Spring is finally upon us. The stars of Ursa Major, the Greater Bear, and its most famous asterism, the Big Dipper, hang high in the northern sky in the early evening. Because the bear is circumpolar, it seems to rotate around the Pole Star, Polaris, over the course of an evening and also through the seasons. By autumn, the bear skirts the horizon in the north.
Autumn is a bittersweet time. The coming winter is an inconvenience in an urbanized culture like ours, but to the ancients, it was a time of hunger, disease, and death. The leaves have begun their transformation from green to yellow, brown, and red, but that glorious sight is a harbinger of harsh times to come.
The trees know that winter is the time of death-like slumber. The leaves tell us that a time of great danger is at hand. That message is written in the trees, and it is also written in the stars.
The stars of the Big Dipper are so low in the north around 11 P.M. that they seem to graze the horizon. In the northern parts of our country, the Dipper stars are circumpolar. They circle the Pole Star, never quite setting below the horizon.
Many widely separated cultures identify the Dipper stars with a bear, but few agree on what stars constitute the bear. European cultures see the bear in a larger set of stars of which the Dipper is only a part. Some Native American cultures of North America see the bear in the bowl of the Dipper. The stars of the Dipper’s handle are often identified as three hunters stalking the bear. The faint star called Alcor is the faithful hunting dog Ji-yeh.
So how did the hunters get into their starry predicament? In an old Iroquois story, the bear is a huge, monstrous beast that is devouring all the winter deer that the people depend upon for survival. Three brothers are given the honor of killing the bear. However, they soon discover that this is no ordinary beast. It can cover itself with an invisible net, which hides it from their sight.
At first, they pursue the bear with a kind of elation, the joy of the hunt. Onward they plod, their moccasined feet slowly freezing, their hope slowly fading. At last, they approach the bear and make ready to loose their arrows. All of a sudden, the bear disappears under its magic net, and the brothers are enveloped by a vaporous mist “like a hiding cloud that floats above the water,” as the old story goes. That night, as hope fades to frozen despair, the brothers all have the same dream — that they have finally captured the bear and roasted it on a warm fire.
As springtime approaches, their elation returns. They vow that they will not rest until they have vanquished the bear. Many days and nights pass without sleep. Higher and higher into the cold mountains they climb as the pitiless snow drifts to the sky. Into the sky they go, upward and upward, until they at last see the bear pushing the clouds before it.
Seeing the hunters, the mighty beast casts the net of invisibility over itself. But this time the hunters are not fooled. They rush to the spot where the bear lay.
At that moment, the bear raises the net above its head, casting them into the sky under an eternal cloak of invisibility.
The hunters and their dog are condemned to roam the skies, ignorant of their fate, as they ceaselessly chase the bear. They never quite catch it, as these circumpolar stars circle the pole, never quite setting.
In the autumn, when the stars of the Dipper are lowest on the horizon in the early evening, the hunters manage finally to wound the bear with their arrows, and the beast’s blood drips down upon the trees, smothering their leaves.
The spring bear, high in the sky, reminds us of the rebirth and renewal that comes with the season.
The glorious colors of autumn remind us the pain and sadness of the long, cold winter yet to come.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.