the way to arcturus

Sometimes at night, I’ll stand outside our cabin in the mountains and lean my head back to look at the stars.

Sometimes at night, I’ll stand outside our cabin in the mountains and lean my head back to look at the stars.

It’s one of my favourite things. Some nights the sky is so clear that looking upward across the heavens you could swear that you were suspended on a bed of stars, all within reach, just beyond your fingertips.

I’ve always been a stargazer. From my earliest recollections I was entranced by them.

In the North, where I spent the early part of my boyhood, the summer skies were clear and the northern lights often set the horizon ablaze in crackles and snaps of colour.

I hadn’t heard my peoples’ legends of the Star People then.

The world of foster homes was a white world and when I was a boy I lived in the absence of legends. The only stories I had were the schoolbook tales of dogs and families that never really rang true for me.

A part of me craved the revelation of secrets and the sky was the depths of mystery. I loved sinking myself into it.

It was the sheer size of it that awed me. I hadn’t read of light years or the rate of expansion of the universe or galactic clouds or even the Milky Way.

Instead I was transfixed by the magnitude of something that far exceeded the scope of my one small life. Magic existed in the holes between stars. I could feel it.

When I moved south after I was adopted at nine, the sky was lessened by the harsh city lights and the stars seemed further away.

It was a curious feeling — being lonely for the sky. Of all the things I came to miss in that new southern world, the sky, the stars and space were what I remember most.

There was a field down the street from where I lived. It used to be the pasture of an old sheep farm before the city encroached and drove the farmer and his family away.

When I arrived it was marked with orange plastic flags on wooden stakes for the development to come. But at night, it was wide and open and perfect for looking at stars.

I’d sneak out at night and go there to stand under that magnificent canopy and even though the light of them was dim and there were far fewer than I was used to, the stars eased me some, lightened my burden. It became my favourite place.

One night a man showed me how to find Arcturus. He was a fellow stargazer. He lived down the street from us and even though we didn’t know each other’s name we knew each other from the field.

We always just stood silently in that patch of open and looked at the sky. Sometimes he’d lay down on his back and put his hands behind his head and it wasn’t long before I was doing the same.

He’d trace the path of satellites across the sky with one finger and I adopted the same trick.

The night he showed me how to find Arcturus, the sky was as clear as I’d seen it there. He stood a few feet away with his face pointed up at the sky and asked me if I’d heard of it. When I said I hadn’t, he began to talk.

Arcturus is called the Bear Watcher, he said, because it follows the Great Bear constellation around the poles.

Arctis is Greek for bear and it’s where the word Arctic comes from.

As a star Arcturus is 37 light years away from us and the third brightest star in the sky. He told me all that while looking up and away from me and I felt the awe in his words.

He told me to look at the Big Dipper and when I found the star at the end of the handle to hold my arm up in front of my face, bend the three middle fingers of my hand in and put my little finger on that star. Where my thumb sat was Arcturus.

When I did it I smiled. It was the first time the universe became reachable and the idea that the stars were indeed within reach was implanted in me forever.

All through the years of my boyhood, whenever I felt particularly lonely I would hold out my arm, fold my fingers, find Arcturus and feel comforted.

What that nameless man gave me that night was wonder. There were secrets everywhere but I could reveal them for myself if I had the desire to search. I did. I wondered.

Soon I was reading everything I could about the universe. I learned about planets and nebulae, quarks and quasars, red giants, blue dwarfs and black holes and I learned Einstein’s assertion that “my sense of god is my sense of wonder at the universe.”

Years later when I sat in traditional circles and heard the elders and the storytellers talk about the sky and its wonders, they weren’t foreign ideas.

Everyone shares that sense of mystery at the heavens, we just frame it for ourselves in different ways. Magic exists in the holes between stars. We can all feel it.

We all need someone to offer us wonder. We all need someone to share the Great Mystery of the universe, to open it up for us and allow us to see into it, even a fraction.

Then, when we discover it for ourselves, we need to offer it to others, no matter how simple or seemingly odd it might be.

It’s how the world opens up for us. It’s how we learn to see possibility in a universe of change.

Finding Arcturus is a simple thing to do. I still do it at 52 and each and every time it’s like that first time because, well, how often do you get to say you just discovered a star?

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Dream Wheels and Keeper’n Me. He can be reached at