Monday, February 21, 2011

The Hunter & The Moon

 I am outside this evening [02/19] not for Orion but for the moon. But as I stand in the cold and damp night air, it is Orion over my right shoulder that commands my attention. I didn't expect it to be quite this clear but the air is apparently washed clean by a recent cold front. There, above the pines that line our driveway, Orion hangs motionless and brilliant.

 "I rode home at 11:30 tonight, forcing great gulps of frosty air into my lungs, looking up at the stars, up behind the black bare trees, and gasping at Orion. How long, how long since I noticed stars; no longer, now, mere inane pinpricks on a smothering sky of  cheap cloth - but symbols, islands of light, soft, mysterious, hard cold ..." Sylvia Plath - Journal

 Look even at the Orion Nebula, the midpoint of the three vertical "stars" at the bottom of the image. It is clearly seen with no more than a camera on such a night as this. And yet my eyes do not see it, see only the shape of the constellation, the four brilliant corner stars that frame the belt.

 From my spot here in front of the chimney (I'm using the house itself as a windbreak), Orion fairly commands the sky. For this shot I purposely included an edge of Pinehaven for perspective, for scale. That's my bedroom window.
 Betelgeuse, that red giant at the upper left, if perhaps no longer a star at all. It's 640 light years away (or so the most recent estimates say) so if it blew itself to smithereens - went supernova - we'd not yet know about it if it happened any time since 1371. Columbus wouldn't set sail on that "ocean blue" for another 121 years.
 There, too, nestled among the branches of a pine (left), I can see Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest object in the night sky. It is just about to emerge into full view.
 But I'm not really out here for Orion ... I'm here for the moon. I've calculated where it will rise (94°) and when (8:22 p.m.) and so I have my tripod set up, camera's setting made and I am waiting for the first glimpse.
 At the appointed time there is ... nothing. A few minutes more and the glow of the top of the moon begins to affect the distant horizon. It is lined with trees - an actual fence row between two fields - and probably half a mile distant.
 As the moon rises behind the trees, I'm taking pictures but I'm not happy with any of them. It is only when the moon begins to clear the trees that the picture becomes the one I'm looking for:

 I am focused (manually) on infinity because the trees and the moon are both distant. I have played with a few shutter speeds and apertures (I'm running the camera in manual mode) and find this setting best approximates what I am viewing ... an orange moon, a newly minted golden coin, inching up from the cut corn field.
 The trees seem to reach for the moon in this eerie shot.
 The moon is a day past full and is no longer circular. It is flattened by both the light falling upon it and by its proximity to the horizon. The depth of the atmosphere gives the moon a softer focus; and the trees, enveloped in the night, are lit by the moon itself and no more. They lose definition by the subtle back-lighting.
 I can imagine a coyote sitting there, baying and howling at this bright apparition. I feel a little of that same inclination myself.