Heavens above: Paul Dennett

Out in the PNG bush well away from the obtrusive light of town supplies, the clear night sky presented a wondrously beautiful spectacle. The stars glittering in their multitudes seemed much closer there than in the city. As well, seeing shooting stars was a more common experience there.

One night in the Wosera, south of Maprik, we happened to be outside and looked up in time to catch a very bright shooting star as it passed, slowly it seemed, from one corner of the sky to the other. Many villagers from the nearby hamlets who were sitting down round their fire ‘storying’ as is their custom, let out a collective Aaah! at the wonderful sight, just like a crowd from anywhere enjoying a fireworks display.

On clear moonless nights the starshine made up for the lack of a moon. I’ve been to parties ‘in the Territory’ made memorable just by sitting on chairs that had been dragged out onto the lawn to enjoy the cool of night and the entrancing heavenly display above us.

Soon after we were married I learnt from the newspapers that a lunar eclipse was due so I prepared the schoolchildren for the dramatic natural event by taking them in small groups into the darkened office, where I could, with the help of a tennis ball, basketball and torch, explain just what happens when the earth’s shadow passes across the moon.

I told the kids to go home and tell their parents to make sure that they were outside and watching on the appropriate night.

What was their response to my advice, I asked the kids next day. I learned that most of the parents pooh-poohed what their children had told them. But I had my revenge.

On the appointed night the sky was totally clear, affording perfect visibility. A great full moon ensured that the villagers were out enjoying nature’s own lamp. They were keenly interested in what was happening above them and we could hear that their observation of the phenomenon was accompanied by a spirited conversation punctuated by the treble contributions from children.

What did the parents think of the eclipse and the ability of science to accurately predict its timing? I asked the children next morning. The parents were at a loss as they weren’t able to comment about the science of what they had seen, but some were certain that Europeans somehow must be in control of the heavens.

 

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