It was The Night of the Javelina. Earlier, my wife and I, along with our Lab mix, Jersey Girl, had hiked along the Juan Bautista de Anza trail north of Tumacacori. By 10p.m. we were ready to call it quits for the day. The high temperatures had continued into the evening, so we left a window open. A few hours later, my wife jolted upright. Something was fighting in our fenced-in back yard. Flashlights quickly illuminated six javelina, ranging in size from next-to-nothing to mom and pop.
They had had no problem pushing through the wire that keeps Jersey safe and close to home. It soon appeared that they found their way out as easily as they had found their way in, but I went outside to make sure. I wanted to confirm that when we let Jersey out in the morning she wouldn’t be met by anything that didn’t belong on her turf.
I did my tour, convinced that all had moved along. And then, because it’s become habit, I looked at the sky. It was moonless and clear, with a bright Milky Way that made me forget why I’d gotten out of bed in the first place.
You’ve got to wait for darkness to really settle in to truly see the magnificence of the Milky Way. What we gaze at is but one arm of our spiral galaxy.
In the early part of January at around midnight, that lustrous haze containing countless stars will run nearly north/south and will not contend with the light of a full moon.
If one could follow it far, far beyond the northern horizon, the center of our galaxy would be the reward. And, if you were magically able to travel there, you’d find an enormous black hole swallowing stars – and everything else – that continuously succumb to its gravity.
Rather than exceed our reach, or our grasp, let’s focus on what we can see with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars. Follow the glow from the south and look just a bit to the west and you find the sky’s brightest star, Sirius. Further north, and still to the west is Betelgeuse, one of the signature stars of Orion, the Hunter. On the other side of the Milky Way’s arm, the feet of Gemini give clues to finding its primary stars, Castor and Pollux. Then, return to the path, sliding again northward. To the west is the red giant, Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus, the Bull.
At this point, we’re about halfway through the tour. Continuing north you’ll find the magnificent Capella, the third brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere. It is the alpha, or lead star of Auriga, the Charioteer. Off to the west is the beautiful open star cluster, the Pleiades. One could easily spend hours admiring these Seven Sisters, but pulling us back along the Milky Way’s path is perhaps the most wondrous double cluster of stars, falling within the constellation Perseus. If you do force yourself away from that sight and drift north and west, you’ll be able to see, as I did on the night the javelinas paid us a visit, a fuzzy patch that is our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. It dwarfs the Milky Way with, perhaps, one trillion stars. If you spot it, you are seeing light that has been on the move for over 2.5 million years. Finally, from Andromeda look east and the famous “W” of Cassiopeia, the Queen, completes the journey.
It’s tricky to go from all of that to the bleak remnants of the broccoli plant that seems to have been the object of all the commotion from the javelinas. But it’s a reminder that we can’t afford to completely lose ourselves in the sky when there remains so much to see and do and take care of right here on the ground.
All in all, though, it worked out. The javelinas had a good meal and I, by happenstance, spent a few special minutes in awe once again of the lights in the sky. The animals had their fill, and I had mine.