- Star Tables
Q. What do you suppose the fixed stars are?
A. I suppose they are suns to other worlds, as they shine with their own light.
My downstairs neighbor lets me hold a sextant from 1778. Dark wood sheen, it almost looks new. Kept in a broken box under a table. A triangle with an arced bottom. Square mirror at the top center is on a movable arm that connects to the arc, its scale of numbers. Another smaller mirror, size of two thumbnails, is off to the side. To navigate, look at the horizon through this mirror.
My neighbor has two more lenses, one rosy sepia. These fit one on top of another as in an optometrist’s test, slide into place. We guess it is like sunglasses for an eclipse or just very bright sun. Light reflects off the top mirror connected to the movable arm, which is adjusted so that it then reflects off the side mirror and through the eyepiece. Turn the sextant to view the sun over the horizon. Read the angle between the two from the scale. A boatlike arc at the bottom of the sextant.
For celestial navigation, measure the angle between the horizon and the sun when the sun is at its highest point. Then, your tables tell you which line of latitude the sun should be above on that particular day. The tables [End Page 95] contain the stars. The sun could be above the Tropic of Capricorn. So that star’s latitude is yours. I never thought of the sun above the stars before—in the sky it’s one cloak. A star tables book seems crucial.
Longitude is harder. Every hour the Earth rotates fifteen degrees. This means that if the sun is above the longitude of zero degrees at noon, one hour later it will be above fifteen degrees west. You need a very accurate clock. It helps to have the sun right overhead. Easy to get lost. My neighbor told me that a woman’s boyfriend had been out to sea, on his way back to the harbor. His boat went down, into the downslope of a wave. Instead of coming back up, it went straight down into the ocean. They all drowned, he said. I’ve never heard of such a thing. But if a wave is very high, trench low, I could see how a ship might not make it back up.
The nineteenth-century white window frames are rattling. Sixteen panes per window—eight on top, eight on the bottom. Five sets look on the bay at night. My neighbor and I are both here temporarily, in the house that once belonged to the painter Hans Hofmann. I rent the attic apartment, Hofmann’s former painting studio, from friends; my neighbor rents the main house with a friend. Across the courtyard, an architect rents Hofmann’s painting school studio, fronted by glass, a wall of fireplace, thick dark beams, planked floor. Soon a famous TV producer will buy the house and studio. His white couch will wrap around the room. A chandelier will hang. Soon we’ll be gone. Wind so cool today, a cold I could drink. Sky pinking, baby blue over the ocean, a houseboat blinks amber light when the night darkens. Wind like someone trying to get inside tonight.
On the street, white roses and white gladiola spill over the fence. Petals cool and dense. All I have to do is breathe. If ever I am ungrateful let me remember the cold air and opened flowers in June, early evening, when I was lucky enough to live here. Look, my neighbor says, when I come home. Birds dark against the deep sky, flying toward the ocean. Flowers like white tulle dresses all over the front yard. Peonies.
Orange poppies so short-lived they’re almost gone before summer even arrives. On the other side of the brick sidewalk leading to our front door, a slightly different longitude means a little orange still lives, though the petals are sleepy. Bachelor blue flowers just born, indigo soft spiky. Tonight, the white peonies smell like roses. Forty-five sunflowers...