, with all its ups and downs, as I spend many nights with the familiar figures of constellations. I take comfort in what has become a lifelong pondering of what stars mean to me as a sentient being on this planet, as a member of a stargazing species, and as an emotional creature.
“What,” I wondered, “could this book add to my experience?” I considered that Mr. Raymo must also have his own personal history with the star filled sky. He must have his own experiences to share, to assist others in building “an intimate” acquaintance with the night above us. I let the book sit on the kitchen table for a day to let the dust of these implications settle in my mind before diving in.
Raymo begins the book with an elegant introduction and establishes himself as a skilled teacher and interpreter. I want to memorize the whole introduction and recite it back to urban people who have never seen the Milky Way. The book continues in a logical, yet unique format: he divides the book into the four seasons, each season containing three star maps of different parts of the sky and three multi-page narratives, expounding on scientific astronomical topics using anecdotes from history, literature, and Raymo’s own life.
The star charts come in two parts, one describing “What to see” followed by “What to imagine,” both in narrative format. I don’t see much distinction between the content under these two headings. The paragraphs of these paired pages are dotted with descriptions of the locations of constellations and astronomical objects. The star charts themselves focus on the major constellations and, I think, leave something to be desired. Anyone wanting to learn the sky will want to supplement with a full sky star chart in order to get a better sense of how everything is placed relative to everything else. Also, the design used in the charts does not lend itself to use outside at night. Even if you dare turn on a white light and compromise your night vision, the glossy pages would be hard to read with a flashlight. These sections would be most useful to people who already have a basic knowledge of the main constellations and can visualize them while using this book to learn more about nomenclature, Raymo’s experiences, and his advice as an experienced sky watcher.
The real substance of this book is found in its essays with names like, “Fusion: How Stars Burn.” To look at this title, one might think we are about to receive a lecture, perhaps a boring one, on stellar physics. What we find instead is a collection of poetic excerpts, an entertaining story from history, and musings from Raymo’s own experience, all dancing with the title topic. The reader is left swimming in an enjoyable soup of brain candy, ultimately walking away with, yes, a little more knowledge on stellar fusion. These essays are fun reads with lots of information, but of a digestible size for ruminating while you spend a few minutes inside warming up with a cup of hot cocoa while spending a night stargazing in the back-yard.
For me, An Intimate Look at the Night Sky adds a depth of knowledge to the endeavor of enjoying starry nights, making numerous connections with familiar and obscure human characters. Raymo’s writing style is easy to absorb and leaves me recalling many pieces of his narrative as if they were parts of a conversation. Novice and expert stargazers will both find value in this book, although someone without much stargazing background will need other material to actually learn the sky.
But what does this book contribute, not just to my experience, but to that of readers everywhere? Raymo acknowledges that most people reading this book may find it difficult to get the kind of sensational experiences with stars he talks about. Perhaps the most poignant information gained from Raymo is what lies between the lines he writes – that unencumbered views of the night sky are essential to us humans. Throughout the book, he mentions several objects that require a dark sky to see. These subtle recognitions of the overall state of stargazing led me to consider, as I often do, how fortunate we all are to still have some places where our view of the universe is uninhibited by a haze of light and pollution. I hope readers of this book will tap into the inspiration found within and use it to seek out dark skies, or better yet, help to restore them at home.
An interpretive ranger for Capitol Reef National Park. Kate Magargal introduces visitors the wonders of the park’s dark and starry night skies. She is founder of the Colorado Plateau Chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and the Heritage Starfest, a local celebration of the night skies in Wayne County, Utah.