“Because I always have, ever since I was a kid,” Alfred answers, when I ask him why he keeps rabbits, which offer him no financial or gustatory gain. He regards them not as pets or companions, but as keepers of a childhood affection. In the rabbits’ soft way, they align his youth with the present, in the way Alfred’s goats insinuate the obstinacy of his late years.
From the deck of my house I can see over the valley to Alfred’s red barn. Tucked into a hollow, Alfred’s farm is a settlement of Gambrel-style barns, three home dwellings, grazing pastures, and a garden with sloped rows covering half a hillside. Miles beyond and looming above this property, Grandfather Mountain rises—the highest point along the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. A place where the horizon points to the empyrean.
“Do you need any?” he asks, as we stand among a throng of furry gyrations in a small outbuilding that is both nursery and shelter for the rabbits. Alfred picks up one. “You can’t have this one,” he says, “or that one,” pointing to a rabbit by his boot. “Or that one. Or that one. Or that one.”
In truth, I have always favored the northern sky. But the ridge-line trees behind my house obscure this view of Polaris, Draco, Boötes, and the bears. My front deck’s southern orientation, though, opens to the night sky. Although cultures across centuries have imbued the stars with stories, it is largely a Greek text I read at night. The constellations act as ancillary props for mythology—celestial enactments, sidereal constructs of passion and betrayal, and tales of death and life. Too grand for my quotidian mind, I reduce the immensities and magnitudes of the firmament to a human scale, and I narrate these forms according to my affections because I need these stories to exist.
Wayfaring figures, like Orion who hunts through the night sky or Perseus who carries the head of Medusa across it, are coordinates that serve not to map the unfathomable or bridle chaos, so much as they bridge the celestial with the terrestrial, the everlasting to the ephemeral. Orion’s framing of the winter night feels ritual. The uncanny beyond feels more familiar—enough that a tenuous unity of galaxy, Blue Ridge, and myself exists.
Less fixtures, these astral figures are resonances within my existential reasonings and in my orbits of place making. This may be because I do not seek answers. More sufficiently, I do not ask profound questions in the stars’ direction. I dwell with a single certainty: the radiance reaching me from a dead star is already a graveyard. Take your pick on which side death lives, but at the far ends exist the great womb of time.
On a cold night many winters later, I see Lepus shimmer among the stars above Alfred’s farm. Meaning Hare in Latin, this constellation has no myth of antiquity to embellish its shine. Its brightest star also happens to be a dying one. Charted in the 2nd-century by Ptolemy among his 48 constellations, Lepus’ prominence remains underfoot: the hare treads the heavenly margins just beyond the jaws of Orion’s hunting dog, Canis Major.
The story of many constellation groupings is one of pursuit—first, an earthly tale of desire or refusal, or both. Orion, when he is not chasing Lepus, strives to embrace the Pleiades, the seven sisters born of Atlas and Pleione, with whom he is in love. It could be that Orion is after bigger game, as he stands posed before the aggressions of Taurus, the Bull. Obliged by vested powers, Zeus or some other attending god casts up among the stars the pursued or the killed—a cause célèbre securing the aggrieved immortality.
Slow the way eternity is slow, stars are the slow elaborations of the cosmos. They possess a vague infiniteness borne of a demiurgical illumination that ushers them into existence. In what furnace is this birth? Located along the sword that dangles from Orion’s belt is the most massive area of star formation closest to earth. Within the Orion Nebula are, according to observations, 700 stars emerging from its embryonic churn of gas and dust. In the moment, if we scale up the moment to eons, a dense gathering of it collapses under its own gravity. A new light pierces the dark.
Easily seen by the unaided eye, it is no wonder the Orion Nebula is among the most studied nebula among stargazers. It is there to my eye, though I can only imagine its storms of dust and fluorescences. Phenomenal considerations such as these, the infernal resolutions at which stars are borne, are best left open-ended: a vast field into which the imagination can penetrate like volatile matter. The Orion Nebula engenders turbulence within its celestial hollow. Accumulations later, the Nebula rains down its radiant tears. In illumination, its stellar nursery populates a galaxy. That it does and I am here to witness it—what are the odds?
Both figural and astronomical, sets of constellations enact textual unities, narratives through which my late-hour daydreams navigate. Where Orion walks, Lepus hurries ahead. The Greater Dog pursues. Beneath this nocturnal drift, on a winter night like any other, the hidden-in-darkness hillside of Alfred’s farm cushions the celestial tread of Orion, his dog, and the hare, unravish’d.
Grounded beneath the cold pastoral of this sky, rabbits nurse their generations. A starlit barn shelters Alfred’s bull. His two Grand Pyrenees roam his fields and protect the livestock within the boundary of his farm. The cosmic weave tightens these fields and fictions and fixed references. The sky turns its page. Tomorrow’s night sky is less sequel than an expression of fidelity to the convening of proximities. If you see your shadow cast by a star, you have been lit by eternity.
Header photograph by Courtney Elizabeth Young.