Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
July 24, 2022

Let the Stars Sing out your Stories


The forecast hot weather has come and gone, but its psychological, as much as physical, effects feel a bit harder to shift. So join with me tonight as we gaze deeply into the mirrored dome of the night sky and its web of starlight, to discover what stories they tell and their challenge for us to begin to create newer ones.   

Journal entry:

22nd July, Friday

“Every day shakes the kaleidoscope.
 Lift it to your eye.
 Twist the base and look.

Today, three young jackdaws chase each other
 Through the feathery green of the ash tree
 In a carnival of silver rain.

It calls to somewhere deep inside of us,
 Doesn’t it?
 You, me, and whatever is behind
 Our biggest questions
 And lies beyond the heathlands of right and wrong.”

Episode Information:

Orion constellation

The constellation of Orion. Photograph: Till Credner, AlltheSky.com
Source: Wiki images

In this episode I quote a section from Jack Johnson's song ‘Constellations’ which was released on his album In Between Dreams on Bushfire Records in 2005. You can listen to it on YouTube here: ‘Constellations’.   

I also read an excerpt from Susan Hanson’s essay ‘Deep in the Heart’ found in Let There Be Night edited by Paul Goodard (2008) published by Uni of Nevada.

John Moriarty talks about the impact of western mythology on the psyche and culture of western civilisations in many of his books; particularly, Nostos, An Autobiography (2001) and What the Curlew Said: Nostos Continued (2007). The best introduction to John’s writing is the excellent John Moriarty: Not The Whole Story (2018) written by Mary McGillicuddy. All these books are published by Lilliput Press

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

22nd July, Friday

“Every day shakes the kaleidoscope.
Lift it to your eye.
Twist the base and look.

Today, three young jackdaws chase each other
Through the feathery green of the ash tree
In a carnival of silver rain.

It calls to somewhere deep inside of us,
Doesn’t it?
You, me, and whatever is behind
Our biggest questions
And lies beyond the heathlands of right and wrong.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

There’s a warm, restless wind tonight blowing in from the south. On the hill there's a party and snatched sounds can be heard on the air, fragmented islands of noise, roll and play on the night wind, but all else is quiet, bar the reeds and the swaying treetops.

This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into the night.

Thank you for coming. I have already put the kettle on. Make yourself comfortable and welcome aboard.

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The heat came and went – for now at least. Tuesday particularly was a challenge with really high temperatures. Inside the boat, at one point was in the high 30s (around 100 F). There was a blustery wind, which was really helpful. However, it was a hot wind and not always cooling for the boat. We kept the curtains closed and used our fans and air-coolers which worked well. The nights were sweltering and we slept accompanied by the whirr of fans.   

It's been a challenging week, mentally as well as physically. I think many of us have felt it. Social media has not been a good place - emotions have run as high as the temperatures. It's left me feeling a bit drained, wrung out. When the main heat hit, we all tended to disperse along the canal seeking as much shelter as possible. However, the dry late spring and summer have meant that the water levels are getting really low. There is talk that one of the lock pounds lower down will need to be timed-use only to save water. And a couple of our friends were nearly grounded where they were tied up and had some difficulty in leaving. Lack of rain and subsequent lack of water is becoming a real concern. The reservoirs and feeder rivers that replenish the canal systems are worryingly low. Water is being diverted to keep the canals viable, but that is not going to be possible for much longer.

I think all of us here, found it all a bit of a grim challenge. We moored for one of the days under the canopy of a large oak. It really helped, although the oak did appear to want to share with us the communities of insects living within the canopy. I see from Vanessa’s vlog, The Mindful Narrowboat, that she had a lucky escape. A tree fell down across the towpath and canal exactly where she had been hoping to moor. It was incredibly fortunate as it would have done a lot of damage if it had come down on the boat itself. The cause seems to have been the high winds that accompanied the heat. However, it did remind me of something of which I should have been aware when we were moored under the oak. A number of trees (which include oak) when under stress are prone to shed branches. It is referred to as the ‘summer branch drop’. These can be quite sizeable branches – some 4 inches thick.

I remember being warned about it when camping. One of the years was particularly hot and dry and I was doing some rough camping – just a bivvy bag, the nights were so warm that sometimes, I didn’t even bother with that. But I remember being very conscious of the trees I used as a shelter. It is not easy to predict, as it can happen to healthy-looking trees. The lack of rain this year, has meant that many of the trees are under stress. I’d forgotten completely until we moved off and I found a scattering of twigs all along the cabin roof.

The swans and ducks all seem to have survived, although the grass is getting very dried and brown. I also saw an Instagram post from some friends who are now down at Little Venice in London, showing some coot chicks with very red, sun-burnt heads. Coot chick, like moorhen chicks, are almost bald, with just a sparse scruffy crest of feathers on their heads. It offers little protection to the sun. I think the ones more locally to us here, probably fared a little better as there is a lot more bankside foliage to screen them from the strong sun.       

The heat broke on Wednesday. There were lots of thunderstorm alerts and warnings of possibly flooding, but nothing much happened here. There was simply a slow, gradual, dissipation of heat, helped by a dry boisterous wind. Only a little rain. Heavy clouds continue to flow from the southwest, cliff-face grey, filled with rain, but the rain doesn’t come. We had some heavy showers on Thursday night – Friday morning followed by some light showers throughout the day, but it is nowhere near enough. The ground remains, parched and dusty. The warm nights have not helped. For most dawns, dew-point has not been reached and so the ground has not even had the respite of dew.

The nights are beginning to noticeably draw in now - although, for us, summer has a long-time still to play out. But earlier on this evening, at last light, I heard for the first time since spring, the rooks gathering. Their riotous calls mingling with the sounds of the party at the top of the hill. Noises of life and affirmation in the gathering gloom.  

[MUSIC]

LET THE STARS SING OUT YOUR STORIES

  A young woman makes her way to a coffeeshop table. Her handbag looped over one arm. A tall glass domed with a crest of cream and a straw coloured like a barber’s pole in one hand. A cake sliding on a plate in the other.

Carefully, she places them on the table, and sits down. With one hand, she brushes her hair back from her face as she takes her phone. Her thumbs nimbly dancing over the screen. She adjusts the angle, and takes a photograph of the cake and drink. There is care there. The way she frames the shot.

It’s a simple act – valueless in many ways – filling some timelines blurred by a scrolling finger. Perhaps a like, then move on. Forgotten. But it is also an act invested with so much.

A way of affirming this solitary moment with people. Filling the empty chairs beside her and in front of her. On her own, but she is not alone. For a short while at least, friends crowd round the table, admiring the drink – savouring the cake.

I don’t know her. All I can see of her is her back, as she absentmindedly plays with her fork as she gazes out of the window – perhaps lost in thought.

We are so connected and yet so unconnected, we are so unified in virtual space and yet remain so fragmented. I understand this young woman's drive to communicate, to add to her story and share it to the world. I do that too. But somehow it misses everything that really matters. We get lost in the noise of our own making. 

‘Have you ever touched a leaf ...
that buds full of spring upon a tree?
A flame of emerald fire on the tip of your finger.
It has waited all winter ...
through those long nights of frost and starlight and the aching ribs of foxes...
through those burning winds and sloughing rains and mists as brown as they are grey...
It knew one day that this day would come...
when it will burst with LIFE...
a flame of emerald fire....

.... and for what day are YOU waiting?’   

Look up, wherever you are. Right now. Look up into the dark canopy of the night sky and tell me what you see. What shapes dance there? What stories do they tell? What is your story that the stars sing?

For millennia the night sky has been the canvas upon which we have painted our stories. And for millennia after millennia, we listen to them.

Since movement began – and perhaps before; humans have always seemed to have had the peripatetic, migratory, impulse (if we recognise in us Lucy and our journey ‘out of Africa’). That maybe why settled societies – and particularly their apparatus of State - tries so hard to quench that behaviour so severely. And for all our journeys the night sky with its constellations has served as our compass and guide. I am not just talking here about quadrant settings and the pole stars and the plotting of a course from point A to point B. The stories we have woven in to the shapes we see have also been woven into our journeys. There, above our heads, our hopes and dreams, our greatest fears and nightmares are writ large.

Right now, above our heads, our heavens sing out our stories. With each revolution they ring out into the blackness of night our dreams and our fears stories caught, trapped, in spiders’ webs of light. The stories are old, but they are not beautiful. The night sky is a mirrored reflection that has charted our history, in all its triumph and ugliness. Read the stories, listen to their songs.

Orion, mounting the autumnal horizon, crisp with frost. The god of hunters, the greatest hunter who lived. The one who, fuelled with such bloodlust and hubris (the blight of the hunter) boasted he would kill every animal that lived upon the planet. Artemis and her mother Leto, in later tellings it is Gaia, the maternal earth god, got to hear of this raging boast and opposed him. They sent a giant scorpion into the skies to strike Orion down. There is death in our stories mirrored in the stars, but there is also the promise of a protected earth. They stand on either side of the great bowl of night. Equidistant. Orion, holding in one hand the carcass of a dead lion the hunter rises in the autumn and rides the winter skies. Scorpion the earth’s protector rises in the spring and rides the summer skies. As one rises, the other disappears. Each chasing the other in a deadly duel that never ends.

Orion strides across our night skies, holding aloft a bloodied lion pelt, his hunting dogs, Canis major and Canis minor at his side, with blood in his sight. If ever there was a depiction of humankind in all its triumphant, gory, glory, it is he. In him, the ancient words of another culture are written large – “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Over our heads that battle plays out and the heavens ring with the prophetic words, “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” Orion is its fulfilment.

But the trouble is that hunting and conquering frames how we view the world and how we walk within it. Look a little to the right of Orion and you will see the enigmatic smudge of dusty light; the Pleiades; the Seven sisters. Orion is the hunter qua hunter, the very essence of a hunter and conqueror. His is the colonialised world in which everything is for his taking. What is the difference between the luxurious and exotically beautiful lion pelt in his hand or the beauty of the seven daughters of Pleione and Atlas? Orion spying them, the story goes, is intoxicated by their beauty and inflamed by his desire for them. Rejecting his advances, they flee. But hunters will hunt and conquerors will conquer. Orion, fired by his consuming lust pursues them. Recognising that they cannot escape, one of the versions goes, the seven daughters take their own lives. In response, Zeus the father of the gods, transforms their spirits into stars and places them in the heavens for their safe-keeping. But even there, every winter, the swift-footed, pelt-holding hunter Orion relentlessly hunts them down across the night’s sky. In a bid to save the sisters, the god Artemis, transforms a large bull, Taurus, into stars where he, nightly, stands guard over them.  

The stars tell our stories, because we have used the night sky as our mirror to reflect back upon us who we think are. They disclose to us our preoccupations and we read in them our histories. There is light there, but there is also an altogether different kind of darkness. There is the hope of life there, but there is also so much violence and death. Do you want to know the history of a civilisation? Listen to how it reads the stars.

With whom do we walk? Orion the hunter, dogs at his heel or the scorpion sent to protect the earth? Who is the monster in the skies? Perhaps it is time to read the night sky again and find new stories. Stories that will sustain us for the new worlds we are facing.

Like John Moriarty, I keep finding myself asking the question, how different might our culture have been if, instead of a pack of hunting dogs, we read them as the Cree people of Canada did, as brother wolf, brother Cayote, brother fox, who taking pity on us offered to serve and protect us with their offspring, the dog. Or the star stories the Navajo nation read laid out on their great flawless buck skin of night skies by the ancient holy ones. First man created from coloured jewels, Na-hookos Bika’ii – the paternal figure of the family (the male revolver) – this constitutes Ursa Major or the big dipper in western constellations. Then first female created Na-hookos Bi’aadii in the constellation of Cassiopeia. This was the maternal figure (the female revolver). They placed these figures around a central point – the star Polaris – the pole star – to represent the fire of the family hearth. The cycle of the year is reflected in the revolving locations of the maternal and paternal figures – equidistant and always revolving around the fixed point; the immovable fire blazing in the family hearth.

How differently we would relate to the night sky if we shared with one of the Australian aboriginal traditions that the stars were the night fires of our departed ancestors. The brightest ones those we have lost most recently, the dimmer stars ancestors of long ago that takes us all the way back to the time of the dreaming. Or the constellations of the Australian Boorong of the ‘Kourt Chin’, which is near the southern celestial pole. These are the dancing ‘Old People’, who, also placed beside a camp fire, watch over the people of the earth below.  

There is a song by Hawaiian singer songwriter Jack Johnson (2005) called ‘Constellations’ in which he recalls a childhood memory of lying on his back, gazing up into his skies while he listens to ‘Papa’s translations of the stars.     

It starts:

[READING]

 Johnson knows these times are important. He goes on..

[READING]

 

Maybe John Moriarty is right. We have outgrown the old myths and they are no longer helpful. How they have misdirected our footsteps. We have seen and are, at this very minute, feeling the damage they cause. We read Orion’s pursuit of the seven sisters with very different eyes from those of previous generations. It’s not the hunter we identify with, but the hunted.

They silently form and frame our worlds and we are in need of newer stories. Ones that speak to us today about the challenges we face. But most important of all, we need to be able to read our stories in the stars. What shapes do you see? What connections do you make? 

It is time for us to read the skies again and find there our stories. To write large our lives in flaming celestial letters – our histories again.

These are the stories we need, when the east wind blows cold and our nights are filled with foreboding. That when we look up into the darkness, we see stars that know and sing out our stories where we find support and shelter. To look up into the bowl of night and recognise a welcome there, a reminder that this is our home – see again that, at the pivot point of our lives, a hearth fire blazes. To connect with familiar voices – close and intimate. And we need those times when we can listen to each other’s stories.

Look up, right now, what stories can you read. I need to hear them. I want to hear what stories do they tell you? Yes, there will be grief, and pain there as well as joy. The Australian Aboriginal tradition includes lost children, and parents driven mad with grief. The star fields acted as a mirror for the Greeks and Romans and so they saw themselves in it. And so, our stories too will include sadness and grief as well as joy and comfort, but we need to tell them. To reconnect with the canopy above our heads. To help us make sense of this chaos of life. I need to hear about the smiles and tears gathered around the camp fire made by someone you have had to say goodbye to. I want to feel that connection as you look up – even in grief – and recognise a voice, lost to us, whispering on the night wind, the contours of a face from our past joining with us as we look together into the hearth fire of the pole star. I need you to tell your story. This world needs to hear your story. To hear your voice among the stars.

It is never too late. It is always the time to pour all of your experience and the life-wisdom you have accrued onto the canvas of the night-time skies so that the stars blaze out your story. It’s time to take up your paintbrush and paint with big strokes of fire the calligraphy of your heart and soul. That we might read each other in the night.  

I want to finish this with an excerpt from Susan Hanson's essay 'Deep in the Heart' from Let There be Night. Hanson is discussing her work in 'taking back the night' with some of her students, a number of whom had become fearful of the night-time from previous traumatic experiences. 

[READING]

SIGNING OFF

The skies are yours – create something beautiful, something true, something wonderful.

This is NB Erica signing off for the night.

WEATHER LOG