Season of the Dipper

Richard Weber, The Hays Daily News contributor
Richard Weber

The English know it as Charles’ Wain, or the Plough, the French call it the Saucepan, and people elsewhere see it as either a bear, a wagon, a chariot, or a ladle.   In our country it is universally known as the Big Dipper.

          The Dipper is part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, a circumpolar constellation that never sets in our latitude.  Once a year it moves in a counterclockwise circle around the North Star, changing its position from one season to the next. 

          By March the Dipper appears high in the northeast after sunset, moving toward its apex over the pole.  For the next several months its seven bright stars will dominate the northern sky. Spring is the season of the Dipper.

          The Big Dipper and I are old friends.  It was in the springtime when we first became acquainted.

          It all started in fifth grade with a lesson on the constellations, and that led me to a charming little book in the school library called “A Dipper Full Stars” by Lou Williams.  From there I began my own exploration of the night sky and the Dipper was one of the first constellations I recognized.  Thus began a lifelong adventure in enchantment.   

          The bowl of the Dipper contains only about a half dozen stars visible to the naked eye.  But with the telescope astronomers have found more a million galaxies inside the bowl of the Dipper, and each galaxy has an average of 100 billion stars.

          So, the title of William’s book turned out to be more fitting than he knew—the Dipper is really quite full of stars.  

          The history of civilization is written in the stars, from mythology to modern science.  Old mythical figures continue to populate the night sky and many stars still carry the names given to them by ancient Arab stargazers, including the seven stars of the Dipper. 

          They tell another tale of “Arabian Nights”, of a desert people living in a land of enchantment, far away land long ago, who like us looked at the stars in awe and wonder.  

          In a story by the Iroquois Indians, the bowl of our Dipper represented a bear and the three stars in the handle were Indians chasing the bear. The hunt lasted all year, and when the chase led them down to earth in the fall the bear was wounded by the first Indian and his blood spilled over the land coloring the trees.

          Before you dismiss this tale as mere fiction, think of the keen observations that lie within it.  The Indians knew that the bowl of the Dipper moved in a counterclockwise direction around the pole followed by three stars in the handle, and they knew that it always appeared close to the horizon in the fall.  They read the stars like a calendar.  How many of us today could do that? 

          Someone once said that stargazing is not exactly a hobby, it’s more like an ongoing curiosity.  It takes you on a journey of exploration into the world of history, culture, mythology and science. 

          But curiosity is not the only impulse that lures me ever into the night. or even the most important one.  It’s the sheer overwhelming presence of the stars, their breathtaking beauty, their reassuring continuity, and that pleasant sense of familiarity that keeps me coming back.      

           I put my hope on the constancy of the stars.  Here below we live by the vagaries of the weather, but up in the sky the Dipper is rounding the curve and moving steadily toward spring. 

Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.  Reach him at rweber@gbta.net