“I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.” – Wisława Szymborska
In 1856, Sultan Pakubhuwana VII from Java, created an agricultural calendar using the conspicuous hunter figure in the sky, Orion.
In the northern hemisphere, Orion is a broad-shouldered hunter who is ready to take down his prey. Betelgeuse, one of the brightest, matured red star is the hinge in the shoulder; the source of power, and the three equally sparse stars are his belt where Orion keeps his weapon and also, a pocketful of nebulae. Orion is a remarkably noticeable constellation from anywhere in the world throughout the year, hence it’s often the starting point for newbies to browse through the sky.
But in Indonesia, Orion lays down, resting above the lush tropical forest with his back facing the sky. The Javanese didn’t see it as a man ready to hunt, but a farmer’s plow, a traditional tool that finances and supports their livelihood. Now laying and facing down, his body is the body of the plow and his leg is the handle.
In this island where anything grows, the Orion, or Waluku, as they called it, was used to mark the beginning and ending of rice planting seasons.
According to this Javanese calendar, around June, Orion rose together with the Sun and sets together in the East, indicating a planting season is coming. Five months in, Waluku rose in the East just right after the Sun has set, which is a sign for the men to prepare their soil. This is around December.
Few months later, around February, when Waluku is at the Zenith–the high point–at the time the Sun sets, farmers will do the seedling. Waluku begins to descend until it appears like a plow that is resting, not used. This means harvesting season, around May. Waluku the plow becomes a sign in the sky that orchestrates the whole island to work on their soil, all in the same rhythm and synchrony. It’s a celestial organization system that is reliably constant.
The brilliant stars are remarkably and compassionately constant. A star won’t decide to skip showing up for a day or two; it’s something they won’t do for a million years. And this constancy in the night sky is what becoming a language across generations to come; a language of the past, present, and the future.
Nowadays, due to climate change, technology, and a significantly growing demand for food, this Javanese rice-planting calendar, along with other calendars that blend astronomy and agriculture elegantly, has become irrelevant.
But Waluku is still up in the sky, rising and setting at exactly how it was in 1856, as if it’s still coming to work to assist with the harvesting season. Five hundred years from now, it’s likely that Waluku will remain the same.
The (nonzodiacal) constellation of Orion, the hunter, is outlined by four bright stars and bisected by a diagonal line of three stars which represent the belt of the hunter. Three dimmer stars hanging from the belt are, according to the conventional astronomical projective test, Orion’s sword. The middle star in the sword is not actually a star but a great cloud of glass called the Orion Nebula, in which stars are being born. Many of the stars in Orion are hot and young, evolving rapidly and ending their lives in colossal periods of tens of millions of years. If, on our computer, we were to run Orion rapidly into the far future, we would see a startling effect, the births and spectacular deaths of many of its stars flashing on and winking off like fireflies in the night.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
We live at a tiny slice of time to witness any changes to the sky. Humanity’s lifespan, is only like an afternoon tea in the grand scale of the universe. We are easily swept by a meteor that is accidentally swung our way by a gravitational force; because the universe is constantly changing, and it’s doing that in an incomprehensibly fast way. Even then, we are small enough and live short enough not to be bothered by this intergalactic chaos.
I always feel there’s a certain comfort to live in our averagely 6 feet height and 60 years of lifespan. In this microscopic timescale, we can anchor our future on the night sky, the constant sea of time. Pin a story—or a secret—among the bright stars and it will be safely kept in the constellations for thousands of years.