Stargazers: Big, Little Dippers are harbingers of spring

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It's amazing how stargazing often takes me back to my childhood, when I first gazed upon the night sky with wonder.

Back in the early 1960s at my childhood home in Easton, Pennsylvania, my dad would sometimes go outdoors at night — even in winter — and I would tag along and gaze upward most of the time. It was on these nights I began to develop a fascination with the stars and planets and all the secrets they held.

After enduring our long, cold winters, I always looked forward to the sunshine and warmth of spring. One of my favorite activities during late February was to brush away the snow in my mom's garden to look for signs that life might be returning. And, oh, what excitement I felt when I first saw those tiny buds of green!

At the time, of course, I had no idea that seasonal changes also appeared in the sky. But Walter Coursen sure did. Walter was an older neighbor of ours, and during early evenings, he would step outside for a cigarette and keep watch on the world and universe around him. I would frequently encounter him there while I, too, was gazing at the heavens.

Walter was an avid fisherman, and he looked forward to springtime more than almost anyone I've ever known just so he could again drop a line or two into the Delaware River. I always enjoyed listening to his grand fishing stories whenever we encountered each other outdoors, but I was surprised to learn that he also knew a thing or two about the stars.

Just as I would search the soil for buds of green to excite me about the approaching spring, Walter used the sky for the same purpose. In fact, it was he who first introduced me to the Big and Little Dippers.

I remember standing by his gate at the end of our yard, looking toward the sky above my house to the north. He pointed his finger up and jumped from star to star. He counted seven of them, and suddenly, I saw what he was describing. Wow! There it was: the Big Dipper!

He explained how every spring this famous star grouping appeared to stand on its handle in the northeastern sky after spending the winter months out of sight behind my house. And then he showed me how he followed the Dipper's pointer stars, the two at the end of its bowl, to find the North Star (also known as Polaris), from which the Little Dipper seemed to hang.

Many decades have passed since that wonderful time in my life, but I still look forward to springtime every year and enjoy seeing some of my oldest celestial friends again.

Even though it's still wintertime, you can get a preview of the springtime sky by heading outdoors this week to find the Dippers in your sky. And while you're out enjoying the stars, think back to how you first learned about such wonders of nature. You might be surprised to realize that you had a Walter in your life.

Visit Dennis Mammana

at www.dennismammana.com.

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