Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hilltown stargazers

Except for maybe identifying fingerprints, reading the small type on an insurance policy or dotting the i’s on, say, a peace accord, taking a step back and looking at the big picture guarantees a reward in perspective.

That’s why, despite war, calamity and humanity’s chronic propensity for high crimes of creative absurdity, John Davis, 73, has been able to keep his chin up. Literally. He’s an amateur astronomer. Ever since that boyhood evening when he gazed through the lens of a sea captains' telescope and saw the craters of the moon, he’s been engaged in astronomical rubber necking. It keeps him sane.

And here he is, last Saturday night, blowing heat into his hands, in the middle of a baseball field, in the middle of the night, in Windsor Town Park. He’s one of many amateur astronomers who, on clear nights, flees like a refugee from the gazillion light bulbs of the lowlands — of Pittsfield or Holyoke or Springfieldor North Adams. All those bulbs, all that Edison-inspired incandescence, that, from space, must resemble a tangle of monochromatic Christmas lights knotted up in the shrubbery of the continents. Those lights also block the night sky from view. Light pollution, they call it.

So it’s to these little hidden hill towns northeast of Pittsfield — Windsor, Cummington, Savoy — they trek. Towns that afford what stargazers call the darkest skies in Massachusetts. The darker the skies, the more stars and planets you can see.

“Oh, this is a neat place to view the stars,” says John, who lives behind a Wal-Mart in Northampton.

“You gotta go where the dark skies are,” says Dan Carnavale, who drives all the way from Enfield, ConnOn Saturday night, both John and Dan, serve as impromptu tour guides to the stars, sharing their telescopes with the couple dozen people who pull into the field, their car lights dimmed, trying to catch a glimpse of unfathomably faraway objects. People, like Rob and Michele Provencher of Hinsdale, who’ve just gotten into astronomy.

“Actually, you know what happened?” says Rob. “I work over in Schenectady, second shift. And me and another guy would be driving home, probably about midnight, and every night I’d see these three bright stars. I said, ‘Damn it! I’m going to find out what those stars are!’ What they are is Orion’s Belt.” The couple bought a telescope last week.

Rob and everyone else are mere black silhouettes. It’s very dark out.

“Oh, the Milky Way is much clearer now,” says John, his eye up to the lens of his big bazooka telescope, his fingers adjusting knobs. John, is what you call a star hopper. That means that by using the brighter stars in the sky as his guide — no charts, no global-positioning systems — he’s able to nudge his telescope along to find the trail to more distant objects (“showpiece objects,” he calls them) like the Vail Nebula.

“It’s banana shaped. You’ll see,” he says. “It’s the remnants of an exploded star. Look. See? What you’re looking at is a shock wave from this colossal explosion …”

I can’t tell you what John Davis looks like because — really — it was very dark. I imagined him looking like George Burns. Kind and curatorial. Firmly grounded even as his mind is made eccentric by the gravitational perturbations from other planets. What he knows for certain is that the universe is huge and old and that it continues to expand and that humility is the only sane response to it.

I can also tell you that he’s a former textbook salesman. And his hands shake with age as they sift through telescopic lenses from his hard-shell, Samsonite suitcase. The suitcase sits atop a fold-out card table beside his car. I can also tell you that his wife, Ruth, is home right now, warm, with a blanket, watching “Catch Me If You Can” on Channel  40.

She puts up with his hobby, he says, as he sits back on a tilted metal chair, on a tilted town park, on a tilted planet.

“This is all mind boggling and wonderful,” he says of the night sky. Just then, a meteor etch-a-sketches across the Milky Way. Probably a Taurid, he says. Probably the offspring of Comet Encke. “There’s so many things to be seen,” he says. “Like Deneb, a blazing, super powerhouse of a super, giant, brilliant, white-hot star.”

It’s about 9 p.m. Everyone’s gone from the field except Dan and John. Both sit like Thinker statues, eyes trained on their telescopes and their telescopes trained on the big picture. And the big picture twinkles with a million mysteries, or maybe it winks knowingly.

Circus town is born

Back before technology overloaded our senses and blunted our abilities to be amazed – back before Bruce Willis and stunt doubles – there was the human cannonball. Helmeted, probably hard of hearing, and lacking the luxury of a re-take, the human cannonball still lives – retro like G.I. Joe, but very real.

You can see her today at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro, as the Dalton Lions Club hosts the Cole Bros. Circus for the second day of a two-day stand. Show times are 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Leave behind the world of digitized perfection and behold:

How the circus can sometimes be as star-spangled and heroic as a moon landing.