Seascapes and celestial slip-ups

Outdoor Living

MOONLIGHT SIGHTS Mayo’s dark skies and long coastline combine to make beaches and cliffs a stargazer’s paradise.  

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Rain gave way to showers and showers died away, giving us the afternoon and evening promised nearly dry. After the wind we should go to the coast, just to rest our eyes on what is truly wild.
We arrived to find confusion wrought by wind against an ebbing tide, then the powering rush of wind-driven waves as the flood began.
The sun set pale, with bands of primrose and cream pouring through a faint sea mist. With neither bar nor door the ocean frees the mind of care. It is the best of therapy.
We hadn’t planned to stay ’til dark, but winter night falls early in these parts.
“Look! A shooting star!” I gave an eager wave, too late of course.
Freya was doubtful, in her own kindly, generous way. “It may have been the International Space Station.”
“If it was a shooting star you can make a wish.”
“Alright,” she said, “I wish I knew if it really was a shooting star.” There came a second flash of light, a prompt. “Aha, it is the space station, indeed. Now we know. And see? Wishes can come true.”
While I was picking a way through this convolution of words the moon lifted over the distant bank of cloud to cast a warm, peachy light upon the sea, one that lit a path to where we sat.
“And look, there’s Mars,” I noted with assertion.
“That’s not Mars,” said Freya. “Mars is meant to be beside the moon tonight.” Floss, Freya’s elderly dog, grumbled in agreement.
“The moon will be there shortly,” I said defensively. “Just give it chance.”
It soon became apparent that the moon was going nowhere near my own designation of ‘Mars’, but was to cut a completely different parabola through the night sky.
A minute later Freya spoke again. “There, look! That’s Mars over there.” She pointed to a faint and very distant speck of light just to the right of the moon, which itself had now assumed the shape of a slightly squashed grape.
Those heavenly bodies had paid more attention to the astronomical forecast that brought us here than I had. “Your Mars is Venus, the Evening Star.” She knew.
“Isn’t it nice they put an ‘oo’ in moon,” I ventured, seeking to change the subject. I don’t mind being wrong. It’s just when other people know that I get a bit touchy.
“Like they put an ‘uh’ in sun,” added Freya.
“That’s fully appropriate,” I said. “Isn’t that what we say when the sun comes out – Uh? – as if we’re completely befuddled by its appearance.”
“And there’s an ‘aah’ in star. With all these abbreviations anybody would think there’s a bunch of Neanderthals up here.”
I shivered in the moonlight. After recommending the wearing of warm coats, long scarves and thick socks I had neglected to follow my own counsel. “There won’t be anybody around to hear, not unless they’ve lost their minds. High tide is at seven.”
“It’s gone seven already,” said Freya. Far below, white-topped waves slipped over black rock to suck at the cliffs and prove me wrong yet again.
This was not going well. I thought over our previous excursions, during which I had pointed out edible mushrooms and those considered to be less so, with my audience hanging on to my every word, believing that I knew my subject well. Now I didn’t know one planet from another and had the tide times mixed up with the bus service from Achill.
Birds came to the rescue. The first in the form of a highly pitched half-shriek from the trees. “Listen,” I said, “that’s an owl!”
Freya wasn’t convinced. “Sounded like a cat to me.”
Right on cue a pair of house cats set up their nighttime serenade, a-yowling and a-yawling like the British House of Commons in full parliamentary debate. It had been an owl, I was certain. There was no point arguing.
Besides, there were other birds. Small waders flew past our heads with musical calls, their underside all that we could see as a pale and ghostly shadow of light. Curlew called from the distant shore. Not Irish birds, these, only winter tourists lamenting to remind us of our loss.
Between that night of moon and Mars and now, we had the Leonid meteor shower. For those that missed, the often spectacular Geminid meteorites are due about the second week of December.
Go on, throw off your cares, throw on your warmest coat, get down to the ocean, catch your falling star and, yes, make that wish.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.