Finding light in the darkness

A little light painting can help pass the time during a long exposure of the night sky. (JOHN McPHEE)

The constellation Orion is sinking in the west and Lyra is rising on the other side of the sky.

I’m driving as slowly as possible to avoid breaking an axle on this obstacle course of bumps and potholes, otherwise known as a road. 

It’s cold but not so cold that I have to don long undies and heavy duty footwear to prepare for an evening of stargazing. 

Yes, it’s springtime in Nova Scotia.

The dirt road that’s giving my aging car such a hard time leads to an observing site owned by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Halifax Centre). Since we moved to the city five years ago, it’s been my go-to observing site when I want to see fainter objects than planets or the moon. 

While secluded enough for decent dark sky observing, it’s a fairly quick drive from Halifax.  (That’s about all I’ll say on that score because the society prefers to keep its specific location under wraps for security reasons.)

If you’ve been a member for long enough and have been given a rundown on site operations, you get a key that gets you past the locked gate.

Quick, raise your hand if you’re good at not losing things like keys. Not so fast, McPhee. 

No problem. I’ll just heave my Orion Dobsonian telescope, camera gear and observing chair over the gate and forgo the comforts of the warm-up room. One thing about astronomy as a hobby, you learn how to lug things around in the darkness. (Pro tip: Get a good headlamp with a red-filter option to keep your eyes dark-adapted and your hands free for the lugging. Mine is a Petzl Tikka XP. ) 

Usually I don’t have to jump the gate because other key-carrying members are around. But there’s a moon tonight and even though it will set quickly, observers usually wait for moonless nights. Fainter objects such as galaxies and nebulae are washed out even when the moon is not full, like tonight. 

As it turns out, that crescent moon is one of my photo targets. The bright reddish star Aldebaran will be very close by, known in the business as a conjunction. Usually these events involve the moon and planets, but sometimes a star that lies on the ecliptic (the path in the sky followed by the moon, sun and planets) steps up for a conjunction photo-op.

The star Aldebaran is seen in conjunction with the crescent moon on April 10.  (JOHN McPHEE) 

After the moon sets and true dark sets in, I’ll point my camera and telescope toward Leo and Virgo to do some galaxy hunting

But mostly I’ll just sit back in the darkness and soak up the silence. In these parts, the quiet is often punctuated by hoots of barred owls and howls of eastern coyotes. Even better. 

If I’m to remain a respectable member of society, I must escape it on a regular basis. Halifax may be a small city but it’s got more than enough concrete, noise and people for my comfort level.  

The urge to escape has been more intense than usual lately. I and over 50 other newsroom staffers have been on strike from a certain Halifax newspaper for about 100 days now. It’s been an incredibly stressful and uncertain time for us and our families.

I’ve never been a glass-half-full guy. If you’re looking for somebody with a sharp eye for the downside, I’m your man. But in the cesspool of negativity that constitutes a bitter strike, you’ve got to hang on to the positive things. 

For me,  it’s hearing, “Come over here, Poppa,” from a twinkle eyed two-year-old beckoning me to the sofa to watch The Wiggles.

It’s the amazing support we’ve received from other unions or from strangers who drop by the picket line with coffee, gift cards or simply words of encouragement.

It's that warm feeling when you've nailed Famous Blue Raincoat, even after your third glass of wine. 

It's my spouse's laugh. Kathy's got a great laugh. 

And it’s nights like this one under the starlit sky.  I’m alone in the dark but hey, I’ve got my fancy headlamp. All’s well.