A Pleasure Without Price by Mary E Byrd

Mary Emma Byrd resigned from her directorship of Smith College Observatory in 1906 in protest at the College taking money from Rockefeller and Carnegie. She continued to write articles trying to show how a study of the sun, moon, planets and stars could add so much to the lives of many people. We give below a version of one such article A Pleasure Without Price which she wrote ten years after she retired. It was published in Publication of the Pomona College Astronomical Society 5 (1916), 86-89.

A Pleasure Without Price by Mary E Byrd

There are more puzzles in life than are written about in books. One of them concerns the stars. Age after age they shine on, their speech is in the ancient language, known of all, the language of beauty; and yet there are many who live, pinched with poverty in heart and soul, hungry, always hungry for beautiful things, live and die and never know the stars! Why should this be?

Ah, if some great thing were demanded, if the panorama of glory overhead could be seen only by those who pay a great price, how eager for it many would be. But it is for all who have eyes and look up. The heavens at night are free as the poet's June, celestial fields are not walled in, yet how small is the number of those who enter and enjoy.

Many have listened to false Rumour who long ago began to run to and fro, and still blazons abroad her message, "Only a few with profound mathematical learning and palatial observatories for their possession can hope to attain astronomical knowledge." So we have shut fast the little gateway that leads to the pleasure of the stars, where even children may enter. Long since all study of astronomy was banished from the common schools. They, like Martha of old, are cumbered about much serving. What time have they for the dream-land of beauty, for the wonder-land beyond our earth's horizon where burn the fires of uncounted suns!

To be practical, to be efficient, these are the worshipful ideals of our new century. Boys must learn trades and girls be taught to sew and cook. And still it is true and grows truer as the years go by, "Man shall not live by bread alone." To narrow education in the early years to the terms of an economic problem, to make it our goal that, as soon as possible, the child shall be a self-supporting unit, is to rob life at its fountain-head of most that makes life worth while. Unfortunately, perhaps through mistaken kindness, such robbery is planned especially in dealing with the children of the poor, in city tenements, those who of all others need the free beauty of the God-made world. From much of it at best they are shut out. For them there are no wild flowers by running streams, no trees with nesting birds, but the children of the slums may have the stars for friends.

It were well if the mothers were able to take up the work so lightly discarded by the schools. What could be more appropriate than for sons and daughters to associate through life their first knowledge of the heavenly bodies with the teaching of their mother. How easy for her to make of the sun's bright image a little playfellow for children, and show how the moving circle of light has a fairy's magic power and can change the hard lessons at school, about latitude and time, into a story written in sunshine.

As the interpreter of the evening skies, how rich is her material. There is "The red planet Mars" that like a sovereign prince makes his royal progress along the broad highway of the zodiac; there is the mysterious moon, showing a tiny crescent in the west, growing to a full, round orb in the east, and during daylight hours fading away to a ghostly phantom. Sometimes a huge comet appears, spanning half the dome of heaven with its train of light; and back of all and more than all is the host of stars, a shining host that marches in endless procession, through the fathomless depths of space.

A pleasure that can be had without money and without price should help in solving the problem that confronts a great multitude, how to make a living and have life that does not lose its savour. For our age demands of the vast majority the full tale of working hours for mechanical, monotonous tasks; and it is not an easy thing to live at the same time the twofold life, that of the drudge in the tread-mill round, and the other, our own life, that shall have the freshness of flowers and the freedom of the winds. The stars can help us to this.

To make the acquaintance of Cassiopeia and Pegasus, Canis Major and Orion, Scorpio and Sagittarius is better than to win favour with the powers of wealth. Their appearance when, at a given hour, they first emerge above our horizon line, whether that be of house-tops or hill-tops, comes to be like the welcome greeting of old friends, and the seasons thus marked are associated with a distinctive pleasure which increases with time, and which no one can take from us.

There is witchery in the starlight. If we will, it can remake the world for us. It is the evening hour when we watch the heavens. Taurus is rising, with the Pleiades leading, and now one star and now another of the Hyades appears. The horizon line they pass is, in the daytime, an unsightly, city wall, but now the whole building is a grim, old castle, bright eyes look through the latticed windows, the approaching sound is not that of street cars but the heavy tread of horses that carry knights in armour, and we pass from the grimy city to the land of old romance. Ah, there are no castles in Spain that can rival those we may build o' nights when we watch the stars.

Wherever our lot has fallen, in poverty or wealth, whether old or young, whatever conditions surround us, we may be sure of the stars for comrades. Is the old world new for us, and joy a brimming bowl at our lips? The stars are favouring stars and our own, high in the ascendant, foretells a future, dazzlingly bright. Have we grown weary in life's battle, are there narrow, green mounds between us and the sunrise land? Still, above us are the stars. Before ever there were human eyes to see them, they were there, and as their past so is their future, giving credence to our fair dream of immortality. Are our hearts wrung with sorrow? Old as the race is the cry of grief. But always in the morning, the sun rises and in the evening, the stars, bringing a crumb of God's infinite comfort. Even on the brink of despair, one must reckon with the message of hope from the steadfast stars.

It is the fashion of the time to pay a large price for pleasure, hardly worth the having. There are others of the highest type that demand for their attainment years of labour and much expense. A little study of the heavens brings a quick reward, and no price is set on the evening sky. Yet is not life the richer for those for whom Orion shines?