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It is February, my least favorite month.  Now is when I most keenly envy you lucky readers who dwell in the Southern hemisphere (where February means something like August)–for here, in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, it is the coldest and worst part of the year.  The gray frozen waste of February also reminds me acutely of age swiftly sneaking up on me–and of all the terrible decisions I have made which have resulted in me being a worthless broke clerk. Yet February has one virtue–it is short.  So, before it is over (happy day!) we had better get to the Shepheardes Calender, the great 12 part seasonal poem by Edmund Spenser.  In this second section we find the young shepherd Cuddy complaining (like me) about February. He is rebuked by the ancient shepherd Thenot and they get into an argument about the changing seasons and about age versus youth.  Cuddy defends youth by boasting of his own amorous conquests.  Thenot rebukes Cuddy for being callow with an allegorical tale about the oak and the briar. Cuddy finds the (admittedly troubling) story long-winded and empty of meaning and the two fall out.  Ah…February!

Anyway, you came here to read Spenser, not to hear long-winded tirades against the (manifold) miseries of this wintry month.  So, without any more preamble, here are Spenser’s words:

february

Shepheardes Calender II: Februarie

CUDDY. THENOT.
Ah for pity, will rank Winter’s Rage
These bitter Blasts never ‘gin t’ asswage?
The keen Cold blows through my beaten Hide,
All as I were through the Body gride.
My ragged Ronts all shiver and shake,
As done high Towers in an Earthquake:
They wont in the Wind wag their wriggle Tails,
Peark as a Peacock; but now it avails.

THENOT.
Leudly complainest, thou lazy Lad,
Of Winter’s wrack for making thee sad?
Must not the World wend in his common Course,
From Good to Bad, and from Bad to Worse,
From Worse, unto that is Worst of all,
And then return to his former Fall?
Who will not suffer the stormy Time,
Where will he live till the lusty Prime?
Self have I worn out thrice thirty Years,
Some in much Joy, many in many Tears:
Yet never complained of Cold nor Heat,
Of Summer’s Flame, nor of Winter’s Threat
Ne never was to Fortune Foe-man,
But gently took, that ungently came.
And ever my Flock was my chief Care,
Winter or Summer they mought well fare.

CUDDY.
No marvel, Thenot, if thou can bear
Chearfully the Winter’s wrathful Chear;
For Age and Winter accord full nigh,
This chill, that cold, this crooked, that wry:
And as the lowring Weather looks down,
So seemest thou like Good-Friday to frown.
But my flowring Youth is Foe to Frost,
My Ship unwont in Storms to be tost.

THENOT.
The Sovereign of Seas he blames in vain,
That once Sea-beat, will to Sea again.
So loytring live you little Heard-Groom,
Keeping your Beasts in the budded Brooms.
And when the shining Sun laugheth once,
You deemen, the Spring is come at once.
Tho gin you, fond Flies, the Cold to scorn,
And crowing in Pipes made of green Corn,
You thinken to be Lords of the Year:
But eft, when ye count you freed from Fear,
Comes the breme Winter with chamfred Brows,
Full of Wrinkles and frosty Furrows,
Drerily shooting his stormy Dart,
Which cruddles the Blood, and pricks the Heart.
Then is your careless Courage accoyed,
Your careful Herds with cold be annoyed.
Then pay you the price of your Surquedry,
With weeping, and wailing, and misery.

CUDDY.
Ah foolish old Man, I scorn thy Skill,
That wouldst me, my springing Youth to spill.
I deem thy Brain emperished be,
Through rusty Eld, that hath rotted thee:
Or siker thy Head very totty is,
So on thy corb Shoulder it leans amiss.
Now thy self hath lost both lop and top,
Als my budding Branch thou wouldest crop:
But were thy Years green, as now been mine
To other Delights they would encline.
Tho wouldest thou learn to carol of Love,
And hery with Hymns thy Lasses Glove:
Tho wouldest thou pipe of Phillis’ Praise;
But Phillis is mine for many Days.
I wone her with a Girdle of Gelt,
Embost with Bugle about the Belt.
Such an one Shepherds would make full fain:
Such an one would make thee young again.

THENOT.
Thou art a Fon, of thy Love to boast:
All that is lent to Love will be lost.

CUDDY.
Seest how brag yond Bullock bears,
So smirk, so smooth, his pricked Ears?
His Horns been as brade, as Rainbow bent,
His Dewlap as lythe, as Lass of Kent.
See how he venteth into the Wind,
Weenest of Love is not his Mind?
Seemeth thy Flock thy Counsel can,
So rustless been they, so weak, so wan.
Cloathed with Cold, and hoary with Frost,
Thy Flock’s Father his Courage hath lost.
Thy Ewes that wont to have blown Blags,
Like wailful Widdows hangen their Crags.
The rather Lambs been starved with cold,
All for their Master is lustless and old.

THENOT.
Cuddy, I wot thou kenst little good,
So vainly to advance thy headless Hood.
For Youth is a Bubble blown up with Breath,
Whose Wit is Weakness, whose Wage is Death,
Whose Way is Wilderness, whose Inn Penaunce,
And stoop gallant Age, the host of Grievaunce.
But shall I tell thee a Tale of Truth,
Which I cond of Tityrus in my Youth,
Keeping his Sheep on the Hills of Kent?

CUDDY.
To nought more, Thenot, my Mind is bent,
Than to hear Novels of his devise;
They been so well thewed, and so wise,
What ever that good old Man bespake.

THENOT.
Many meet Tales of Youth did he make,
And some of Love, and some of Chivalry:
But none fitter than this to apply.
Now listen a while and hearken the end.

There grew an aged Tree on the Green,
A goodly Oak sometime had it been,
With Arms full strong and largely display’d,
But of their Leaves they were disaray’d:
The Body big and mightily pight,
Throughly rooted, and of wondrous height:
Whylom had been the King of the Field,
And mochel Mast to the Husband did yield,
And with his Nuts larded many Swine.
But now the gray Moss marred his Rine,
His bared Boughs were beaten with Storms,
His Top was bald, and wasted with Worms,
His Honour decay’d, his Braunches sere.

Hard by his side grew a bragging Breere,
Which proudly thrust into th’ Element,
And seemed to threat the Firmament.
It was embellisht with Blossoms fair:
And thereto aye wonted to repair
The Shepherd’s Daughters to gather Flowres,
To paint their Garlands with his Colowres;
And in his small Bushes used to shroud
The sweet Nightingale singing so loud;
Which made this foolish Breere wex so bold,
That on a time he cast him to scold,
And sneb the good Oak, for he was old.

Why standst there (quoth he) thou brutish Block?
Nor for Fruit, nor for Shadow serves thy Stock;
Seest how fresh my Flowers been spread,
Died in Lilly white, and Crimson red,
With Leaves engrained in lusty Green,
Colours meet to cloath a maiden Queen?
Thy waste Bigness but cumbers the Ground,
And dirks the beauty of my Blossoms round.
The mouldy Moss, which thee accloyeth,
My Cinamon Smell too much annoyeth.
Wherefore soon I rede thee hence remove,
Lest thou the price of my displeasure prove.
So spake this bald Breere with great disdain:
Little him answer’d the Oak again,
But yielded with Shame and Grief adaw’d,
That of a Weed he was o’er-craw’d.

It chaunced after upon a day,
The Husband-man’s self to come that way,
Of custom to surview his Ground,
And his Trees of State in compass round.
Him when the spightful Breere had espyed,
Causeless complained, and loudly cryed
Unto his Lord, stirring up stern Strife:

O my liege Lord, the God of my Life,
Pleaseth you pond your Suppliant’s Plaint,
Caused of Wrong, and cruel Constraint,
Which I your poor Vassal daily endure;
And but your Goodness the same recure,
Am like for desperate Dole to die,
Through felonous Force of mine Enemy.

Greatly aghast with this piteous Plea,
Him rested the good Man on the Lea,
And bad the Breere in his Plaint proceed.
With painted Words tho ‘gan this proud Weed,
(As most usen ambitious Folk)
His colour’d Crime with Craft to cloke.

Ah my Sovereign, Lord of Creatures all,
Thou Placer of Plants both humble and tall,
Was not I planted of shine own Hand,
To be the Primrose of all thy Land;
With flowring Blossoms, to furnish the Prime,
And scarlet Berries in Sommer-time?
How falls it then that this faded Oak,
Whose Body is sere, whose Branches broke,
Whose naked Arms stretch unto the Fire,
Unto such Tyranny doth aspire?
Hindring with his Shade my lovely Light,
And robbing me of the sweet Sun’s sight?
So beat his old Boughs my tender Side,
That oft the Blood springeth from Woundes wide:
Untimely my Flowers forced to fall,
That been the Honour of your Coronal:
And oft he lets his Canker-worms light
Upon my Branches, to work me more spight;
And oft his hoary Locks down doth cast,
Wherewith my fresh Flowrets been defast.
For this, and many more such Outrage,
Craving your Goodlyhead to assuage
The rancorous Rigour of his Might:
Nought ask I, but only to hold my Right;
Submitting me to your good Sufferaunce,
And praying to be garded from Grievaunce.

To this, this Oak cast him to reply
Well as he couth: But his Enemy
Had kindled such Coles of Displeasure,
That the good Man nould stay his Leasure,
But home him hasted with furious Heat:
Encreasing his wrath with many a threat,
His harmful Hatchet he hent in Hand,
(Alas, that it so ready mould stand!)
And to the Field alone he speedeth,
(Aye little help to harm there needeth)
Anger nould let him speak to the Tree,
Enaunter his Rage mought cooled be:
But to the Root bent his sturdy Stroak,
And made many wounds in the waste Oak.
The Axe’s edg did oft turn again,
As half unwilling to cut the Grain,
Seemed, the senseless Iron did fear,
Or to wrong holy Eld did forbear.
For it had been an antient Tree,
Sacred with many a Mystery,
And often crost with the Priest’s Crew,
And often hallowed with Holy water dew:
But sike Fancies weren Foolery,
And broughten this Oak to this Misery;
For nought mought they quitten him from
Decay, for fiercely the good Man at him did lay.
The Block oft groaned under his Blow,
And sighed to see his near Overthrow.
In fine, the Steel had pierced his Pith,
Tho down to the ground he fell forthwith.
His wondrous Weight made the ground to quake,
Th’ Earth shrunk under him, and seem’d to shake:
There lieth the Oak pitied of none.

Now stands the Breere like a Lord alone,
Puff’d up with Pride and vain Pleasance;
But all this Glee had no continuance;
For eftsoons Winter ‘gan to approach,
The blustering Boreas did encroach,
And beat upon the solitary Breere;
For now no succour was seen him neere.
Now ‘gan he repent his Pride too late,
For naked left and disconsolate,
The biting Frost nipt his Stalk dead,
The watry wet weighed down his Head,
And heaped Snow burdned him so sore,
That now upright he can stand no more;
And being down, is trode in the durt
Of Cattel, and brouzed, and sorely hurt.
Such was th’ End of this ambitious Breere,
For scorning Eld—

CUDDY.
Now I pray thee Shepherd, tell it not forth:
Here is a long Tale, and little worth.
So long have I listened to thy Speech,
That graffed to the Ground is my Breech:
My Heart-blood is well nigh frorn I feel,
And my Galage grown fast to my Heel:
But little ease of thy leud Tale I tasted,
Hie thee home Shepherd, the day is nigh wasted.

THENOT’S EMBLEM.
Iddio, perche e vecchio,
Fa suoi al suo essempio.

CUDDY’S EMBLEM.
Niuno vecchio,
Spaventa Iddio.

Sunflowers in a commercial field in California

Sunflowers in a commercial field in California

Ferrebeekeeper is always chasing down where domesticated plants and animals originally came from.  Bananas are from Malaysia and New Guinea.  Quinces are from the Near East.  Goats are from Crete and Iran. Turkeys seem to have come from Mesoamerica. Pigs are from Eurasia (sometimes these sites are somewhat less than specific).  All of this leads to the question of what came from here?  Are there any domesticated animals from eastern North America? Are there any domesticated plants that didn’t come from Eurasia or Africa or some tropical wonderland?  It is autumn and the answer is right outside.  All domesticated sunflowers everywhere descend from a variety originally native to the woodlands in the central east of North America.  Some of the earliest archaeological finds of domesticated sunflowers come from 3000 to 3500 year old sites in Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Of course answers as to what happened thousands of years ago in societies which did not leave written records are always open to debate and to new findings—so a subset of archaeologists think that sunflowers too were first domesticated in the great temple societies of Mesoamerica.  But until they come up with truly conclusive evidence let’s say the useful yellow plants are from Arkansas.

It is possible I will have to change this article around, but this evocative Aztec-style picture was made by modern artist Zina Deretsky

It is possible I will have to change this article around, but this evocative Aztec-style picture was made by modern artist Zina Deretsky

Sunflowers are a genus (Helianthus) of approximately 70 species of tall aster flowers (asters are a family of flowering plants which include cornflowers, periwinkles, cosmos, and lots and lots of other flowers which I have not written about).  Domesticated sunflowers (H. annus) are annuals which grow to 3 meters (9.8 ft) tall in a growing season. According to my sources, the tallest sunflower on record somehow grew to a height of 9 meters (30 feet), which I find implausible (though I would dearly like to see such a thing).  Sunflowers spend their energy on growing a full head of large oily seeds.  The head of a sunflower is a complex and botanically interesting combination of different sorts of flowers growing together.  The “petals” are produced by sexually sterile flowers which fuse their petals into an asymmetrical ray flower. A whole ring of these peculiar flowers surround the inner head, where individual disk flowers are oriented in mathematically complex relations to each other (seriously, try drawing the head of a sunflower and you will soon appreciate the peculiar juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity going on in the form).

sunflower_forums

29789_web

Sunflowers were first imported to Europe in the 16th century. They have become commercially important in the modern world largely because of their inexpensive high-quality oil (although the seeds are roasted, milled, baked, and otherwise made into every sort of foodstuff you could think of).  Young sunflowers do track the sun across the sky during the day, but they swiftly lose this ability as their buds open.

DSC_1289

The sunflower has garnered a vast variety of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural meanings as it moved around the world and became one of humankind’s favorite crops. However nearly every culture is inclined to associate it with joy, beauty, abundance, and the sun.  They are wonderful plants.

Amazing-Sky-and-Sunflower-Wallpaper

I just downloaded this from the net, since I didn't want to take photos of people's kids (and also since the painting is better than what I did)

I just downloaded this from the net, since I didn’t want to take photos of people’s kids (and also since the painting is better than what I did)

So, I worked a five year old’s birthday party this past Saturday as a face painter. As I speculated beforehand, my young patrons asked for rainbows and unicorns (and one flower), which is good because the face paint was not the world’s most versatile medium! I don’t know if I could have painted a truly intricate subject with that goop…and it was more intimidating than you might expect to paint on the beautifully coiffed and perfectly attired little princesses of Park Slope (though in truth I think it would be intimidating to paint any person’s face for the same reason—you have to look directly at them and touch their face). I felt like one of the supporting characters in a Disney movie “’Here now, your highness…Don’t squirm so or it won’t look right!” Thank goodness I didn’t paint any mutant ponies, monster fairies, or melted peonies!

Free-Shipping-Wholesale-Colorful-Girl-TUTU-Little-Girl-Pageant-Flower-Girl-Dresses-Party-Birthday-Kids-Children

Anyway I really love painting & children & parties (and I needed the money) so the afternoon was delightful. Despite my time in the toy industry, I haven’t been to a five year old’s party since I was five. The guests seemed to enjoy the beauty and thrill of life and the event with rare zest! It reminded me of something else too. The children’s party outfits were the most beautiful possible colors—brilliant aqua, radiant pink, magenta, crimson, and glowing lavender. Then I looked at the parents sipping their cocktails and talking about jobs and international trade and real estate. All the adults were wearing sad dull colors like we had been impressed into some glum army of despair. What happened? Why do we shy away from color as we grow older? Color is one of life’s greatest delights. Are we afraid that we’ll rob it of its power if we overuse it (the children had no such qualms)? Or do we think the scintillant beauty of colorful garb will highlight the weaknesses of our own appearances and draw unwanted attention and unflattering comments?

Baby Corn Snake

Baby Corn Snake

I was forcefully reminded of the pretty corn snakes which lived in the fields and forests of the hill farm when I grew up. When they are newly hatched they glisten with bands of scarlet, orange, and luxurious cream, but when they grow into adult snakes their colors become muted and they blend in with the clay and the fallen leaves (the better to evade the attention of predators and to seize on unwary mice, I guess). Is it that way for adults? Unless we are pop stars on stage or master gunnery sergeants on parade, it is better not to draw too much attention or risk looking foolish with a garish combination. That strikes me as a sad way to live (although I guess it has a certain Puritan modesty and no small measure of self-interested cunning).

Adult Corn Snake

Adult Corn Snake

Of course a children’s birthday party is not the right place for grown-ups to get gussied up anyway (unless they are the clown, which I might have been). However as I transition back into office life, I notice everyone wears a lot of gray, taupe, khaki, and navy. I am sure that some of that is protective camouflage—it really is best to blend into the walls on Wall Street. But still, there is something unsatisfactory about our culture that it encourages drabness.

All drab and sad...

All drab and sad…

Sigh, maybe I need to move to India or Thailand. They are certainly calling me louder than my new life in title insurance!

This is more like it!

This is more like it!

Orpheus (Jean Delville, 1893, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Jean Delville, 1893, oil on canvas)

The constellation Lyra was named after the haunting lyre of Orpheus. After the great musician was killed by maenads, his severed head and his lyre were thrown into the river and then drifted down to the sea. Zeus sent his eagle to pick up the lyre and carry it up into the night sky as an eternal reminder for human creative professionals about the nature of their discipline. The myth of this constellation is entirely different in China—as we have seen—yet it too revolves around star-crossed lovers sundered by circumstance.

The Constellation Lyra

The Constellation Lyra

Meanwhile…the robot observatory Kepler has been scanning the heavens for the subtle signs of exoplanets since 2009. The spacecraft malfunctioned in 2013, and engineers are still arguing about how best to salvage or repurpose it (or whether such a thing is even possible), but the vast treasure troves of data collected by Kepler are still yielding stunning discoveries. One of those discoveries just came to light this past week. In the constellation Lyra, there is an orange star 117 light years away from earth. The star is only 3/4th the size of the sun, but it is much older—dating back to 11.2 billion years ago (the sun, by comparison, is 4.567 billion years old). The universe itself is 13.8 billion years old—so the orange star has been burning through most of the history of creation. Because the orange star is smaller than the sun it has a much longer lifespan and will probably continue to fuse atoms together for another 20 billion years (whereas the dear sun, alas, will use up its fuel in another 4 or 5 billion years).

An artist's conception of 444 Kepler and its planetary system

An artist’s conception of 444 Kepler and its planetary system

This is already heady stuff to think about, but not unprecedented. What is news is that Kepler discovered five small, rocky planets orbiting this ancient star—by far the oldest planets ever discovered. The planets are tiny—smaller than Earth and closer to 444 Kepler than Mercury is to our sun. In light of this discovery, the ancient orange star in Lyra has been designated as 444 Kepler.

The Lament of Orpheus (Alexandre Séon, 1896, oil on canvas)

The Lament of Orpheus (Alexandre Séon, 1896, oil on canvas)

444 Kepler is from one of the first broods of stars to exist. The fact that it has planets at all is something of a surprise. Astronomers are working to explain the genesis of such early planets. Of course this discovery raises other questions as well, about whether life could be much older than imagined. However to such questions there are still no answers. From the heavenly lyre of Orpheus, as from the rest of the firmament we have still heard nothing but silence.

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

P1000492

In previous posts I have written about the great German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who came to prominence and fame at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for Friedrich, art is fickle.  As he approached his middle years, the melancholy and dramatic realism which was his specialty fell out of fashion.  His patrons abandoned him and his art became even more bleak and pessimistic (which did nothing to help his sales). Although fashion abandoned Friedrich, his genius did not desert him: his works became more somber and metaphysical, but their lonely beauty and solemn majesty also became more pronounced.

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

Here is a picture from 1829 of a denuded oak tree standing alone in the snow.  Although leafless and broken the tree is still magnificent.  The artist has painted the dark tree looming up into an indifferent sky above the viewer.  The desolate winter landscape accentuates the bare branches and gnarled trunk of the tree which seems to strive against the cold grasp of winter–and even against time itself.   There is a paradox to this work: the very emptiness and plainness of the composition awakens an imagined spring within the heart of anyone looking at the picture.  Sadly, for Friedrich, spring was never to come again: his work did not regain its popularity in his life (and a stroke in 1835 robbed him of his ability to paint with oils). Yet The Oaktree in the Snow is a triumph—a fully realized painting of existential complexity in the simplest and boldest of compositions.

Sirius, located in the constellation Canis Majoris

The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius.  Only 8.6 million light years from Earth, Sirius A is 25 times more luminous than the sun.  Because of its brightness, the star was well known in ancient times—it was named Sopdet in Ancient Egypt and it was the basis of the Egyptian calendar.  After a 70-day absence from the skies Sirius (or Sopdet) first became visible just before sunrise near the Summer solstice—just prior to the annual Nile floods.   Greek and Roman astronomers philosophized and speculated about Sirius, (which they called “the dog star” because of its closeness to the constellation Canis Majoris).  Arabs knew the star as Aschere “the leader”.  Polynesians used it as a principle focus of their astonishing oceanic navigation.  Over countless millennia, Sirius has worked its way deep into human consciousness as one of the immutable landmarks of the night sky.

Hieroglyph of Sirius/Sopdet

So imagine the shock when it was discovered that Sirius is not alone.  The bright star we know is actually Sirius A, a star with twice the mass of the sun. In 1844 the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel hypothesized a tiny companion for Sirius based on the irregular proper motion of Sirius.  Then, in 1862, as the American Civil war was being fought an American astronomer in Chicago first observed the tiny companion, Sirius B (thereafter affectionately known as “the Pup”). Sirius B has nearly the same mass as the sun (.98 solar mass) but it is only 12,000 kilometers (7,500 mi) in diameter—nearly the same distance around as Earth.

An Artist's Conception of Sirius A and Sirius B

Today Sirius B is the closest white dwarf star to planet Earth.  However it has not always been so, Sirius B began its life as a luminous blue B-type main sequence star with a mass five times that of the sun. About 124 million years ago—as the dinosaurs grazed on the first magnolias—Sirius B fused its way through the hydrogen and helium in its mass.  As Sirius B began to fuse together larger elements like oxygen and carbon it expanded into a red giant star with a diameter 10 to 100 times that of the sun. Then Sirius B ran out of nuclear fuel.  Without the heat generated by nuclear fusion to support it, the star underwent gravitational collapse and shrank into a hyper dense white dwarf star.  These tiny stars are extremely dense and hot when they are formed, but since they generate no new energy their heat and radiance gradually radiate away over billions of years until the stars are completely black and dead.

Not this sort of "White Dwarf"--Curse you Google Image Search!

Although Sirius B is largely composed of a carbon-oxygen mixture, its core is overlaid by an envelope of lighter elements. Hydrogen, being lightest, forms the outermost layer (which is why the little star currently appears uniformly white).

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