Friday, August 27, 2010

Stargazing for cats

It was late at night and there was not a cloud in the sky.  The weather was cool, humidity was low and LT decided there wasn’t going to be a better night for stargazing any time soon.  He called to Peep and Rudy, telling them what he was going to do and inviting them to join him.  LT found a good spot and made sure there were no pokey stones and lay down on his back.  This gave him the best view of the stars. 

LT snuggled into the grass and started to look for his favorite constellations.  Not all of them were visible in the summer.  His favorite, the Litter of Kittens, a group of seven stars, could only be seen in the winter, but there were a bunch of great summer constellations.  Peep and Rudy came to join him, and laughed at his prone position.  “Laugh all you want.  You try getting a good view of the sky without ending up with a stiff neck.”   Both thought about that briefly, and joined him on their backs on the lawn. 

Peep and LT had enjoyed many a night stargazing in years past, but Rudy had never joined them before.  She didn’t see the point of staring up in the sky at a bunch of little points of light.  “So, there are stars up there.  I’ve gazed at them.  What’s next?” 

LT, who had just found the constellation Squishy Food Can sighed and said, “Rudy, cats through the ages have named special groups of stars after significant things in their lives and histories.  We look for those groups, called constellations.  Often there are stories around them that hark back to the beginning of human domestication.  For example, there is Comfy Chair, one of the oldest constellations.  It’s shaped like the back of a chair, its seat, legs and the floor in front of it.  Kind of like a sideways ‘W’.  The story behind it is that many, many years ago humans only had hard chairs to sit on, and cats didn’t like it, so they didn’t spend much time with the humans.  Then, one group of humans began to put comfy things on the seats of their chairs, and cats decided that those were the humans they would stay with, and not the ones with the hard chairs.  It’s a story of the start of human domestication.”

“That’s a nice story, LT.  So, constellations are a way of reminding us of our history and passing it on to the next generation of cats. That makes sense.”  Rudy was still having trouble finding the comfy chair up in the sky, but she liked the story.

“Oooh, ooh, there is the Piece of String,” Peep said. “That one is about how cats taught humans to play.  Cats had always known the value of play.  It re-energizes you when you’ve been doing hard things for too long, like watching a big litter of kittens.  Humans didn’t know about play, though.  They just hunted, and slept and ate and grunted at each other.  This was way before they were domesticated, you know.  Well, cats were around the humans then, but they didn’t live with them.  One day a cat found a piece of string, except it wasn’t really string, because they didn’t know about fibers yet.  The cat started playing with it and a human saw it and went to take it back because it was hers.  She picked up one end, and the cat had the other.  The cat tugged on it, and it flew out of her hand.  The cat ran away with it, but not far, because she wanted the human to play.  It took a few minutes, but the human got the idea, and dangled the string for the cat to play with.  She showed the other humans how the cats would play with it, and they all laughed together.  It was probably the first human fun that ever happened.” 

Rudy thought this story was even better than LT’s.  “So, are all of the stars in the sky part of constellations?” 

“No, not nearly," replied LT.  "Only the brightest, usually, are part of our constellations.  Although, with all the light from the moon and streetlights and houses, it can be tough to even see those some nights.  If it’s really dark sometimes you can the Spilled Milk.  It’s almost like a background of a cloud of stars in the sky.  When I tried to go to Virginia a couple years ago I found a place where you could see the Spilled Milk really easily.  It’s so beautiful." 

For the next several hours, LT and Peep took turns showing Rudy the various constellations.  Some were easy to find, such as Home, Food Bowl, and the Big Pot.  Others, like the Dead Spider were harder, because the stars were spread out so much.  By the time the sky started to lighten Rudy could find almost all of them on her own, even if she got up and moved to a different spot. 

All three cats were exhausted by the time the stars started to dim, but they felt happy.  They’d shared stories of their history and laughed as they created a few constellations of their own. 

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