It seems that most of the natural history adult education classes at the Arboretum focus close to the ground, covering rocks, wildflowers, mushrooms, rivers and creeks. A few classes direct the eyes upward to treetops, birds, and weather and climate patterns. Last spring, the adult education program began a series of classes looking up beyond the treetops and birdsongs into the vastness of the night sky. There are many places in the Southern Appalachians where there is less light pollution, and the silver pepper of the stars (as F. Scott Fitzgerald called them), the moon, planets and even meteors are easily visible. Once you orient yourself with a couple of constellations, it is not difficult to use them like stepping stones to visually hop across the night sky and identify others.

Last year, Stephan Martin approached the Arboretum about teaching an introductory astronomy class. Stephan is an astronomer and educator who has taught at colleges and universities across the U.S. for more than 25 years. He has lectured on light pollution and its effects on the environment and has offered stargazing and introductory astronomy workshops both domestically and internationally. His book “Cosmic Conversations” is an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the nature of the universe through interviews with scientists, spiritual teachers, indigenous elders and cultural creatives.

Stephan sounded perfect for the Arboretum, so we offered the first in a series of classes exploring the night sky. Students met during the day and learned about using star charts and other guides. They also reviewed what they might see that night. Later that evening, the class met up nearby with Stephan’s telescope and their binoculars to identify what they could as the gaps in the clouds revealed one section of the sky and then another.

Over the next few months, the Arboretum will offer classes in a similar format to look at the treasures of the fall and winter night skies. A daytime session will consist of an orientation, and the evening session will be offered for students to learn to identify points of light as specific stars or planets. Students who are interested in learning more about the cycles of the night sky can sign up for a three-week observational astronomy class to gain a better understanding of the motions of the sun, moon, eclipses and meteor showers, and to learn more about reading star charts and using equipment.

Why is learning astronomy exciting? According to Stephan:

Over time, as I’ve grown to know and love the night sky, the constellations have become like familiar friends that I reconnect with time and time again each year. In a rapidly changing world, having something unchanging and eternal such as the sun, planets, moon and stars gives me both a feeling of groundedness and a sense of being a part of something much larger than myself.”

There is a light show going on every night all year long. Don’t miss out!

Beginning on October 19, 2016, the Arboretum will offer a three-week Observational Astronomy Class. On January 25, 2017, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, the Arboretum will offer a Winter Night Sky class with an optional evening session. For more information on these classes or to register, please click here.