The Eye in the Sky

Spring is a sometimes season in Montana—sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t. Such are the vagaries of a mountain climate, where the weather pays scant attention to the astronomical milestones of solstice or equinox.

Nonetheless, when late March rolls around, the springtime roundup of constellations occurs right on schedule: the Big Dipper arcs just north of overhead, Leo the lion prowls across the sky, Virgo’s appearance announces the annual advent of agriculture. And as we look at the spring sky, we find that something is looking back.

That something, according to the Spokane Indians, is Arcturus, the bright and slightly orangish star that travels high southward across the spring heavens; follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle downward and you run right into it. The Spokane say that this bright star came to be when one day, Coyote was going along, and chanced upon a bevy of lovely girls. Coyote wanted to do something to catch their attention. Using what he had available to him, he decided to pluck out his eyeballs and juggle them.

So Coyote plucked and tossed his peepers into the air. And the girls giggled. Encouraged, he tossed them higher. And the girls giggled some more. Coyote kept on tossing his eyeballs, and the girls kept giggling—until Coyote tossed them so high that one of his eyeballs got caught on the sky. The girls stopped giggling, and ran away. Coyote sadly returned his remaining eyeball to his head and continued on, perhaps reminding the rest of us that there are pitfalls to trying to impress others too much. And in the sky Coyote’s eyeball remains today—as the slightly bloodshot Arcturus, looking back at us.

Arcturus also has claims to fame from a scientific standpoint. It’s the fourth brightest star in the sky, second only to Sirius among the stars we can see from Montana. It’s a red giant star, a ten billion year-old preview of what our own sun will become when it gets old. And it’s a “halo star,” a star born in the spherical halo of material surrounding our galaxy’s pinwheel form. It is presently diving down through the galactic disk and is passing us by in space. In about a half-million years, it will have passed from naked eye view—so enjoy it now.

Arcturus also has the distinction of having opened the Chicago Exposition of 1933 when its focused light was used to activate the switch that turned on the Exposition’s lights. At the time, it was thought to be about 40 light years from Earth, and that the light thusly used had left the star in 1893 when another Chicago fair had been in progress. Today, its distance has been refined to 36.7 light years, still one of the closest of the bright stars.

Arcturus decorates the bottom of Boötes, the Plowman, said by the Greeks to have invented the plow and won his place in the heavens as a result. His kite-shaped form outlines his body, with the top star marking his head and Arcturus lodged in his ankle. In this mythological scenario, the Big Dipper makes his plow. But if we think of the dipper as part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, then Boötes becomes a bear-herder. To help him in this task, he has what every good Montanan seems to have: a pair of dogs. We find them in Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, a nondescript gathering of stars (with two brighter marking the lower dog) below the bear’s tail, nipping at its heels.

To the Kobeua tribe of Brazil, Boötes looked fishy and they called it the piranha, with Arcturus marking the base of its tail. For Montana anglers, though, its shape is perhaps more reminiscent of a fat cutthroat trout rising for a fly on a lazy late summer afternoon. Appropriately, it reminds the angler now to ready the fishing rod, and remains in the evening sky through September—and through the prime fishing season.

So as you cast those streams by day later in the year, remember to cast your eyes skyward by night to the great fish in the sky—the fish with the bright tail star Arcturus, the eye in the sky that winks down from above on your fisherman’s fortunes in the storied trout waters of Montana.