I can't even remember when my interest for the night sky began. To me it seems as if it has always been a part of me. I recall walking outside of our house as a young boy in the evening, trying to find the constellations that I saw on a small star map in my older brother's geography book. The first constellation that I finally managed to identify was Orion. It looked so tiny on the map, and yet so big in the sky, and so bright.
The little boy who stared in wonder at the night sky grew older and the stars became more familiar ... but the wide-eyed sense of wonder always remained. A first small telescope - a cheap, simple kit set entirely made from plastic - provided fuzzy glimpses of the Moon's craters, even the rings of Saturn if you squinted hard and the moons of Jupiter. And of course, the breathtaking nebula in Orion's sword.
At the age of thirteen, the first 'real' telescope, still very small. Every clear night I was outside with that small instrument, sketching craters of the moon at different sun angles, keeping observation logs, never ceasing to be amazed by the profound beauty of the stars. What peace there was! A few years later, my brother and I pooled our funds and bought a slightly larger telescope with better optics and good eye pieces. Double stars, cloud bands on Jupiter, planetary nebulas and galaxies were added to the nightly observation program.
But between hunting for that elusive nebula and peering through the telescope, I always found time to also just stand there, looking up in awe with my naked eyes, trying to take in the whole sky at once. Years passed, and the young man had found new friends. Friends, that would never leave him. Friends, that came around every year. Every season had its set of constellations and in my mind the season and those stars were inextricably joined. Thinking of one, I would inevitably also think of the other. Truly, I saw them as my friends: It was strangely comforting for me to see them come and go, reliably and without fail every year.
Stepping out in a warm evening I could be sure to see the now familiar constellations of summer there, their brighter stars winking down to me already through the fading blue of the endless, warm evenings, long before the sky turned completely dark. Spring and autumn had their own beautiful companions in the sky. And then there was winter. The brightest stars in the sky were reserved for winter, and in the centre of all that there was the constellation with which it all began, with all its many bright, bright stars twinkling in the ice cold night: Orion.
Yes, the winter nights. I grew up in the northern hemisphere. While here in New Zealand Orion is seen as a constellation of summer, for me it was a part of winter. Orion and cold nights – for me they belong together. Nights, which are filled with the smell of burning wood from some neighbour's fire place. Nights so cold that the dew freezes on the icy barrel of the telescope, and your fingers get stuck to the metal when you change an eye piece. You feel the frozen ground crunch under your feet, making the only sound you can hear in the cold, clear night. The days are short, with the sun just barely crawling above the horizon, but the nights are long and dark, illuminated only by the bright blazing stars of Orion and the other winter constellations.
Now the young boy has grown up. There is a job and family, responsibilities, and so many other things to attend to. I still have a telescope, but barely have time to use it. And when I look up at the sky, I don't see my friends any more. Most of the southern sky's constellations remain different and alien to me. Even the beautiful Orion stands up-side-down in a warm summer sky, looking and feeling out of place to me. And most of the constellations I grew up with never even manage to rise above the horizon here.
My friends kept their promise, they never left me. But I ended up leaving them.
I look up at the sky and sigh. I miss my friends.
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