The Stargazer

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on November 26, 2000

For Rod Martin and his students, the night sky opens a window to history.

In northwest Maryland, where the state begins to narrow in its run between West Virginia and Pennsylvania, lies Washington County. For Rod Martin, its not only home, but a window into the universe.

Martin, 50, is the county school boards astronomy teacher, reaching out to schools in Hagerstown (pop. 34,100) and the smaller towns around it. For the last 17 years, hes also been director of Hagerstowns William M. Brish Planetarium. Its here, he says, that hes lucky enough to have turned his lifelong astronomy interest into his profession. But for Martin, stargazing is just a start: to bring astronomy to life for other people, he weaves together science, history, and legend.

Astronomy was basically the first science, he explains. Its dependable: the rise and fall of the tides, the sunrise, sunset, the progression of the seasons, the moon phases. In early history, the stars told (people) when to plant and when to harvest. Certain positions and patterns, and certain places where the sun would rise, would determine the beginning of different seasons, Martin says.

Martin uses these patterns to reveal the night sky to audiences from pre-kindergarten children up through community college students and senior citizens. Follow the Drinking Gourd is our most popular program, he says.

Developed by Martin and a Harford County colleague, Stew Chapman, the program focuses on the navigational song used by slaves seeking freedom and Jeanette Winters book of the same name. The book follows a southern Alabama family as the song leads them north to the Ohio River to join the Underground Railroad. Each verse reveals clues in the seasons and the skies to guide their way, with the drinking gourd representing the Big Dipper.

In the first verse, it talks about when to leave, Martin says. When the sun comes back means when the sun is rising higher (in March and April). When the quail calls is when they build their nests on the ground. It means its warm enough that there wont be any more bad weather. As the songs journey progresses, Martin moves the planetariums stars accordingly, allowing the children to follow the constellations and the North Stars position.

Programs like this, he says, help the planetarium connect with communities in Washington County and in nearby Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Another way is through the TriState Astronomers club, which Martin helped set up shortly after becoming planetarium director. We had two dozen people show up (for the first meeting) … and weve been going strong ever since.

One of those people was Jim Taylor, an avid amateur astronomer from Falling Waters, W. Va. Rod has been one of the leading lights in TriState Astronomers, Taylor says, adding that Martin not only teaches people about astronomy but inspires them. Its his manner that sets him apart. He talks on peoples level, hes enthusiastic, and people respond very well to him.

Today, TriState Astronomers holds regular star parties, the largest of which is held annually at Antietam National Battlefield Site. We solicit as many people in our club as possible to bring their telescopes, says Martin, offering visitors an up-close look at the heavens.

What fascinates me is that every time you look out, theres always something there that youve never seen, Martin says, and hes seen a good portion, having found all the celestial objects on astronomys challenging Messier and Herschel 400 list (a celestial version of the Fortune 500 list).

He emphasizes that you dont need a telescope to get started. A star chart (available through bookstores and the Internet) shows constellations, while binoculars can unveil details such as Jupiters larger moons. Go out, give your eyes a chance to adjust, and then just look for the bright stars, he says. When you practice, youll start to see colors in the stars and patterns in the sky.

Those who do their stargazing well away from the residual night light of metropolitan areas will have a better chance of picking out celestial objects.

Martin says December and January are excellent months to see the constellations and even star colors, particularly because evening falls so early and the cold winter skies often are crystal clear. And if you see what looks like a bright cloud stretching across the night sky but doesnt move, youve found the center of our home galaxythe Milky Way.