“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I first read this Emerson quote in high school, I felt a deep sadness. I had never seen a sky untouched by light pollution. I could easily count the few stars that were visible beneath the city lights, and I did so, dreaming of the darkest of all skies, a great, impenetrable field of starlight; the haunting, veiled arm of our galaxy. I’d seen a good number of stars on camping trips, but I’d never been far out enough to see the Milky Way. One night in a thousand years. This became my greatest wish—to see the sky as it had once been.
Numerous camping trips have since made my wish come true, but, as I reread Emerson’s words, the sadness is still there, for we have lost something. Throughout human history, the stars have been a nightly reminder of humility; a reminder that we exist within a magnificent, bewildering universe. We once used the stars for guidance. We followed their light across seas, and celebrated their seasonal dance between solstices. The constellations were familiar to everyone. They were dependable. They told us where—and who—we were.
While we can't tackle the light pollution problem all at once, we can start paying attention again. We can start noticing the stars that we can see, and begin to re-establish our place in the cosmos.
The Winter Constellations: Getting to Know The Sky
If you can find Orion, you can find everything! The constellations move throughout the sky, but they're always in the same place in relation to each other, so if you can find one, you can find them all. Orion is easy to spot; look for the three diagonal stars in Orion's belt.
I like to think of Orion and Canis Major as best friends. Once you find Orion's belt, look for the bright, blue-ish star to the bottom left. That's Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and the perfect way to spot Canis Major. Orion and Sirius are so bright that you can even see them in cities, despite the light pollution. They're the stars (haha) of the winter constellations.
Now look up and to the right of Orion. See that little cluster of stars? That's the Pleiades, which is part of Taurus. Another way to spot Taurus is to look for Aldebaran, a bright star that will also be directly above and to the right of Orion.
Up and to the left of Orion you'll see two bright stars that are pretty close together. These are Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini.
Straight above Orion is a very bright star called Capella, which sits at the top of the constellation Auriga. Capella is one of the brightest stars you'll see besides Sirius and Orion's reddish Betelgeuse.
Now look above Auriga. Find the "W", or, alternatively, the "M". This is Cassiopeia. Essentially, it looks like a squiggle, and unlike some other constellations, the shape is easy to see.
I think we all know the Big Dipper AKA Ursa Major. This is the "star" of the other side of the sky, opposite Orion and friends.
Here's the secret to finding Polaris, the North Star, which is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor--imagine a line pointing out from the scoop part of the big dipper. Follow it, up and away and at a diagonal from Ursa Major, until you see a bright star. And there you go! The North Star.