Michelle Langstone took a cosmic road trip with Naomi Arnold, author of a dazzling new book on New Zealand's southern skies
Naomi Arnold has a high-powered telescope roughly the dimensions of a dead body. She stands in her spare room in a sun-drenched noontime in Nelson and laughs helplessly at the dials and knobs that scatter the floor beside a huge white cylinder that makes up the bulk of the telescope.
Commissioned to write a book about astronomy in New Zealand, the 37-year-old journalist unwittingly fell in love with the universe and bought the telescope in order to spend more time looking at the stars. It's a cumbersome bit of tech that she doesn't know how to assemble, requiring the entire back seat and boot of a car to travel. She hasn't had time to download the set-up manual and suspects it's very complicated. We agree it's a symbol for something, though we're not sure what. I'm down here on a star mission, and Arnold is my guide. We're meant to lug this gigantic thing out at night to have a galactic lesson but concede defeat. It's just as easy to look with binoculars, says Arnold. She has a laser pointer that might be illegal it's so powerful, so she can show me constellations with that instead.
There seems no better time to explore the night sky than upon the publication of a New Zealand-centric book about astronomy. Southern Nights; The Story of New Zealand's Night Sky details of the history of astronomy in Aotearoa, how early Māori used the celestial bodies to navigate and live by and exactly what we can see from our parcel of islands down here at the bottom of the world. It works in several ways — as a succinct guide to understanding celestial phenomena and New Zealand's place in the global history of astronomy, as a useful reference tool with tables, charts and maps; and as a legacy document revealing the sublime navigation skills of the Polynesian migrants. It's also a reminder of the wonders above us, with page after page of remarkable images shot by photographers and astronomers around New Zealand.
In her office, Arnold waves a clear plastic folder at me. The dome that keeps it secure is undone and the contents, the final draft of what has become Southern Nights, concertinas out and threatens to spill across the floor. "That's it," she says, "That's the whole book." Her bright blue eyes appear to cloud over. I ask her how she feels when she looks at it and she exhales a little laugh that sounds as if her soul is trying to escape her body. She says, "Tired."
A brilliant winter sky devoid of any clouds watches over us, promising a clear evening of star-gazing. We pile warm clothes and sleeping bags into the back of Arnold's van and head out of Nelson. Quite accidentally, I've arrived on a date in the lunar cycle where there will be no moon to speak of and Arnold is delighted. I'd never considered that the moon might get in the way of anything but its glow is unhelpful, she says, we're better off without it. We had planned to tackle Takaka Hill in the evening and head to Canaan Downs where a good dark sky is always on offer, however, we are sidetracked in Marahau Valley, where we drop our supplies in a beautiful crib called The Kite, on a quiet stretch of farmland and realise we might get a decent bit of dark sky here, so there's no need to drive on.
Trying to interview Arnold about the universe is difficult. Not because she's unforthcoming but because I've read her excellent book from cover to cover and I've breathed all over the incredible photographs that burst from the pages, so I don't know where to begin. My first attempt, "So, you know with stars ..." peters out as Arnold gazes at me expectantly, from a wide, clear face. "Yes?" she says. I just gape at her. Our galaxy and solar system are immense and I feel stupid. I suspect I'm not alone in this but it's always good to check if you're the only dunce in the room, so I ask Arnold about the results of a quiz she put on Facebook and Twitter. She created the quiz to gauge where to pitch her book and to get a sense of New Zealanders' general knowledge of the stars in the Southern Hemisphere.
She asked people to name what constellations and planets they could identify in our night sky. Looking through the results, it's heartening to see so many people so utterly in the dark. One gainful participant simply wrote, "None, I'm a dummy." Arnold laughs. "No one knew s***. They knew the Southern Cross, maybe Venus, maybe Scorpius, the Pointers, the Pot. And that was the same as me, I didn't know anything else either."
You'd think a science writer embarking on a book about astronomy might have a few facts tucked close but Arnold is disarmingly honest about her lack of prior knowledge — "I didn't know anything. Absolutely nothing. I got books out of the library. I looked at all the astronomy books and thought — how the f*** am I going to do this?" Slowly, it turns out. Arnold says it wasn't uncommon to spend a day wrestling with a single paragraph, because the information was dense and required precision. The book took her more than two years to complete but the work was engaging and she felt her mind "being blown on the regular", as she wandered down many avenues simply out of curiosity.
"You just spend days in documents and books. It's a deep joy reading whatever you want and knowing that you're allowed to because it's part of your work." It also meant that every time she'd go outdoors to the compost she'd look up and the night sky seemed to bloom in a new way with each bit of knowledge she acquired. Her dog Dusty, a shiny black labrador cross accompanied her and letting him out to run around became the breaks between work. It sounds dreamy but Arnold recalls the furious industry of writing the book in a different way — it was one of three books she was working on at the time, alongside a book about the history of Nelson Tasman Hospice and editing a collection of essays about anxiety, called Headlands. Nothing too major then, just a book about death, a book about the history of the universe and a book about mental health while also working as a freelance writer. "All at once! It was quite hard. I was working all night, it was terrible. I was driving down to the service station constantly to get Vs, it was terrible for my health," groans Arnold.
People who don't suffer from anxiety often like to tell anxious folk, of which Arnold is one, that they need a new perspective — to lift away from the state they're in and get a better view on a situation that troubles them. I ask Arnold whether it helped to look at the sky each night while in the maelstrom of the anxiety she felt as she juggled so much work. She has a face that flushes easily, and colour swarms her cheeks in an instant.
"I think as a general practice in your life it's good to pay attention to these things. But at the same time, to anyone who says, 'Just go and do XYZ and you'll feel better,' anxiety is a disease so f*** off."
Night after night, as Arnold wrote the book, she and Dusty visited the compost and looked up at the enveloping darkness. All across winter they watched the sky together, with Scorpius taking its turn centre stage. As the months passed, she watched the constellations move across her line of sight and they became the hands of a clock keeping time for her. It's a metaphor she returns to often, as she describes the regularity of the movement of the stars and of Earth. Each time she mentions it, an expression crosses her face that's part wonder, part consternation: "It's like anything in the natural world that you take for granted. I just hadn't connected that all the stars marched regularly across the sky in a rhythm that could be predicted, like the hands of a clock ticking. I hadn't realised how intimately our ancestors would have been connected to that."
Once upon a time you could run your life by the stars and the Polynesian navigators who discovered New Zealand did it with astonishing skill. About a third of Southern Nights is devoted to looking at their early use of astronomy. It's an awe-inspiring read. As Arnold talks about her research, and her conversations with Māori astronomer and professor of Māori studies Dr Rangi Matamua, she gets heated. "The navigation getting here! The most brilliant calculations! Then arriving and learning how the land worked and using the stars as a guide for how the seasons came? That's science. They were scientists."
Arnold's research rewarded her with a conflicting position as a Pākehā — both a deep reverence for the skill of our early Māori settlers and anger at what has been forcibly lost through colonisation. She shakes her head in frustration. "I don't think racist people in New Zealand understand the level of scientific knowledge the Māori had. They don't give it enough credit, how they survived in this difficult land." She talks about the knowledge that has been lost but is slowly returning, due to the mahi of people like Matamua, who travels New Zealand imparting that ancient wisdom. Those dangerous, wild journeys across the sea, led by stars, and the cultivation of land using astronomy once they arrived is one of the most absorbing parts of the book. Arnold makes a strong case for ancestral knowledge being at once the most natural and also the most scientific way of living with, and harmoniously upon Earth.
Light leaves the ridge line above Marahau Valley quickly but suspends long enough for liquid gold to pick out the edges of every branch and leaf. After it's gone, we layer thermals and puffer jackets and creep out across the lawn, our pockets bulging with maps, lasers and phones set to red light mode so as not to affect our vision. There's a big wide hammock that seems as good a place as any to stretch out, one of those bougie ones with concrete bases to hold the rods that keep the hammock suspended. Making noises like rhinoceroses collapsing at a watering hole, we sprawl out and wrap sleeping bags around us, scrabbling for all the items we need but will struggle to find later.
When we look up, it's dazzling. The night is immensely dark. You can see the lactose streak of the Milky Way galaxy stretch right across the sky. Arnold gasps, swears and gasps again. Within moments she has pointed out Scorpius, with orange Antares glowing bright in its spine, Alpha and Beta Centauri and Corona Australis, which twinkles like a fairy crown. Arnold is waving the laser around with abandon and punctuating each discovery with joyful swearing, because while we're only an hour from her home, the absence of light pollution is marked — we can see so much more with the naked eye because there is no artificial light for kilometres. The Dark Sky movement, a global initiative to reduce light pollution, is gaining popularity in New Zealand, with places like Great Barrier Island, Stewart Island and Tekapo embracing the tourism angle for unimpeded views of constellations unique to the Southern Hemisphere. In Tekapo they've kept the sodium street lights in hoods to minimise the disruption to the view. It brings astronomy lovers across the globe to gaze up at our skies in admiration.
We gaze up in a similar fashion and I ask Arnold why she thinks we don't spend time looking at the stars. "We don't need them anymore," she says, pulling out her star map and spreading it across her thighs. "We've got indoor light, we don't need starlight. We've got our interests inside. We're looking at our phones."
It's grim to think of our younger generations now illuminated by the false starlight of their devices, when just a close few centuries ago, children were learning the map of the stars and planets from drawings on the roofs of meeting houses in the Pacific Islands. When we engage with the stars these days it's usually because a probe has found information about a potentially habitable planet, or a megalomaniac like Elon Musk has sent another car into space. Arnold observes in the book, "As technology has advanced in the intervening centuries, the stars have become both closer to us and further away. Though we know more about the universe, we're less personally connected than humans have ever been."
As our eyes adjust to the dark, a new layer of celestial bodies reveal themselves. Arnold picks out the Large and Small Clouds of Magellan, soft like someone has blown clumps of dandelion seeds into the sky. "So that's another galaxy," she says casually, with the assurance of someone who knows exactly what's going on in the sky above us. The Magellanic clouds are filled with billions of stars and still, as galaxies go, they are small — much smaller than the Milky Way dominating our view. Deep in the night sky we make out the Rorschach inkiness of the Coalsack Nebula, the "nursery", where dust and gas that's 600 light years away gather and, ultimately, become stars. It's barely anything, just a birthmark on a dark sky but having read about it in Southern Nights, it seems familiar. The more you learn, the more the night reveals itself, says Arnold: "You actually need to know a little bit to get joy out of it, otherwise they're just little white dots. Otherwise you're like, 'Okay, that's it, let's go inside and watch some TV.'" After a time, our fingers and toes go numb despite the layers and, with reluctance, we trudge indoors for the night. The lights seem garish when we turn them on, a thin replica of the natural illumination we just left. We bundle into sleep with cold cheeks and the imprint of stars behind our eyes.
Back in Auckland a few weeks later, I put the rubbish out on bin night and look up at the sky. It's dismal — murky, washed-out from streetlights. I get a message from Arnold. It's a photograph of her telescope, wrapped in blankets like a shrouded body and wedged in the back of a car. It looks like it's being carried away in a hearse. It strikes me that the dead weight of the telescope is a symbol for her book; enormous, complicated, and capable of great wonder. She's moving it into storage and eventually to a patch of land just outside of Nelson, where she'll set up an observatory in the back paddock of an old homestead she's bought. I can tell she's laughing when she writes, swearing, that she still hasn't downloaded the telescope's manual. It can wait. There are plenty of trips to the compost on a dark night with a black dog to be had; the stars are waiting and the only thing they require is that we look up.
Southern Nights, by Naomi Arnold, (HarperCollins, $65). Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety has led to a short film project, developed by inspiring film-makers in partnership with the writers, poets, psychologists, journalists, musicians, comedian and physiotherapist who contributed to the book. Funds are being raised via Boosted to support the development of scripts and treatments so films can go into production next year. To donate, boosted.org.nz/projects/headlands