Ladder to the Pleiades


MY DAUGHTER, Hannah Virginia, who recently turned three years old, is teaching me about the stars. Far from being a liability to her, my own profound astronomical ignorance has turned out to be her boon and, through her, a boon to me as well. The most important thing the kid has taught me is the brilliant, open secret that if you don’t go outside and look up, you won’t see anything. Every night before bedtime she takes my hand and insists that I get my bedraggled ass up and take her outside to look at the stars. If this sounds easy, ask yourself if you can match her record of going out every single night to observe the sky — something she has done without fail for more than a year now. That she has somehow brought her celestially illiterate father along is more amazing still.

Following the inexorable logic that makes a kid’s universe so astonishing, Hannah insists on looking for stars no matter the weather. At first I attempted the rational, grown-up answer: “It just isn’t clear enough to see anything tonight, honey.” But her response, which is always the same, is so emphatic and ingenuous that it is irresistible: “Dad, we can always check.” And so we check. And it is when we check that the rewards of lifting my head up and out of another long day come into focus. One cold and windy night we stepped out and discovered, through a momentary break in an impossibly thick mat of clouds, a stunning view of Sirius blazing low in the southeast. Another evening we stood in an unusual late-winter fog and saw nothing — but then we heard the courtship hooting of a nearby great horned owl, followed immediately by the distant yelping of coyotes up in the hills. We even stand out in snowstorms to stargaze, and while we’ve never seen any stars on those white nights, we’ve seen and felt and smelled the crisp shimmering that arrives only on the wings of a big January storm. Snow or no snow, Hannah knows those stars are up there, so she does easily what is somehow difficult for many of us grown-ups: she looks for them. And whether she sees stars or not, in seeking them every evening she has forged an unbreakable relation with the world-within-a-world that is night.

Questions are the waypoints along which Hannah’s orbit around things can be plotted, and she has asked so many questions about stars for so many nights in a row that at last I’ve been compelled to learn enough to answer some of them. In doing so I’ve stumbled into placing myself, my family, my home, on the cosmic map whose points of reference wheel across the sky. We’ve learned a surprising number of stars and constellations together. Now that we’re in our second year of performing our nightly ritual, we’re also having the gratifying experience of seeing our favorite summer stars, long gone in the high-desert winter, come round again on the year’s towering, dark clock.

The other evening after supper, my wife asked Hannah to make a wish. Without hesitating she replied, “I wish I could have a ladder tall enough to reach the stars.” As usual, I didn’t know what to say. It is impossible to dismiss a three-year-old kid when she articulates hopes that are at once so perfectly reasonable and so beautifully impossible.

Before she goes to sleep, Hannah and I look at the six-dollar cardboard star wheel I bought to help us identify constellations. Too tired to make much of it, I toss the disk down on her bed in mild frustration. She picks it up, holds it upright in front of her in both hands, stares earnestly out beyond the walls of her room, and begins to turn it left and right as if it were a steering wheel.

“Where’re you going?” I ask.

“Pleiades,” she says. “You want to come?”

Michael P. Branch is professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno; book review editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; and coeditor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His books include John Muir’s Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa (Island Press, 2001) and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden (University of Georgia Press, 2004). Branch has contributed to a number of magazines including OrionEcotoneSlateIsotopeHawk and HandshawWhole Terrain, Utne ReaderPlaces, and Red Rock Review. He also writes a monthly blog essay, called “Rants from the Hill,” for High Country News.


  1. This is lovely, just lovely. Thank you Hannah (and Michael).

  2. Dear Hannah,

    I felt as if I was there starwatching with you and your Dad.

    If I had had a little girl, I would have named her Hannah. But alas, I had three sons. Soooo I have a little black dog named Hannah, my most favorite name. My other dog is Sophie. Hannah is black and Sophie is white. All three of my children are boys, all grown now; otherwise, I would have named my little girl Hannah.

    Your Dad is a wonderful storyteller! Keep on bugging him about whatever it is you want to do!

    My very best wishes to you and your family!


  3. Hannah:

    Your fascination with the stars will be one of the best pieces of your life. I always try to sleep outside on the night of the peak of the Perseids. It was too rainy this year (but I still looked).

    You are young enough to see the next Leonid meteor storm which will occur in mid-November, around 2035. Drag your dad and everyone you know outside for this one. In 2002, I could not count past six seconds before the next meteor would streak across the sky.

    Who knows? You might be on your way to fame as a brilliant astronomer. Or you might just go your way with a lifelong love of the skies. Either way, I’m impressed.

    — Josie

  4. Let the children be our teachers…
    “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson in Nature

  5. Hannah and Michael,

    I can only tell you that my own daughter, Michelle, rekindled a passion for watching meteor showers when she was a teenager. We stayed up all night, watching into the blackness of our backyard in Las Vegas (too bright now with new city lights), but at the time facing away from the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip.

    We marveled at fireballs, streaks of brilliant colors, oooohhhed and ahhhed until dawn. Our children are the greatest stars in our constellations of life. Mary

  6. Dear Michael, Hannah, and family,

    I can’t provide you with a ladder to the Pleiades, but I have a picture of the Pleiades, that I borrowed, that will make you feel like you’re standing on the last rung. Any closer and you would get burned. There are many more pictures where this one came from, so Dad, and Mom, when the clouds are hanging low, show Hannah the yellow brick road to the stars. Start at :

    best wishes,
    clay moldenhauer
    August 14,2008

  7. I great story. Maybe an astronaut or astronomer in the making.

  8. What a touching story. I would like to make a long response about the joys of discovery but I’m so fatigued from working so much….

  9. Thanks Hannah and Michael,

    I wonder how different our adult world would be if more of us could easily call upon the mysteries and insights we were so graciously provided in our youngest years.


  10. Thank you for sharing your story with us Michael and Hannah … Hannah, I too must see the stars every night and, as someone who has been looking up for 40 years now, I can tell you that the feeling of wonderousness never ceases and the sense of knowing home never fades.
    With best wishes from Carmel in Melbourne, Australia

  11. Enjoyed the story tremendously! You need to take Hannah to Flagstaff, AZ. The sky there is sooo clear and stars are visible all the time. Not to mention one of the best observatories in the nation is right there.

  12. What an adorable story. We need more children like this these days!

  13. Touching story… at only 24 I still have a little Hannah in me as well. My Dad and I used to watch the meteor showers under the desert sky and my favorite constellation to gaze at was the 7 sisters, aka Pleiades.
    I would recommend reading her “The Little Prince” so that the stars will forever be alive with her, as they are with me.

    Thank you

  14. wonderful story. I will attempt to join you in the night vigils!
    I have been told that the time for the first daily prayer prescribed for muslims, is in the false dawn when the pleides are rising-does anyone know if that is true?
    Thank you Hannah

  15. I relate with this story. Ever since I was a small child I would look up at the stars every night. The metaphors used in this story are Fantastic!!!

  16. Loved the story and the and feel inspired to go stargazing myself .
    Thanks so much for sharing.


  17. Wow! What a wonderful story. How lucky you are Dad to have a daughter that you share the stars with. I too love the stars. I too would like a “ladder to the stars”. One year we took our pillows down to the dock and lay on the dock watching the meteor shower.

  18. What is absolutely beautiful about this is the indulgence of a child’s imagination – the fact that you encourage and support the full expression of that child’s wonder is awesome in and of itself. Thank you for being a TRUE parent!!

  19. Google Chris Hadfield, the Canadian Astronaut’s blog especially on those cloudy nights and share the photos and comments he has posted.Keep the dream alive.

  20. How wonderful to live where the array of stars is visible at night. City dwellers forget that the amazing sky is always there. I have marveled at the glorious dome of stars when in the desert and the mountains at night. This child, Hannah, has vision and understanding beyond her years. Thanks to her dad for exploring the stars as well as the other details of our world available to us, which we forget to listen to.

  21. As my age advances to 75 this year,
    I am continually amazed at how little attention I’ve paid to the stars since I was 7. Another thing to do on my bucket list!
    Thank God for the gift of children!
    Blessings to all!

  22. star light, star bright….thanks for sharing hannah and her gift of “possibility” with us!

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