Posted by: T. Boyd | April 15, 2009

Walking under the Stars

Arc to Arcturus

Arc to Arcturus

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem… (Luke 24:32-33 KJV)

Easter Sunday evening,  I decided to see how it would be to walk at dark like the 2 disciples did on the road from Emmaus back to Jerusalem, 3 days after Passover, as related in the Luke passage.  This year we had about the same Passover to Sunday arrangement of days that they had at the time of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

At dusk I started walking into the 40 acres of woods behind our house along an old path that I frequent, trying not to use the flashlight in my pocket.  This was not exactly the same thing the disciples experienced, since there are few trees in that part of Israel and I think their road was easier to see than this narrow path through the tall trees.

Soon I was struggling to see the path at all, but I looked up, and the brighter stars had burst forth, soon to be followed by a myriad of others.  I was comforted that I could use the stars to help navigate as I deviated from my customary path to go over to the edge of a large beaver pond I had discovered a few days ago.  I picked out a bright star in the South to get my orientation so I could retrace my steps, keeping it to my right, thus walking in a easterly direction.  The woods and brush are thick there, but I made it to the edge of the water and enjoyed hearing the frogs croaking and some other night sounds.

By this time I could tell the bright star I had picked out was Sirius, also called the “dog star”, in the constellation Canis Major (“the big dog”).  I also found the stars Arcturus and Spica.  I recalled with amusement the Intro. to Astronomy course I taught circa 1975 at Piedmont College in Georgia.  That summer night class consisted of two  rather unenthusiastic guys who, I believe, took away only one thing from the class: “Arc over to Arcturus and spike over to Spica.”

And that little mnemonic is exactly what I used Sunday night to identify these stars when I got to a part of the journey where I could see enough of the sky to use the trick.  The picture above has a diagram of the Big Dipper, Bootes, and Virgo.  You take the Big Dipper’s handle and imagine an arc extending from the handle over to a bright reddish star, which is Arcturus in Bootes.  And then you continue the arc,  “spiking” over to Spica (which rhymes with “spike a “).  To see Sirius,  you keep turning toward the western part of the sky and notice it as the current very bright “evening” star at about the same altitude above the horizon as Spica.

Maybe this will help some of you to get started in finding your way in the night sky.  It is very satisfying to take up this hobby and be able to name the constellations and the bright stars you have seen all of your life.  Also, as you become familiar with them,  it is easy to pick out the planets because they travel slowly through the constellations,  “messing up” the patterns you have gotten used to.  For example,  Saturn is in Leo this year,  clearly causing the “Lion” to look different.

By the way,  my usual one hour walk took almost two hours in the dark.  I did use the flashlight a few times, but did pretty well getting back to my home in the dark.  It gave a new perspective on the 2 mile or so path,  a quiet and beautiful memory in my heart.


  1. (via e-mail:)

    I loved your Easter adventure …. It was like walking that dark trail with you.

    Johnnie S.

  2. […] T. Boyd added an interesting post on Walking under the StarsHere’s a small excerptArc to Arcturus. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem… … […]

  3. Thanks, Chandra. You are a good encourager.


  4. This episode will motivate readers :-). I liked the finishing “It gave a new perspective on the 2 mile or so path, a quiet and beautiful memory in my heart.”. Thanks for sacrificing your time and comfort and bringing all these unexplored stuffs to us. I am eagerly waiting for new article authored by you :-).In fact for Canis word, the scientific name of the domestic dog is Canis Lupis Familiaris where Canis is Family Name; Lupis and Familiaris being Species Name & Sub-Species respectively.

    Little bit of google brings following info:
    Canis Major is the guard-dog of Orion, following on the heels of its master and standing on its hind legs with Sirius carried in its jaws. Manilius called it “the dog with the blazing face”. Canis Major seems to cross the sky in pursuit of the hare, represented by the constellation Lepus under Orion’s feet.

  5. Thanks, Michael, and no sleep was sacrificed for this one (and only a little for the other times).

    I’m glad you brought up the moon issue. I was going to include that, but didn’t have room for the newspaper article.

    I was going to point out that on Passover (Thursday), the moon was full, and rose at sunset. But by Sunday, it would rise 3 or 4 hours after sunset. Thus it would be moonless on most or all of their return trip.

    That was what I wanted to experience this particular Easter since Passover fell on Thursday. The moon didn’t rise till 11:20 p.m. EDT, well after my journey was finished.

  6. Boyd,

    Thanks; as I have told you before, I enjoy these posts a great deal. I love it that you are so passionate as to sacrifice sleep for the sake of your explorations.

    For what it’s worth, since by definition Passover always coincides with a full moon, nighttime navigation was a bit easier than at other times.


  7. In the original posting, I misspelled Canis Major as Canus Major. My apologies to (from Wikipedia):
    * Larus canus, a medium-sized gull
    * Lenothrix canus, an Old World rat
    and to Canis, a genus containing 7 to 10 extant species and many extinct species, including dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals.


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