Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

The Morning Star

The Morning Star, Monument Valley, Utah

The Morning Star, Monument Valley, Utah

“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?’  Pointless, really…….. ‘Do the stars gaze back?’  Now that’s a question.”

Neil Gaiman

Like the previous “night-sky” images I posted a while back, this photograph was taken just before dawn in Monument Valley, with the East Mitten and Merrick’s Butte in the foreground.  What struck me about this scene was the visible pillar of light that appears to be projecting from the top of the butte to the so-called “morning star” (Venus).  In reality it was light from the sun, still a good distance below the horizon, that created this effect. The view, of course, is to the southeast.

You can also see two other planets in this photograph: Jupiter is the next brightest “star” (below and to the left of Venus) and the reddish dot just above Jupiter is (I think) Mars.  What you’re seeing is a conjunction (or near conjunction) of these 3 planets.  At certain times during the year these conjunctions bring two or more of the planets in our solar system into close proximity of one another.  Well, at least from our perspective here on earth.  They only appear to be on top of one another.  When that happens, it creates a very, very bright object in the sky.  An object that clearly moves with the earth’s rotation.

I bring all this up because of the season.  Anyone familiar with Christmas knows the story of the 3 wisemen or magi who supposedly followed a very bright “star” to the birthplace of Christ.  A plausible secular explanation of this event is that the star they saw was either a comet or a supernova or, more likely, two or three planets in conjunction in the morning sky.  An event that would have looked something like what you see here.  Looking at this image one can see that such a planetary conjunction might have appeared to be a guiding light in the sky.  Especially to people who were a little less than astronomically enlightened.

Perhaps a sight like this inspired the story of “The Star of Bethlehem”.  True or not, it is how such stories are born, embellished, and passed on from one generation to the next.  Whether religiously inclined or not, we need stories like this.  At some level such stories are the very essence of our existence.  They are what connects us across both time and distance.  They are the one thing that all humans have in common.  Which makes them kind of unique.  Take away our stories and you take away our humanity.

“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, and live by love though the stars walk backward.”

E. E. Cummings (“Dive for Dreams”)





9 Responses to “The Morning Star”

  1. E. Brooks

    Pretty nice photo, Paul. I was wondering how much of this light could you actually see when you were taking the photo? I’ve always found the camera to be much better seeing light then I am. Is it my imagination or do I detect just a bit of movement in the stars…how long was the exposure?

    Nice work…makes me want to experiment with it myself. Hope you guys have a very Merry Christmas!

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks Brooks. Yes, the camera’s sensor is much more sensitive than the human eye (at least with respect to gathering light). I remember being absolutely amazed when I looked at some of these images on the computer. There were many more stars visible on the screen than I’d seen when I was taking them. Not to mention the fact that a number of images were underexposed. It’s also true that the orange light on the horizon was nearly invisible to the naked eye. And yet it was clearly there on the RAW images.

      Not your imagination – there is a bit of star movement. Given the focal length of the lens I was using my maximum exposure time (at ISO 1600) should have been no longer than 15 seconds. The actual exposure time was 20 seconds (some were at 30 seconds). I won’t make the same mistakes again. I should have had the ISO at 3200, but I always worry about noise.

      Merry Christmas to you and Bonnie as well!

      • E. Brooks

        I wasn’t being critical about the star movement, it’s hardly noticeable, I’m interested in trying some similar photographs and wanted to understand you technique. It would be fun being the results are somewhat hit or miss in many cases. Nicely done!

        • Paul Maxim

          Oh, I know you weren’t being critical, Brooks. I was simply pointing out my own ignorance relative to star-photography!

  2. Cedric Canard

    Gorgeous image Paul, an instant favourite. Perfect composition and so seasonally appropriate.

    Totally with you on the human need for stories.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Cedric. I wonder sometimes if the social media revolution will enhance or hurt our ability to tell and hand down stories. I worry when I see bookstores closing. Heck, I read more books now than I ever did and I still prefer the kind that I can hold in my hands.

      • Cedric Canard

        I’m not sure about the impact of social media on story-telling but there is plenty of evidence that people are reading again like never before. Especially young people with the “Young Adult” category being the biggest. Bookstores in Australia seem to be doing well. We did have a time where a number closed down but that seems to have levelled out. Interestingly, there are a number of local online stores which are extremely successful and their sales are mostly for “real” books rather than eBooks. My own kids (who read a lot) refuse to read eBooks and it’s the same with all their friends.
        Thinking a little more about it and thinking about all the fan-fiction stories and original works out there on the Internet (good and bad of course), I think it’s looking good for stories in the future. One example that immediately comes to mind is the now-famous “The Martian” by Andy Weir. A brilliant story that was first told in instalments on a blog.

        • Paul Maxim

          I really hope you’re right about young people. Personally, I’m not as optimistic about reading habits here in the U. S. But maybe I’m just not seeing it. Our last major bricks and mortar store here (Barnes and Noble) is hanging on but not by much. Others have gone out of business. Most of the people I see in the local B + N are older. Hopefully, my perception is wrong.

          Yes, I read “The Martian” a while back. Haven’t seen the movie yet, though. A really great story (although I’d hate to have to eat potatoes for as long as he did).

        • Cedric Canard

          The younger generations tend to buy online so it’s unlikely that they will be seen in shops but the YA market is truly big. So big in fact that a number of literary agents now ignore all other genres.
          Nice to know you also liked The Martian and I’m with you on the potatoes too. My father had to eat rice three meals a day for a year while serving in Indochina and when he returned he never ate rice again. I imagine a Watney experience like that would have the same effect with potatoes 🙂

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