Want to go to the show with me tonight? Don’t worry about changing clothes. Or buying tickets. Or parking. Just pray for a cloudless sky because the show’s in our backyard.
Above the backyard, actually. Rain or shine, the pageant goes on every night. The stage is the night sky and the cast is 200 billion strong (trust me — don’t try to count them) — and every one of them a star. Literally.
In any case, you can only make out about 1,400 of the players with the naked eye, even on a good night. Buy a telescope and you can see a few million more — unless you live in a city. Ambient light from street lamps and headlights and McDonalds signs pretty much snuffs out the option of urban star gazing.
See the North Star there, just hanging off the handle of the Little Dipper? Actually you don’t. The North Star is about 430 light years away, which means the light you’re seeing was emitted about the time Shakespeare was waiting for the ink to dry on a scroll of parchment he called Romeo and Juliet.
Still, your grandfather gazed up at that same North Star at the same place in the sky that you’re looking right now. So did Galileo; so did countless generations of our nameless cave-dwelling and tree-roosting predecessors, all of them doubtless as bewitched as we are by the canopy of diamonds that unfurls each night.
It humbles me to realize that I have less knowledge of our starry skies than a Druid priest or a Mayan shaman or a Haida elder or even a 19th century Saskatchewan dirt farmer. Farmers used the shifting positions of the constellations to tell them when to reap and sow crops. Mariners used the stars — our first true GPS system — to cross vast tracts of uncharted ocean. Even most of the school kids from my parents’ generation knew the names of the major constellations at a glance. I wouldn’t know Orion’s Belt from the CBC Exploding Pizza logo.
They enchant us still, these stars and they are are a bottomless well of inspiration for our poets and painters, our songwriters and our filmmakers.
“Star” is the sweetest bouquet we can bestow on our terrestrial overachievers, be they ballerinas or banjo players; Hollywood Hunks or ‘Les Trois Etoiles’ of an NHL game.
Painters and poets — and sometimes both. Have you seen Van Gogh’s painting ‘de Sterrennacht’?
Probably. You’ve certainly heard Don McLean’s musical tribute to it:
Starry, starry night.
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.
Pain-wracked eyes of china blue.
Van Gogh painted de Sterrennacht through the bars of his window in the St. Remy sanatorium for the insane.
Star-crossed, you might say.
Here’s one penniless artist’s take on stars:
“Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
“Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
“Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
“To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.”
Vincent Van Gogh wrote that in a letter to his brother two years before he shot himself to death.
But first, he gave us Starry Night.