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“Nature in the Little Finger Lakes” by Angela Cannon Crothers

Winter Solstice

By Angela Cannon Crothers

December 2014

This tilt back, this circling round, this darkness; this season inspires us to see the greater beauty by both looking inward and gazing above. Here, in the Little Finger Lakes Region, we are blessed with a night sky that isn’t obscured by urban glow; we can see heaven’s lights on any clear night. The cosmos has a lot to teach us - for instance, maybe a comet is more than ice and rock zooming through space. Last month’s Rosetta Mission landing on a relatively nearby comet has astrophysicists and geologists searching for answers to some of life’s greatest mysteries: Are comets responsible for having brought water to Earth? And even more intriguing, are comets what brought the essential elements and compounds necessary for all life, the hydrogen and nitrogen, to Earth? Stars might be the birtplace of planets, but as we know, not every planet is the birthplace for life miraculous.

The circumpolar night sky is the stuff of legend and lore. Orion, The Hunter, rules our winter sky. This winter constellation is seen in the southern sky as a huge rectangle of four stars with a three-starred belt. Orion’s right shoulder is the star Betelgeuse, a Red Giant near the end of its life. His left foot is the blue star, Rigal, thought to be nearly done fusing its heavy elements and either about to collapse into itself in a supernova or dim into a White Giant.

North American indigenous people had their own interpretations of the night sky. The belt and sword of Orion were two canoes racing for a prized salmon, never to be caught, that sent the seasons from winter to summer and back again. In another legend, the north star, Polaris, was a Mountain Goat who climbed so high up the precipice of a mountain and became stuck there. Great Spirit took the brave goat to live with him in the heavens. The Big Dipper was The Great Bear that three hunters followed from fall to spring. Some looked to the night sky and saw each star as the possible campfire of ancestors who watched over them, waiting to guide them home.

Looking to the stars we can see our connection to everything here on our planet and beyond. All the elemental stuff of life here on Earth came from outer space - from the stars with their gases and light, and possibly even from the ice and rock of comets. What is here on Earth has always been a part of a bigger whole and always will be. We are connected to one another, to life and the universe, through matter and time.

Renowned astrophysicist and astronomer, Carl Sagan, said simply “we are star-stuff”.

Witnessing the night sky with its mysterious stars, or its Shiva-like comets, reminds us that no matter what we do, and no matter who we are, what religion we practice, or the many ways in which we think, each and every one of us is connected to something far greater than ourselves.

Editor’s Note: Angela Cannon Crothers is a naturalist and writer who teaches at Finger Lakes Community College and with The Finger Lakes Museum. Here are some columns that she has written about the Little Finger Lakes. Her columns also appear in the Lake Country Weekender newspaper.

Visit Angela’s website at: Angela Cannon Crothers

Read the Lake Country Weekender at: Lake Country Weekender