On Shooting Stars and Dark Skies, and a Good Man, Gone Much too Soon

12 Jun ’21

(Originally published Friday, June 11, 2021)

I went to the beach last night to shoot the Milky Way. It was my first attempt – the first new moon since I finished my quarantine here in Fortune, and the sky was perfect – dark and clear.

Last night was step 1 – shooting the sky with a tracker (a mount that matches the movement of the night sky with the rotation of the earth). I’ll probably go back soon, during Blue Hour, and shoot the foreground, and then I’ll composite the images together.

It took me a while to figure out how to set up the tracker, and to get the camera settings right and everything framed just so, and every few minutes standing there at the water’s edge the waves would lap over my boots and I would jump back, knock the tripod, and have to start again.

But the night was cold, clear and lovely, and the longer it took, the more the day’s worries drained out of me and the more confident I became – and soon enough I could see the first shots in my viewfinder, and I thought I might well be on the right track.

These shots are all long exposures – 4 to 5 minutes – so there is lots of standing around time, and lots of time to just watch the sky. I was working with a red headlight so my eyes eventually became very night-adjusted and gradually I could see the night sky as I have rarely seen it before.

And just then – on my third or fourth exposure – a shooting star blazed across the sky – right where I had been looking! – and burned its smoky trail down, coming from high above the northeastern sky, cutting right across the heart of the galactic centre of the Milky Way, and ending over and behind Abell’s Cape. I gasped – I’m pretty sure I used extremely colourful language – and then I thought of Michael.

They buried Michael today. It was a lovely service – warm and loving, full of affection for this kind and sweet man. Michaela, his daughter, spoke at the end, and told the story of how they had been separated but then finally brought together again, here in Fortune. There was so much about Michael that I didn’t know but I was grateful to have this chance to sit and listen and hear about his dedication to Michaela, to Nancy, to his church, and to this community.

A few years ago, we had a party here and Michael brought his guitar. Toward the end of the evening we set a chair for him and he started playing. He had a lovely deep, warm and rosy voice – like warm caramel – and Celtic music came naturally to it. Toward the end – maybe it was his last song, I can’t remember – he played Farewell to Nova Scotia. But he played it as a dirge – slow, solemn and reflective – even mournful. I’ve heard that song hundreds of times, but never like that – and I was stunned. Floored. It was a completely different song, a completely different story, and – as I discovered later – entirely improvised in the moment. I still don’t really know how that happened, how he did it. Michael completely inhabited that music – I suppose it was just in him. Maybe that was how he was feeling that night, I don’t know. It was in him, and he revealed it to us that night.

I got to hear that song one more time. Last year, as I was celebrating my 60th birthday in Fortune, alone in quarantine and far away from everyone but with them on Zoom, of all things – Michael came to the door at Vicky’s invitation, and under the porch, tucked in from a downpour, he played it for me again. And then, with his Michael laugh and little shrug of his shoulders, he packed up and was off.

Through his long illness, Michael was on Facebook. And everything he shared resonated with me. I was seeing every day how this man’s politics, sense of humour and attitudes were so very much like mine. How he laughed at what I laughed at. How he was quite obviously a friend I had never really properly met (when we are here we are always either busy working or busy with family). So a couple of weeks ago I emailed him to say that I was finally out of quarantine and could we get together for a visit. Of course! Come by when you can! But again – there just wasn’t enough time. There is never enough time.

I will miss Michael. Fortune is different to me now. But I am really glad I went out last night to watch the stars.

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