Monday, December 05, 2005

Rosy Dawn and the Ecliptic

Dawn’s rosy fingers teased through the trees at the horizon moments ago. A dwelling with a light on inside, in the next lane south, looked ghostly.
Now the sky is merely yellow-orange-pink: and dawn is close.

My computers are set up in the front. My work Mac is on the right, my play Mac to the left. Therefore my working face has a southern exposure, eastward biased. Ah: now the eastern sky is magenta-colored; but overall it’s much lighter.

Moments ago I had to step outside and scan eastward. From inside it had seemed that the sun would appear far more southward than I’d expected. When we say north, south ... we seldom mean precise compass points. There are places where the "northbound" highway may actually be running due east, or west. I know a road on Cape Code that says "south" but runs dead north! Anyway I stepped outside to check. Sure the ecliptic spans south east / south west in the northern hemisphere: conspicuously in the temperate zones, dramatically in the arctic.
Sure enough. My impression from indoors had been an illusion. The sky had seemed rosiest in the south-south east because that’s where the window was, that’s where the trees were thinnest, because that’s where I was looking ...

The Ecliptic
So, I stood outside and looked directly east: again, not a compass point: more or less. Brunns Road runs fairly true north / south. I had it to my back. Therefore I was facing east.
I tried in my mind to erase the tree line, to see the horizon as I would see it were I a half-mile east right now, on the lake, in my boat, no interference between me and the dawn horizon. "Sure," I said to myself. The ecliptic bisects the horizon about There. That’s where I’d be seeing the colors most intensely were I on the lake: the sun about to start showing directly. And I swept my head back and around, over my right shoulder, imagining the night sky. Yes, that’s the Zodiac. More or less along that line right there: lower in the sky now that autumn is so far advanced.

The Zodiac
And suddenly it hit me: like for the first time ever: all those old guys, all those astronomers, those astrologers, those Cro-Magnon cavemen: they all could follow the sun’s path better at night than in the day time!
In day light, unless you’re really socked in, you can see the sun in the sky. With clouds, you can see the sun through any cirrus cloud and through most cumulous clouds. But that’s just a point. You don’t see the path. The path shows on the opposite side of the day. You look up at the night sky: there’s Leo, there’s Virgo, there’s Libra ... That's the sun’s path!

Dynamic, Not Static
Ok, I just stepped outside again. Now I can see the sun directly, just passed clear of the horizon: a bit of sky underneath it as well as above and to its sides. The sun is already looking pathetically smaller than it had appeared a moment ago, glued with the horizon. And yes: the sun is MUCH further south that I was picturing it moments ago, based on my last dawn viewings from the lake. It’s December. The ecliptic intersects the horizon much further south than it had say in October when I was still fishing many a dawn.
September? Forget it: wind to sink the boat, making fishing a punishment. November was almost as bad. But there had been navigable nights in October: fish through the night, enjoy the dawn, then go home and sleep.

Final thought on the subject for now: I remember driving in the Keys, twenty-some years ago, winter. That’s the furthest south I’ve ever seen the night sky: and the darkest, Miami far to the north. Dark sky, great sky. Dark sky bright with natural light.
And man, the ecliptic was so far south I couldn’t believe it. Man, Scorpio, Capricorn: practically in the freaking Straights of Florida!

PS No, wait: gotta add a subsequent memory. Back when I lived in my "beach house" -- my apartment smack on the Atlantic in Long Beach, every room laid along the sand-side, a direct view of the ocean from every room but the second bedroom (which had an indirect view, you had to stand kind of close to the window and look south) -- I’d watch this dawn and that dusk from my terrace. I was almost always awake for the dusk, I was frequently awake for the dawn, and sometimes I was awake for both.

Long Island runs east / west. To the north is the Sound. The south shore has the Atlantic direct. At least it does if you live on the sand bars: Rockaway, Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, Lido Beach, Jones Beach, Fire Island ... Therefore if you live on the south shore, actually on the shore, on the beach side, you have a southern exposure: and therefore you have the entire day-time or night-time path of the ecliptic laid out right before you.
And if you can keep time in your head, as I work at being able to do, you can watch the ecliptic drift through the seasons, right before your eyes.
Back when I started writing this piece, I had to adjust my shoulders to parallel Brunns Road in order to be confident that I was facing east. In my beach house all I had to go was look out from my terrace and I was assured of a southern view. The architect had cooperated with geography to set my shoulders for me. I was looking south no matter what. The dawn began way to my left. The sun set way to my right. In winter I could follow the whole arc, no problem. In summer the sun’s first moments were partially blocked by my neighbor’s terrace. The sun’s last moments were partially blocked by my own kitchen. I had to move to the bedroom, or, lean over the railing, to see the last of it.

PPS I’ve got to stick in another memory, though this one has nothing to do with the ecliptic. I’d told David Tamerin that I’d accompany him to Atlantic Highlands to monitor the printing of his lithograph, Her Mind Moves Upon Silence, that I was publishing. David drives from Queens out to Long Beach, picks me up. We cross the Verizanno, head off into the wilds of New Jersey, bend over toward the coast ... David had talked me into letting him use an offset press. He assured me that everyone was doing it. What the hell, once you’re a whore you might as well be a whore.
... Never mind. Day’s end, we have a bite to eat. He shows me a scenic overpass, up by the old light house. There’s room for a car or two near the crest of the highlands. And there’s one of those public telescopes you put a coin into and get of couple of minutes of powerful looking. This machine was more like a telescope than like binoculars: well more than six or seven power. Not twenty, but powerful. I drop a dime (1977ish). I scan the distance. Oh, wow. There’s Coney Island. I can see the paint peeling on the Cyclone, see the cars sliding on the Wonder Wheel, see how sad the closed Parachute Jump looks. I pan right. Hey, I can see Rockaway just as well as I can see Brooklyn! I scan further right. Damn! That’s the Lido Hotel! I’m seeing the Lido closer than I ever saw it in person, closer than Saul Steinberg can ever have seen it, no matter how many times he painted it for The New Yorker.

Wait a minute: if I can see the Lido Hotel, then I ought to be able to see my own neighborhood, maybe my own apartment building. I panned back westward a tad.
Damn! I was looking in my own bedroom window! From a two plus hour drive away! I could see my love birds nuzzling and grooming each other. I could see my cockatiel looking all aone. I could see my waterbed with the sheets rumpled!

Atlantic Highlands was way more than one hundred miles on the odometer (and in New York traffic, that’s like two hundred miles), but had we gone by boat it was only about eighty miles.
Funny thing: after that day I started being able to pick out a hint of Atlantic Highlands from Long Beach. What I’d previously thought was pure sky over pure ocean actually betrayed a tiny hump of continent. And the binoculars confirmed it. It wasn’t just my imagination, my will to see with my naked eye the reverse of what I’d seen with a powerful instrument.

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