Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Stars in the Balance   5 comments

On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.

I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.

If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.

For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.

An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.


Them! Them!   Leave a comment

It happens late in any summer during which the Arizona monsoon is at all generous with rain. They rise.

The past week or so has been just that, generous, with a significant portion of the summer’s rains falling in recent days. Every morning, out for the walk, I’ve been treated to cool, moist air, amazing cloudscapes and sunrises, and suburban wildlife brought out and active by the abundance of that scarcest of desert resources – rain. This morning, after an unusual day and night of long and steady rains, there was something more than the war between hawks and mockingbirds going on in the air. I set out for the morning walk in a world dripping wet, cool and muggy, and swarming with huge, winged ants. They were literally everywhere, some flying aimlessly in wide spirals up and through the moist air, others flying with clear purpose toward some unseen destination. I looked up to follow their trajectories, and saw thousands more in the air, with brooding thunderheads as a backdrop. The sun was already up, and rays of pale light lanced through the clouds to the east, lighting the bellies of the clouds overhead. Against a sky of black and gray, white and fire, the harvester ants swarmed. There were so many winging through the calm morning that breathing through the mouth was not recommended, as at least one runner I saw learned the hard way.

The ants must have emerged just before I started walking. The gyres of ants I expected to see had not yet pulled together. Here and there a whirling sphere of winged ants drifted over the curb, but it was a good twenty minutes before I saw the expected towering columns of airborne ants spinning like an animation of whirling molecules gone mad. When they finally pulled together, it seemed suddenly the air was cleared of ants. No more aimless wanderers filling the air at random. The main event was under way, the reason they were flying in the first place. The time had come for the males and females of the species to seek each out and mate, which they do in spinning orgies of ants that rise in narrow columns fifteen and twenty feet tall. The bottoms of the gyres are usually five or six feet off the ground and the columns change shape as the ants whirl and dance on wings in search of just the right partner. The ground underneath each gyre is soon littered with pairs of ants that have found what they sought.

Birds, bats, and dragonflies attend the gyres. The winged ants are apparently stingless, and good eating. They take a huge risk, forming these towering gyres whirling in the still air. Some pay the ultimate price for taking this chance, and are recycled into other creatures that share this desert suburb. But not all will be eaten, and new colonies of harvester ants will be founded by these frantic, airborne pairings. Some of the colonies will escape the ire of gardeners, tired of their plants stripped by ants in need of food for their fungus gardens, cultivated deep underground. And next summer, monsoon willing, the gyres will rise high into the muggy air on a morning that smells of yesterday’s rain.

Posted August 23, 2012 by underdesertstars in Nature

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