When a city dweller is placed in a location where the night sky so easily reveals itself; there is a change to pause, look up, and wonder anew.
A Zenith Star is the point on this celestial sphere directly above an observer. Zenith stars have been used for eons by explorers to way-find their way around this globe; something simply mathematical and quite amazing altogether - that by looking up, you can find your way forward. I've been thinking about this the past couple of days.
This week, our family, all four of us, are taking some time away from the constant onward rush of life to rest and vacation. And we find ourselves again in the Hawaiian Islands, which our youngest daughter refers to as "Dad's happy place". And so it is. I am very happy, thankful and grateful.
Part of my gratitude is expressed by taking the time each evening to walk outside, and simply take in the wonder of the night sky. To pause and consider my nearly infinitesimal smallness in the scope of the universe.
The Zenith Star of the Hawai'ian Islands is the star Arcturus, which is known by the Hawaiian name Hokule'a. Hokule'a is also known as the "Star of Gladness" or "Star of Joy" in Hawaii and Polynesia. This star is 36.7 million light years away from Earth, which I have learned, is not that far in terms of celestial measurement. Hokule'a is also one of the brightest stars in the night sky; a good star to find your way by.
For Hawaii, Arcturus moves along a circle which passes directly overhead, through the zenith, once every twenty-four hours. Traditional ancient way-finders use the rising and setting of the stars to navigate across the open ocean without compasses or other modern equipment; in effect, steering by the stars. And as we'll learn, this is still happening even today.
How quaint, how ancient, how outmoded.
The Modern Dilemma
But we modern folk, what need have we of the stars? We have smartphones in our pockets that contain thousands of times the computing power that found the way of the Apollo lander on the moon. We have modern science, world-renowned universities, medicine, and the self help book section of Amazon. Certainly now, stars are of little use to us, other than to gaze at on vacation, and perhaps have a brief moment of existential wonder and then, back indoors.
And yet, life happens to us, and oftentimes it hurts beyond measure, and bewilders us. We are left entirely without answers. Friendships dissolve for reasons that make no sense. We loose our jobs, and wonder what in the world will happen next. Wars rage, with no end in sight. A frightening diagnosis comes in a call from the doctor, and we cannot see the way forward through our fear. Children, the most undeserving and innocent of all, become sick, or are abused or abandoned - and it makes absolutely no sense. We feel rage, often at God.
Jackson Browne once wrote in a song "The Night Inside Me":
I used to lay out in a field under the Milky Way
With everything that I was feeling that I could not say
With every doubt and every sorrow that was in my way
Tearing around inside my head like it was there to stayWith all that seems to give life order, often things do not work out in order at all. It makes no sense.
As it turns out, there is a boat named after that star. Hokule'a is a twin hulled ocean going canoe, built by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. For many years now, Hokule'a has been navigating the oceans of the world, showing us all that wayfinding is a remarkable achievement.
The amazing voyages of the Hokule'a are undertaken without modern navigational equipment such as GPS devices, and even without compasses: ancient traditional navigation techniques are employed instead. In a remarkable book entitled The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, author and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis describes in compelling prose the techniques used on these journeys:
Enshrouded by the night, the canoe itself became the needle of a compass that was the sky. Behind us sat the navigator, a young woman named Ka'iulani, Nainoa's protege. She would remain awake for twenty-two hours a day for the entire voyage, sleeping only for fleeting moments when the mind demanded a rest.
Ka'iulani, like her mentor Nainoa and all of the experienced crew, could name and follow some 220 stars in the night sky. She knew and could track all the constellations, Scorpio and the Southern Cross, Orion, the Pleiades and the North Star, Polaris.
More than 20 centuries ago, it seems the Polynesians knew more than we do. They had committed the patterns and rhythms of the night sky to memory - they had taken the sky into their heads and hearts - and by this found their way across an ocean to a new future. They looked up and found their way forward. Simple, yet elegant; plain yet stunning in its geographic reach. A guiding star - what a concept.
In the ancient, we find something of great use to use to moderns. Just look up; for guidance, but also for wisdom, for courage, hope, and for gladness and joy.
And so, we have come more than 2,300 miles to this lovely, sublime tropical spot in the middle of the Pacific. Almost mysteriously, we arrived here at jet speed, by GPS guidance and world-wide communications systems, on board the most modern of aircraft. We will go home the same way, all that distance in a matter of hours. It never ceases to amaze me.
But this time, on the way home, I'll look out of the window at the sea below, and remember Hokule'a the star and the boat. I'll also remember the Maker of all the stars in the Universe, set so beautifully in order above us all.
If only we might look up, we can make our way forward.