Dark Skies, Stargazing and Storytelling – Guest Blog

Below is a guest post, co-written with Soo Hammond of Top of The Woods, an eco luxury camping and glamping site in West Wales, where I run storytelling and astronomy evenings. This post was originally published on Top of the Woods’ website.

Dr Alice Courvoisier runs the Top of the Woods – Dark Sky Safari where she shares her life-long passion for the ancestral stories of the stars and the modern scientific discoveries the stars have inspired with our camping and glamping guests.

Pembrokeshire is one of the best stargazing places across the UK and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park boasts eight nationally recognised ‘Dark Sky Discovery Sites’.

At Top of the Woods campsite, there is low light pollution and you will on a clear night have the best chance to see and explore the dark skies for star constellations, the Milky Way or maybe something else!

Top of the Woods has also been named the best campsite for stargazing and one of the UK’s most loved campsites on the internet based on research by Just Kampers.

Camping under the stars. Top of the Woods image.

The Galaxy, stars and storytelling.

All the individual stars you can see at night belong to our galaxy.

When you look at them, you might be tempted to join the dots and form patterns and shapes. Various cultures have done exactly this and have populated the sky with stories of animals, people, and objects.

Most of the groups of stars, or constellations, we inherited in the West come from Ancient Greece. For example, if you look towards the southern horizon after sunset in the winter, you will see Orion the Hunter followed by his loyal dogs.

Orion the Hunter and his dogs. Image Copyright Bob Moler.

The constellation of Orion is recognisable by the three bright stars of his belt framed by a large rectangular shape. At the top left corner is the red supergiant Betelgeuse and at the bottom right is the blue-white supergiant Rigel. Stars do have different colours depending on their surface temperature.

One of Orion’s dog is the constellation of the Great Dog. It contains the brightest star of the night sky, Sirius, which lies 8.6 light-years away (so the light it emits takes over 8 years to reach us) and is a close companion of our Sun.

Can you find Orion in this picture ? A little clue, see if you can spot Orion’s belt!

The constellation of Orion. Image credit: Akira Fuji.

The constellations that we can see at sunset from a particular location depend on the season, and stars have been used as time keepers and seasonal markers. The Ancient Egyptians for example based their agricultural and ceremonial calendar on the yearly motion of Sirius in the sky.

Summer skies – The Milky Way

In the UK’s summer evening skies, we do not see Sirius nor Orion, but we get the best views of the Milky Way, the ribbon of light that stretches across the sky.

The Milky Way over Pentre Ifan, ancient burial chamber in North Pembrokeshire. Visit Pembrokeshire, Image Copyright

The Chinese call it ‘the Great River in the Sky’, but for the Greek, it represents the spilled milk of the goddess Hera. Down it flies the beautiful constellation of Cygnus, ‘the Swan’. Another Ancient Greek legend says it was Zeus the God of the Sky who disguised himself as flying swan, to win over the love of Leda, the Queen of Sparta and mother to Helen who sparked the Trojan War.

Artist’s conception of what Cygnus’ figure looks like, against the backdrop of stars that make up the constellation. Image Credit: Wendy Stenzel (first published on NASA Kepler website).

Some constellations are visible throughout the night and throughout the year, such as the Plough (part of the Great Bear) and the Little Bear at UK latitudes.

These constellations are close to the North Celestial Pole located by the North Star at the tip of the Little Bear’s tail. Using these stars for navigation, you can always find your bearings on a clear night.

Free to use, Image Copyright

Not just stars out there to see when you are camping!

Of course, there are other objects to be seen: planets; deep sky objects such as Andromeda’s galaxy (best viewed through binoculars); many star clusters; artificial satellites criss-crossing the sky; and, who knows, perhaps the occasional UFO.

The Moon could be there, ever changing and ever stunning, but its shine overpowers the light of many stars, so for stargazing, times when the moon is waning or in the few days following the New Moon are best.

Then in mid-August come the shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower, a treat to watch and an experience not to be missed!

Top of the Woods, Image Copyright

If you want to see the best stargazing and why everyone is talking about Top of the Woods, why not come and stay this year! – check out our availability here.

Don’t forget to book your Dark Sky Safari with Alice & let her share her love of the stars with you.

The Road to “Dancing the Red Moon”

Last May, I had the privilege to take part in the Starlight virtual residency (please use the dropdown menu to access speakers, participants and sketchbooks) organised by Mayes Creative. This blog relates part of my experience as well as the genesis of my final contribution “Dancing the Red Moon”, which you can listen to by clicking below.

Tales & Shapes · Dancing the Red Moon

During the residency, we had talks by visual artists engaging with physicists and with astronomical data, as well as talks on astronomy and archaeoastronomy. As a Pembrokeshire-based storyteller, I was particularly interested in the what astronomer Carolyn Kennett and writer Cheryl Straffon had to say regarding possible astronomical alignments of megalithic monuments of Cornwall and beyond.

One of the first activities was starhopping with the option to map a constellation in one’s local landscape. We looked at Cygnus, the Swan, flying down the whitish ribbon in the sky we call the Milky Way(*). Thinking where on the land I could journey, I was reminded that for various cultures, the Milky Way is the Great River in the sky. It is so in a Chinese myth, where the river separates two lovers, the Weaver Maid and the Cowherd. The Weaver Maid is associated with the star Vega in Lyra, the Harp; the Cowherd is Altair in Aquila, the Eagle; and somes stars of Cygnus, including its tail, Deneb, form the Great Ford in the sky that allows the lovers to meet once a year. Vega, Altair and Deneb form the ‘summer triangle’, a large isosceles triangle clearly visible at sunset over the summer months (I say more about it in episode 3 of my podcast). The river analogy led me to followed a stream close to where I live and to look for stones suitable placed to stand for the three stars of the summer triangle, this was the best I could find:

Land analogue of The Great River in the sky with the summer triangle stars as stones

I also experimented with recording a version of the Chinese tale alongside the music of the stream, gentle for the earthly river, more tumultuous for the Great River in the sky. The recording was made on my phone by moving near or away from the stream as I read the story, but I don’t think any edit would have made it blend better. This isn’t a polished piece however, and the storytelling can always improve.

Tales & Shapes, A Chinese star myth – experimental recording

Much of what we learned and saw was fascinating, not least astronomical images of nebula, and since I have a soft spot for black & white images, I fell in love with Melanie King’s black & white rendition of raw images from satellites or telescopes. I was however, after something closer, something more physical, more tangible, more embodied than bytes of data sent over space. I was after a relationship with the stars, a relationship with the moon, a relationship via the land and through my body(**). Hence my interest in archaeoastronomy, in the rythms understood through regular naked eye observations.

A late May full moon, a supermoon even as its orbit brought it close to the Earth, was happening during the residency and luckily we had clear skies. I first observed the near full moon rise over the fields at home, then I went to admire the full moon rise over Gors Fawr, a neolithic or bronze age stone circle, at the edge of bleak moorland on the southern foothills of the Preselis. The moon rose over the plain, orange and full, next to the orange light of a nearby farmhouse, but I could not access the feel of anything special. I wondered what the surrounding landscape was like in prehistoric times – trees? bogs? fields already?

Then I noticed Venus, the planet Venus just returning as “Evening Star” following her transit behind the sun, her superior conjunction. You can just about see her as a tiny bright dot, in the pinkish glow, above the lowest part of the Preseli ridge. (There is much to say about Venus, I made a small inroad in episode 4 of my podcast).

During the course of the residency, I spent more daytime getting a feel for the prehistoric landscape of the Preselis, looking for standing stones, sketching skylines and rocks – including the single standing stone left at Waun Mawn, the presumed original location of the Stonehenge blue stones. Below you can see: Pentre Ifan; the remaining standing stone of the Waun Mawr circle; Carn Ingli.

Then there was Melissa‘s provocation: “Design your own constellation, describe the planet you are standing on and design a stone circle or the like related to that constellation”.

A constellation; a stone circle; a ceremony to relate the two. I was hooked on the idea.

I began by imagining the Thunderbird, it would look a bit like the Swan and become visible at sunset at the begining of the rain season. It would be linked to rain and to fertility. The moon is also related to fertility and to water, so the moon had to be involved somehow, and the sea. The stone circle would be by the sea, on a planet with two darker moons, an orange one and a red one. For the ceremony, the red one would matter – in fact, the ceremony would be called “Dancing the Red Moon”.

Then there is Ursula K. Le Guin. Her masterpiece Always Coming Home, a skillful weave of anthropology and story introduces us to the culture of the Kesh people – a culture of the future on planet Earth, wise, gentle and complex, and without need for fancy technologies – is the most hopeful work I have read in recent year. The book contains a description of Kesh ceremonies, including their “Dancing the Moon”, which is very different, but an inspiration (in content and form) for the telling of “Dancing the Red Moon”, a ceremony I imagined happening on an eastern shore, somewhere. It had to be East, or its equivalent, as the signal to the start of the dance would be the full moon rising over the sea.

Then there was Carolyn and Cheryl’s talk with its brief mention of lunar standstills, which are part of an 18.6-year cycle, nearly a generation’s time. “Dancing the Red Moon”, I decided, would happen at the major lunar standstill and would be an opportunity for far away tribes to gather and exchange – news, stories, knowledge, goods, people. The Moon Dancers, young women in general though young men are not excluded if it is their calling, would dance through the night and receive visions to guide the people for the next cycle. The dance would happen on a sandy beach, this liminal space between land and water, just below the Old One’s Council, a stone circle built on a small grassland promontory by the shore. The backdrop would be forest, with its sacred Saana trees and magical groves, and mountains, including the sacred mountain, home – it is believed – to the Ancestors. The dance would end at moonset, and both moonrise and moonset would be framed within stone portals.

Moonset framed by the Setting Portal

To make this work, however, I had to understand the motion of the moon better. In an earth/moon-like system, is it possible to have the most northernly moonrise be in a particular constellation, and for the Moon to be full? The answer I realised is far from straightforward. The following paragraphs might feel quite technical and tell part of the story.

First, I must admit that I soon gave up the idea of two moons. Jupiter, massive as it is, can handle a few moons, but for an earth-sized planet with moon-sized moons, that could be more problematic. The three-body problem – determining the motion of three bodies of comparable mass under the law of gravitation – is notoriously complex and even Newton thought the hand of God was necessary to keep the solar system stable. The redness of the moon would then refer to its colour at moonrise, the time when the ceremony begins.

Then, we are familiar with the phases of the moon, its most apparent rythm with a period, called the synodic period, of about 29.5 days, summarised in the image below.

The cycle of the phases of the Moon

But you might have also noticed that the moon doesn’t always rise and set at the same place, and that the maximum height it reaches in the sky varies. This movement of the moon over about a month (27.3 days to be precise) is similar to the movement of the Sun over a year and is due to the fact that the moon’s orbit is tilted with respect to the Earth’s rotation axis. At the analogue of the summer solstice, the moon will rise at its most northerly position in the east, reach its maximum height, and set at its most northerly position in the west having followed its longest course in the sky. Then it rises and sets at a lower latitudes, and reaches less high in the sky until it reaches the analogue of the autumn equinox when it rises due east and sets due west. Its rising and setting point then become more and more southerly, until about two weeks later it reaches the analogue of the winter solstice when it rises and sets at its most southerly azimuths, and reaches its lowest point in the sky. Then the rising and setting point begin their journey north again. This ascending and descending motion of the moon is a key rythm for biodynamic gardeners, and to make matters more interesting, it doesn’t coincide with the cycle of the phases of the moon – for example, the most northerly moonrise isn’t always the full moon. In fact, the full moon correspond to the time when the moon rises opposite the sun, so to have the Moon rise in the north-east, the sun need be setting in the south-west, so at the time of the Winter Solstice. If I wanted “Dancing the Red Moon” to happen when the full moon rises over the sea at its most northerly position so that it would follow its highest and longest course across the sky, then the ceremony had to happen at the heart of winter, not what I had originally imagined. This however answered my constellation: the Winter Solstice sun is visible against a particular constellation of the Zodiac, Sagittarius at the moment (it very changes very slowly due to the precession of the equinox), and the corresponding full moon is in the opposite Zodiac constellation: Gemini. The Winter Solstice felt however a strong enough time marker to overshadow the role of a particular constellation. I decided then the leave the Thunderbird for another time and to focus the ceremony solely on the Moon.

Now, importantly the most northerly and southerly rising and setting points aren’t fixed. They reach the extremes of their range every 18.61 years, at the time of the “major lunar standstill”, an appellation attributed to A. Thom in his 1971 Megalithic lunar observatories. “Standstill” because although there are definite maxima, the Moon reaches close to those for months in a row. Then, half a cycle, so 9.3 years, later, the moon is at its “minor lunar standstill”, when the most northerly and southerly rising and setting points reach minimum values. At the heart of this phenomenon is the fact that the moon’s orbit is tilted by 5.1 degrees with repect to the ecliptic – the course followed by the Sun over a year – which itself is tilted to the earth’s rotation axis by 23.4 degrees. The moon’s orbit crossed the ecliptic twice at positions called nodes: the ascending node and the descending node. Due to gravitational effects of the Sun on the moon’s orbit, these nodes change position: if you imagine a line joining them, this line rotates in the opposite direction of travel to that of the sun and moon and completes a full cycle in 18.61 days. This phenomenon is called “the regression of the line of nodes”. The “major lunar standstill” happens when the ascending node coincides with the vernal (or spring) equinox, the point where the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator. The “minor lunar standstill” happens when the descending node coincides with the vernal equinox. Perhaps, this phenomenon is best explained through images.

The path of the sun (in yellow) and the path of the moon (in red) and their relationship to the celestial equator at different times of the moon’s 18.61-year cycle (Images inspired by a drawing of J. Bieniasz, in Beyond the Blue Horizon, E.C. Krupp, Harper & Collins, 1991.

I found this website helpful in understanding this cycle, and of course, there are yet more subtle variations to the moon’s motion.

In the end, rather than imagine an earth-like system and as a grateful nod to Ursula Le Guin, I decided that “Dancing the Red Moon” would be an earth-based ceremony, happening on an eastern shore, mid to high-latitude of what we now describe as the Northern Hemisphere. It didn’t happen in our past, but it could happen in our future, at a time with a warmer climate and different seasonal patterns, at a time when dancing in the sea at the heart of winter would not require to brave the cold. I remember having this experience once, of swimming under the full moon at a time when I usually huddled in jumpers. I was in the Southern Hemisphere, it was summer at Christmas, I dripped with sweat in the heat and my body was confused, my senses in obvious contradiction with my mind’s belief that Christmas should be cold. Yet that particular night held magic and with the white sand reflecting the moon’s silvery glow, we could see as clearly as in daylight. For the first time I became accutely aware of the special qualities of moonlight and of the eerie shadows it casts.

Finally, “Dancing the Red Moon” is real. I am not imagining it. Can you see the moon rise, red, over the sea? Can you feel your feet sink a little in the sand as small waves lap onto them and the soft touch of a piece of seaweed? Can you taste the salt, smell the iodine? Hear the Moon Carers drum, their faces illuminated by the warm glow of fires lit on the shore? If I mention them clap their hands to mimic the rain, it’s because I have heard them.

(*) What we refer to as the Milky Way can be two different things: the great ribbon of light we see in the sky, an area so dense with starlight we see it as a cloud rather than as individula stars; or our home galaxy, all the stars we see in the night sky, whether part of the great ribbon of light belong to the galaxy, to the Milky Way. Here I use the term “Milky Way” with the first acception.

(**) My interest in astronomy dates back to seeing an exhibition of the incredible images of Saturn and Jupiter from the Voyager probes as a primary school kid, but in my experience, nothing beats seeing Saturn with one’s own eye through the lens of an optical telescope. When I do, I can’t help smiling as I think, “it’s really there and it does have rings!”.