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Bell-star music

Posted by weo on June 11, 2013 - 8:47am

For me, bells, astronomy, and variable stars go together.

In college I learned change ringing (ringing mathematical patterns on bells hung in a tower, each person handling the rope controlling one bell) from experienced ringers who included fellow students in astronomy courses who became true comrades when I changed my major to astronomy and we studied and rang together. (Sara Beck (BSJ) was one of my teachers.)

On the window ledge above my desk at the AAVSO – the window is an interior one and looks into a larger office space - among the things there that are precious to me sit four small brass bells, roped together like mountain climbers by a length of old cotton twine. Each one is  different from the others in shape and in pitch but they all have a sweet tone.

AAVSO door bells

These bells take me back as far as July 1979 and the first moments of my first visit to AAVSO Headquarters and my first face-to-face meeting with Janet Mattei (she had interviewed and hired me by telephone), about three weeks before I actually started working there. My mother and I had driven to Cambridge from Buffalo, NY, to try to find a place for me to live, and so we came to the AAVSO at 187 Concord Avenue. When I opened the door, we heard the loud and tuneful jingle-jangle of the string of bells hanging on the door. Mom and I stepped into the warm welcome of the AAVSO and I into a life adventure I could not have imagined.

187 Concord - Janet Mattei (MTT), Janet MacLennan, EOW (WEO), Roy Lee (LR). The bells are hidden behind Roy's head.

The door bells came to be part of the sounds I associated with the AAVSO: a ring of welcome or farewell and the announcement of interaction with the outside world – the mail carrier, a salesperson, guests from Harvard College Observatory, a volunteer or spouse, member/observer, or other visitor (often unexpected). They also served as an early warning system, especially important if we were all in the second of the two rooms (the room my desk was in) and so not where the entrance was, or at the back in Janet’s office, from where you could not see the front door.

4 Brattle - Margaret Mayall (MA)

I am reasonably certain that those bells were on the door at the AAVSO’s first office space after HCO, 4 Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Where they had been before that I don’t know – I don’t know if they were Janet’s or if they were Margaret Mayall’s but I am guessing that they were Margaret’s and it would not surprise me if they had been at the HCO AAVSO office.

25 Birch

The door bells fell silent when we moved to 25 Birch Street in 1986. The front door was locked all the time because it was in a foyer that could not be seen from the main floor if we had the inner door closed, which we did summer and winter to keep in the cool air or the heat. Since someone usually answered the door in person (it could also be opened by a buzzer), we didn’t need an early warning system, and the aluminum door and frame and brick wall made it very difficult to attach the string of bells securely. At Birch Street I would sometimes hear wind chimes when we had the door by my desk open and the wind was right, but it wasn’t the same.

Bell buoy

Starting around then, though, the bells I associated with variable stars came from the ocean and the channel-marking bell buoys that chimed in Boston Harbor day and night as I camped weekends as a volunteer park assistant through the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands. Despite being surrounded on three sides by the lights of greater Boston, the skies were pretty dark on the islands – if you crouched/sat/lay down so that the thick and fragrant shrubbery that lined the trails blocked the lights along the horizon. And after about 1 am, when the land had cooled off and the air was no longer hazy, the stars were beautiful and if there was no moon, the Milky Way was clearly visible.

Grape Island dock area

In the evenings I frequently held informal astronomy classes with visitors and fellow volunteers, lying in the grass, hearing the rabbits cropping clover around us and the buoys’ chimes wafting over the water. If I got up in the middle of the night I would take my binoculars and enjoy a peaceful ramble through the skies, occasionally observing a variable but more often just star-gazing, to be honest, and thinking about things astronomical, with the chiming buoys and the lap of the waves for celestial music.

In 2002 my mother moved to Cambridge and we lived together until her passing this year. That year I discontinued my island camping, and we moved to Arlington to a perfect apartment down the street from a church that plays lovely chimed music nearly every evening. So, every day driving home from the AAVSO I would listen to the bells as I thought about the day’s work and the evening at home to come – a different sort of daily musical astronomical farewell and welcome.

I now live in a different part of Arlington and haven’t had the windows open enough yet to know where the bell-star music will come from next, but I know it will. The wind chimes can still be heard around the office at 49 Bay State Road (less than a block from 25 Birch) when the wind is right. And maybe I’ll pick up my binoculars and tent and head out to the islands again…

 Sunset behind Boston - stars and bell-music tonight!
AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 aavso@aavso.org 617-354-0484