Wildflowers of Stars - Mystery in Yosemite's Night Sky

Red Dirt Report, October 19th, 2016

Visit the original article online

HEIDE BRANDES | OCTOBER 14, 2016 CATEGORY: SLICE O' LIFE This is Part II of IV of Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes' travels to and from California in September. Click here to read Part I.

Night sky above Yosemite holds legends, secrets, mysteries of time

OKLAHOMA CITY – I was lying on my back with my friend Heather, staring up at the impossibly dark night sky above Yosemite National Park.

The wildflowers of stars sparkled in that darkness, and we listened to a woman sing a long, sweet and mournful song about loss and the aching pain of missing someone.

Above me, the granite walls of the glacier-carved mountains that make up Yosemite Falls, dry now in the early days of September, loomed like an old god, a sentinel that has watched over in this valley for millions of years.

Stars and galaxies and that creamy smear of the Milky Way gleamed quietly in the night sky, but that universe up there is anything but quiet. It’s wild and violent, and it never stops creating and destroying. I had come out to this shadowy place to learn about the legends of Yosemite’s night sky.

I have an obsessive love of travel and of Yosemite National Park in eastern California. In the dark night, Yosemite comes alive in ways few people take the time to see.

In addition to the hundreds of hiking trails and the remarkable landscape, thousands of tourists come to California’s high Sierras to explore nature the way conservationist John Muir saw it. In Yosemite, you can find the high Sierra, granite cliffs, sequoia groves and the low valley.

Congress designated more than 3 million acres of the Sierra Nevada for protection, and 95 percent of Yosemite National Park is included. It calls to adventurers to hike, climb, camp and enjoy nature. While those activities are certainly enjoyable and recommended, tonight we decided to see what the night held and we were not disappointed.

Stories of darkness, light

Our interpretive leader, Ashley McComb, promised celestial sights and fables about the universe, but at that moment she was singing to the heavens. Her voice was soothing and true, and the nostalgic song fit the gloom. I couldn’t imagine it being sung anywhere else but here, in that moment, laying in the grass in one of America’s most stunning and awe-inspiring parks.

“Tonight, I want you to delve into what you see in the night sky. Be creative. Use your imagination, and it can be a life-changing experience,” McComb said, her voice crooning almost chant-like.

All around me were silent bodies staring up as well, clad in REI gear, North Face jackets and dusty hiking boots. Like the Ahwahnechee Indians who lived in Yosemite Valley for centuries – maybe for as long as 7,000 years, historians say – we’ve gathered here for an experience, to understand our heavens.

Every tree, gray rock, speckled ground squirrel and leafy fern in Yosemite has ancient power, but the stars above are the poetry of time. For just that hour, we traveled back in time in that extraterrestrial world.

Our galaxy

The Milky Way galaxy is a conglomerate of more than 200 billion stars. When you look up at the milky and glittery smudge across our sky, you are looking back in time. Scientists estimate there are approximately 300 sextillion stars in the universe – that’s the number 300 with 23 zeros behind it.

“Close your eyes and imagine yourself on your favorite beach. Breathe in that salty air and listen to the waves crashing on the shore,” McComb said. “Dig your toes deep into the sand until you reach the part of the sand not yet touched by the sun. Scoop up two handfuls of that hot sand, sifting and sifting until there is just one grain of sand left. There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on our earth, and that’s just the stars we can see with our telescope.”

Looking heavenward, it’s easy to feel more miniscule than that one grain of sand.

McComb shared the science of the universe, intoning magic cosmic words like “supernova,” “white dwarf” and “red giants.” She used the strongest laser pointer I’ve ever seen in my life to pinpoint stars with names like Antares, a big red giant, which is about to supernova at any moment.

Of course, “any moment” in the universe could mean right this second or a million or so years from now. The stars like to remind us that time only exists on our little blue planet. Out there, out into that vast blackness, we are witnessing the past, the present and even the future.

The light we see from the star Deneb is 2,000 light years away, which means that light took two millennia to reach this single moment right now. That starlight began its journey when Pontius Pilate was crucifying Jesus on the cross.

That split second bridges time. Jesus and I exist in the same moment through that dot of brightness. I have traveled back in time, just as that ancient history is suddenly the present again.

“When you are looking at the night sky, you are actually looking in the past,” McComb said.

When stars die, they supernova, implode and create a massive burst of light and create black holes. When Antares dies, it will create a bloom of light the size of the full moon for 24 hours a day for a month straight. The last recorded supernova earth witnessed was in 1603 A.D., and cultures around the world recorded this event. I imagine witnessing the death of a star, a death that occurred millions of years ago, would be both frightening and breathtaking.

Old legends

The Ahwahnechee Indians weaved stories into the night. Like every other person who gazed upward, they wondered how our universe came to be.

“The American Indians had some beautiful creation stories about the night sky,” McComb said. “One of my favorites is one that has been passed down for generations here at Yosemite.”

A long, long time before, long before humans ever existed and when animals could talk, the animal kingdom lived in perfect harmony under two rulers. The eagles and the bears ruled the kingdom, and every day, they would compete to see which was better, who were the true rulers.

Little did they know that the prince of the bears and the prince of the eagles were best friends. They had been for their entire lives. One day, the two princes were playing by the roaring current of Yosemite’s Merced River. It was a dangerous and treacherous river, and that day, the princes got into a fight, and before he knew it, the prince of the eagles pushed the prince of the bears into the raging river.

As the prince of the eagles wept by that watering grave, the king of the bears saw his son dead. He grabbed up the prince of the eagle, who begged for forgiveness, but the king drowned the eagle son. The king of the eagles saw this, and a war was started.

The great spirit of the heavens saw the bloodshed and the chaos, and he wept for their wrongdoings. To punish the animals, he created a massive black cloak and placed it over the face of the earth, never to have sun shine through again.

The different animals tried to remove the cloak. The king of the eagles flew high and high toward the cloak, but fell short. The king of the bears ran to the tallest sequoia tree at the top of El Capitan and reached for the cloak, but he, too, fell short.

The coyote tried, but he failed. Every animal tried, every animal failed. Then a tiny voice said, “I, though I may seem small and insignificant, I will save us from the Great Spirit’s wrath. But I cannot possibly do it alone. I need the help of all of you.”

The diminutive hummingbird rode the back of the bear to the tallest point in Yosemite where she leaped onto the back of the coyote who climbed the tallest sequoia tree. She then rode the wings of the eagle, who flew higher and higher, and when he could go no further, she stretched out her tiny hummingbird wings, fluttered and fluttered, and she poked a single hole in the cloak.

A single ray of sunshine shone through. She did not stop there. She poked holes in the shape of all the animals before returning to earth, where the rest of the kingdom danced and sang. They held her fragile body to the heavens, and that’s when the Great Spirit smiled.

He saw the animal kingdom had worked together, and he removed the cloak. But he returns the cloak to the sky once a day to remind all below that no matter how small or insignificant you may seem, you are capable of great things and the world could not exist unless all live in harmony.

“Just think, a little hummingbird poked all those stars you see tonight,” McComb said.

More than hiking

Yosemite is an outdoor lover’s playground. While my friend Heather and I hiked and hiked into the jaw-dropping beauty of Yosemite’s Sierra Nevada mountain range and others climbed the challenging face of El Capitan and Half Dome, the night held an adventure all its own.

No matter where you are, don’t forget to look to the celestial heavens at night. Go back in time. Witness light that existed millennia before you were born. Remember brave little hummingbirds and angry princes.

Watch for supernovas on your trips. While the daylight shows beauty, the night is a doorway to the past and to mysteries even bigger than El Capitan.

In the following days, Heather and I would travel to a place where hope never lived – Death Valley – and we would learn why it earned its devilish name.

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes.

Back