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January 13, 2006

O'Brien the Hunter

One of my 7-year-old son’s Christmas presents was a Star Theater home planetarium, and he anxiously awaited the first night we could set it up after his sisters went to sleep. He wanted to start learning about stars, planets, and constellations, and he studied the star chart while I set the machine up on his bedroom floor.

Unfortunately, the toy was a total lemon.

The lamp’s fuse kept shorting out on us, and the star images projected on the ceiling were grainy and generally indecipherable. We spent 45 frustrating minutes trying to reinforce the circuit, and attempting to discern particular stars from fuzzy images during the brief moments when the bulb was lit correctly.

Finally I said, “You know what? This thing stinks. We can do way better.”

And with that, we put on slippers, walked outside and sat down in our driveway.

We gazed at the winter night sky, and I pointed out the constellation Orion. My son knew about the celestial hunter, whom he kept calling “O’Brien” (I can’t criticize him too much there…his poor name recollection is an inherited trait from me). But he didn’t know the story of the hunter in the sky, and he listened intently while I told him various theories about how Orion came to be fixated in the heavens.

There are several stories about Orion and his downfall. He was a hunter of tremendous skill and strength. He is accompanied in the sky by his hunting dog, Sirius, and surrounded by such prey as Lepus (the hare) and Taurus (the bull).

Common legends have him killed by the sting of a scorpion sent by the gods, although Orion managed to kill the scorpion in battle before dying. The two adversaries are fixed for eternity on opposite sides of the night sky. One rises as the other sets, so they never have to face each other again.

Another tale tells of Orion’s love affair with Artemis, the moon goddess. Artemis was preoccupied with the hunter, and became forgetful in illuminating the night. Her brother Apollo tricked Artemis into killing Orion. Artemis was so anguished that she placed Orion in the sky, and even on nights when the moon shines most brilliantly, it never obscures the sight of the hunter she loved.

In addition to being the largest and most distinguishable constellation, Orion contains some of the most striking stars visible to the naked eye. At his right shoulder is Betelgeuse, a red giant so large that it could fully contain the orbit of Venus around our sun. The star Rigel, at Orion's left knee, is among the brightest in the sky on any given night.

The Orion Nebula, the nearest region of star formation to our Earth, makes the hunter’s sword. It’s gas and dust clouds are constantly examined for hints as to the origin of celestial bodies, and by extension, life on Earth.

Sitting in our driveway, I only mentioned these points in passing, not expecting my son to retain much of the information. My only goal was to give him a sense, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “that there are more things in heaven and earth than in all your dreams.”

I love running under the stars. I always feel humbled by my insignificance in the universe. Knowing the tales of the pictographs overhead, I feel myself in the presence of those characters, and sometimes I sense that they accompany me on my early morning adventures.

Orion would probably love to run with me through the forest on a moonlit early morning, keeping a watchful eye for whatever creatures happen to cross our path. He’d be especially glad to know there are no poisonous scorpions in this area, but an awful lot of rabbits.

As it is, he only watches my pursuits from afar, but he is a constant presence during the winter. Most of my training runs are solo, so in a way, Orion is my most frequent companion as I run mile after mile in the darkness of December through February.

Is it strange for me to feel a connection to a group of stars? It’s really a childlike notion – probably similar to what my son felt after sitting in the driveway with me.

When he went to bed that night, he had a favorite constellation. He'll remember how to say the name soon enough. And now he has a point of reference from which he can later learn about the all the other pictures and stories in the sky.

He’s starting to sense the magnitude of heaven and earth, and develop a sense of wonder about the beauty of creation.

When I woke the next morning, and went running under the stars, I couldn’t help but feel the exact same way.


Jon in Michigan 1/15/06, 7:12 PM  

“that there are more things in heaven and earth than in all your dreams.”

In the movie "LA Story" with Steve Martin, they quoted alot of Shakespear. This one line was twisted a bit and read “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I always liked that quote and wondered where it came from.

When I was young, my bedroom window faced north, and (I think)during the summer I could look out and see the big dipper. It was kinda funny to look up and see it now years later, because it always made me think of being young, and how the stars are so old and will still be there long after I'm gone.

stronger 1/16/06, 1:48 PM  

And maybe every time he recognizes the Orian constellation he will remember the time spent in the driveway with his dad.

jeff 1/18/06, 9:09 AM  

that's my favorite constelation. i printed this out for my wife to read, too. that's going to be an awesome memory that will stick with your son.

what a groovy dad you are, with all your stars and pancakes on weekends!

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